Guest post by Naya Crittenden, University of Illinois Class of 2016
I do not know the exact percentage of women playing professional volleyball right now, but I can tell you that the number is very small. I am one of the few post-collegiate American women, that is lucky enough to be able to play this game at the next level.
My story is not unlike many other women who have been able to experience the professional volleyball life, but everyone’s story is unique.
The beginning of my journey happened very fast and it felt like a dream. After the end of my 2016 senior season as an Illini, I was looking ahead to becoming a regular student (for the first time in my life) and being able to put my full focus in to broadcast journalism for the spring semester. I had a great internship lined up at one of the main news stations near my campus and I was planning on being a part of the social media team for our University’s newspaper. I was also going to be able to cheer on my boyfriend (who’s also an athlete at Illinois) during his 2017 Track and Field season. It seemed nothing could get more perfect. Until it did.
My coach and I had talked about the possibility of me playing overseas, but it was something that I wasn’t planning on doing until I finished and got my degree, and I was in no rush to go right away. But in the beginning of December, right before heading home for Christmas break, my friend Kyra, an outside for Washington State, called me and told me that she was planning on taking off spring, and trying to play. Long story short, after lots of phone calls, signing with an agent, and group discussions with our parents while we were home in California, we signed a deal and we were headed for Puerto Rico. I was going to be sacrificing seeing my family, friends, my boyfriend, as well as school and my internships. I would be gone for 4 ½ months. It was a tough decision, but it was worth it because playing is a goal of mine that I have wanted to achieve.
I was on top of the world. I was going to be traveling, playing, and living with one of my best friends. It was unreal.
After 14 total hours of travel to Puerto Rico, we had practice only a few hours after we landed. Still, we were excited for our journey, even though we started out with many insects and tropical visitors in our apartment and our luggage.
I was in Puerto Rico for about a month when one Saturday evening, after only our second match with Gigantes de Carolina Volleyball, I got a call from my agent informing me that the owner was releasing me from the team. I knew I wasn’t the first American that this has happened to on this team (or in this sport as a whole), but I was still hurt. Kyra and I were upset that we weren’t going to be together on this journey anymore. I was livid and I felt like it was unfair but I couldn’t take it to heart.
So, what can you do if this happens to you?
DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.
Many, many girls get released from teams. Maybe you weren’t the exact player that they were looking for, and sometimes, it may have nothing to do with you at all. The team could have problems of its own. Unfortunately, this is the business. I kept my head high, and my agent worked diligently to find something else for me as quickly as possible.
As difficult as it was, I had to try to look at things in a positive light, and I believe everything happens for a reason. The next day after I was informed of my release, I was on a flight back to Chicago where my boyfriend was going to be picking me up to head back to campus. I was crushed, but I didn’t have time to wallow in sadness. I knew I had to set up a plan. Plan A was that I would get another contract. Plan B was that I would try to re-enroll in the semester since Spring had just started. And if neither of those worked out, Plan C was that I would just get a job on campus (maybe at the news station) and focus on my journalism career until classes started for summer school. I was worried, but it truly helped me feel calmer because I made a backup plan for my backup plan.
The universe came through for me after one day of landing back in Chicago. I am glad I kept my suitcases packed, because right away I got a call from my agent, asking me if I was ready to jump on a plane and head to Italy in less than 48 hours. I was nervous, but excited, and I said yes.
I then had to drive 4 hours roundtrip from campus to Chicago to get my visa and go back the next day (another two hours of driving) for my flight. Because of all of the travel, unfortunately I got sick the day of my flight to Italy. And when I say sick I mean I may have possibly projectile-vomitted-in-the-airport-bathroom-and-wasn’t-able-to-eat-for-three-days-in-Italy type of sick. I had to be willing to get on a plane and endure traveling for about 20 hours total to get to my destination in Italy.
Within one week, I went from Puerto Rico, to Chicago (three times) to Italy. I learned quickly that everything happens very fast in the pro volleyball world. I went through a lot of emotional and physical strain throughout this situation. If this is something that you think you cannot handle, then maybe this profession isn’t for you. But you will never know, unless you try.
As the many, many athletes that have come before me can tell you, it is HARD. Sometimes it is downright grueling to endure the overseas life. It is something you’re not used to. Often you can’t have what you want at the snap of your fingers. For some of us, this is a culture shock. We’re used to a certain lifestyle in the US and it can be hard to comprehend how different things are in other parts of the world if we haven’t seen or experienced it yet.
I am young, and I still have so much to learn, and so many people that I can learn from in this profession. But as a rookie, there is already so much that I have experienced in the few short months I have been doing this. I only started my journey in January, but if you are someone who is still waiting to begin yours, don’t hold back, and don’t wait for what you think is the perfect moment. There is no perfect moment. There is only you, and the world, and the world doesn’t wait for anybody. If you’re scared, take a leap of faith, you might be surprised what you may find. You have to jump to be successful. Otherwise, you’ll never know if your parachute will open.
I have only been in Italy for a month so far, and although my situation may not be perfect, I am thankful for the opportunity to be living in such a beautiful country. Visiting Italy was number one on my list of things to do after college, and I am trying to find time on my off-days to do as much exploring as possible.
I had to realize that there are many people who would love to be in my shoes that will never ever get this opportunity for various reasons. And even if it doesn’t work out in the end, at least I can say I’ve been there. And I tried my very best, and worked my very hardest, in the hopes that one day, I will succeed.