A Long Way From Home

American professional volleyball players spend much of their lives overseas, away from family and friends. The life of an athlete abroad can be tough, but many consider the challenge well worth it.

Leslie Hamann
Thompson passed some of her free time in Poland playing indoor golf with the locals.

Courtney Thompson was alone, fumbling for her keys at the top of three flights of stairs. Hooked on her elbows were heavy bags, some filled with groceries, others with sweat-soaked spandex, socks, and shoes. In the parking lot below, under leaden Polish skies, her square little white car—wrapped with ads from a team sponsor—was dripping mud from the pothole-filled road leading to her apartment’s steel security gate. Thompson was in Lodz, a long way from home.

Just a few months earlier, she’d been awash in red, white, and blue. It was London, where Thompson had fully embraced it all: the crowds, the anthems, the USA uniforms, the silver Olympic medal around her neck. Family and friends were there, along with the teammates, coaches, and staff who’d been part of her Olympic journey.

Now, after another long and largely forgettable team practice and weight session, Thompson prepared to eat the way she usually does in Poland: alone. Her apartment soon smelled of sautéed vegetables and smoked salmon, masking the aroma of a row of well-used volleyball kneepads lined atop a space heater. Clothes hung in every room in various stages of damp: clothes dryers are a rare luxury in Eastern Europe. As she carefully chewed each bite, her expression was weary.

“Most of the time,” she said, “you just see us competing. You see a game. You see the end result. You see the Olympics. You see the last two weeks of a four-year sacrifice. What you miss are the thousands of hours of getting reps. And getting up when you don’t want to get up, because you’re tired. And crying because you just had your third breakdown of the year. Because it’s just really, really hard.”

Americans have grown used to cheering for Czechs in the National Hockey League, Nigerians in the NBA, and Dominicans in Major League Baseball. What few folks realize, however, is that fans in France, China, Russia, Brazil, and 23 other nations now root for hundreds of Americans playing professional volleyball overseas. And even fewer understand what a challenge living and playing overseas can be for our U.S. athletes.

“There’s so many good things about it,” Thompson said as the team bus headed south for a match along the Poland/Slovakia border. “But there’s a lot that’s really difficult to handle. Especially when you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

My wife and I spent a month with Thompson in Poland last year, researching and filming our 2013 documentary Court & Spark. It was she who insisted we come in February. “It’s dark and cold, the holidays are over, and summer is a long way away,” she said. “That’s when you’ll find out what it’s really like to be an American athlete overseas.”

Volleyball was invented by an American, but it was long ago adopted by other nations. Soccer rules the world, but in places like Brazil, Poland, and China, volleyball is number two, and solidly in the top three in dozens of other countries. Top teams flourish in professional leagues throughout Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and Brazil; the world’s best players command salaries and endorsements north of $1 million per season.

Most leagues cap the number of non-native players per team, assuring that many U.S. athletes are the only Americans on the roster. Although English is a common second language almost everywhere, Courtney’s Polish team in the city of Lodz included just one teammate who could speak her language.

“It’s hard when you don’t understand all the little nuances,” she said. “What people are saying in the locker room, and what they REALLY think about the coach. All those little conversations you just kind of pick up on a team that speaks your language, you miss out on overseas.”

That pales, however, compared to what else gets missed: siblings’ birthdays, friends’ weddings, parents’ anniversaries. Holidays, births, graduations, funerals. Face-to-face, heart-to-heart time with best buddies.

“It’s weird to not have friends and family close,” Thompson admitted. She added that she especially feels the distance after games and practices finish. “Because sometimes you can come home and it’s, you know …

a really quiet apartment. It can get old.”

Some 130 miles north, in the nearly unpronounceable Polish city of Bydgoszcz, Rachael Adams felt much the same.

“I thought it would be like college,” Adams said. “I was going to hang out with my teammates; we were going to be like a family. It was gonna be awesome. But you soon learn that it’s not like that.”

Adams, 24, a two-time First Team All-American at Texas, is six years younger than Thompson. In Poland, she was the youngest on her team. “You’re playing with girls that are, maybe, 35 years old. They have a family, they have kids. Some girls have jobs. And their first thing isn’t to reach out to you to go get a coffee.”

Unlike Thompson’s Lodz team, several members of Adams’ Bydgoszcz club spoke or understood English. Her coach? Not so much. “When I first got there,” she remembered, “he was yelling out drills and directions in Polish, and no one was translating. I had no idea what we were doing. I felt I wasn’t a volleyball player. I felt like Oh, my God, why am I here? I’m so horrible. It was just so overwhelming.”

Those who become great at volleyball learn to accept and manage chaos. Each time a ball crosses the net, it can travel high or low, short or deep, fast or slow, straight or angled, spinning or floating. The best players embrace uncertainty and find ways to quickly adjust. It’s true both on and off the court.

“We always joke,” said Thompson, “that international volleyball is just a test of how many distractions you can handle, you know? How much jet lag can you have, how many bad meals can you have, and still show up and play well?

“Something that I’ve learned after playing for seven years professionally,” she said, “is that you can learn from really negative situations—unfortunately—just as much, if not more, than from a really positive situation.”

Let’s be honest: learning from adversity is easier said than done. “About four to five months in,” said Adams, “Thanksgiving hits. And you’re, like, I’m not home for Thanksgiving. My friends are posting pictures of the meals that they’re having with their families. You definitely feel alone.”

That was a new sensation for Adams. She’s an only child, used to time on her own. But as the Polish winter deepened, the magic of first snowfall gave way to icy streets and cold nights. Going solo to restaurants or movie theaters had limited appeal. Nightly Skypes with her boyfriend, living in Bloomington, Indiana, were helpful, but not the same as face-to-face contact. “It’s so easy,” she said, “to fall into the rut of staying on your couch and binge-watching TV. I know athletes—including myself—who watch a full season of a show in a day and a half. It’s ridiculous.”

That first season in Poland, Adams wrote a blog and posted regularly. Out of the blue, she connected with another blogger—an American woman living and working with her husband and children in the same Polish town of Bydgoszcz. “I was at their house all the time,” said Adams. “They’d make me dinner. They had access to American goods I’d missed, like peanut butter. They came to my matches. They kept me sane.”

Thompson made similar connections during previous seasons. In Puerto Rico, her entire neighborhood sometimes attended her matches, then invited her to post-match meals and celebrations on the beach. In Switzerland, her parents and her former club coach, Dawn Colston, each arrived for separate extended visits. In Poland, her family watched NFL football together via Skype, including her brother, Trevor, serving with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan.

With each passing season, Thompson was determined to lead a more balanced life. In Poland, she explored the country on her days off, including a haunting tour of the memorial at the former Auschwitz concentration camp. When breaks were longer, she flew to Turkey or Spain or Italy to spend time with other American athletes playing abroad. In Lodz, she took a drumming class.

While filming our documentary, Thompson took us to a hulking warehouse on the outskirts of town. The dark façade masked a brightly lit interior decked out to look—sort of—like a golf course clubhouse. “I found it online,” she told us. “It looked like fun.”

By 8 p.m., about three-dozen members filled the faux-leather lobby couches, where everyone observed a weekly ritual—a shot of vodka and a handful of dark chocolates—before being drawn into foursomes. Thompson—the club’s only female member—allowed fellow golfers to coach her putting, pitching, and driving, all conducted across three Astroturf-lined indoor courses, separated by webs of suspended netting.

“Indoor golf? In Poland?” Thompson said with a huge grin. “These are the moments that you stop and you’re, like, How the hell did I get here?”
Adams has had similar thoughts, but she’s happy with her choice to play abroad. She majored in advertising at Texas, and had figured she’d head straight for New York to climb the corporate ladder. “Do I miss pursuing New York? No. I’m actually really happy that I’m overseas. In fact, I actually have time to be creative here.” She and beach volleyball player Geena Urango have launched a new blog, called Athletes Abroad [see sidebar], that Adams expects will help boost her post-volleyball career in the “creative world.”

Each summer, Adams and Thompson compete with the U.S. Women’s National Team, based in Anaheim. This winter, Adams will play with Imoco Volley Conegliano in Italy; Thompson will return for her second season with European powerhouse Volero Zurich. Both want to be on the roster for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. If they do land spots on that roster—and even if they don’t—both say the often-underappreciated lives they’ve lived overseas will be worth it.

“I have to admit,” Thompson said, “that there are moments I’m really overwhelmed with Man! Do I really get to do this for a living? This life is just so cool.”

CONNECTING ATHLETES ABROAD

Geena Urango was overseas without a team. It was 2013, and the former sand and indoor USC star was living in Italy with boyfriend Max Holt. Holt, a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, had plenty of friends in Piacenza, where he played professionally. But Urango had few friends, and she found the isolation difficult.

Urango began reading blogs written by overseas American athletes. She was surprised to learn how many Americans were out there, and how disconnected they were from each other. She also appreciated the collective wisdom in those writings filled with stories, advice, and lessons learned. “I thought, why isn’t there a place that has it all in one spot?”

She posed that question on her Twitter account. Within hours, she heard back from Rachael Adams, whom she’d known from college and who was then playing in Poland. “I’m, like, are you kidding me?” Adams remembered. “Just the previous week, I had written a plan about doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe how much we were on the same page.”

The two athletes created a template for a blog called Athletes Abroad. They emailed their favorite overseas American volleyball bloggers, asking for submissions. The formal launch was January 2, 2014.

“I don’t think I would have done it by myself,” said Urango. “Knowing that we both had the same idea gave us courage.”

The site quickly became a hit. Submissions poured in from athletes on several continents. Adams and Urango immediately broadened their appeal to include athletes playing other professional sports, like basketball and soccer.

Athletes Abroad became a place where we could connect shared stories,” said Adams. “If you don’t talk with anyone, you think, ‘It’s only happening to me. I’m the only one that’s not getting playing time. I’m the only one who feels lonely when I’m the only foreigner on the team.’ When you see that other people are having the same problems, you feel more connected.”

Many of the submissions include practical tips: what to pack, how to navigate, and money management during one’s overseas career and beyond. Some of the best, however, fall into the category of “what I wish I had known before heading overseas,” including advice to learn a country’s history, language, and culture, and to engage whenever possible with its people. Several address the challenge of long-distance relationships, something both Adams and Urango struggle with themselves.

“I hope,” Urango said, “that through our website, we can share those experiences that will encourage couples to maybe make the effort to live with their significant other overseas. We know that it can be rewarding for them as well.”

In other words, community begins at home. And for the traveling volleyball player—as with many athletes—home is where the next game is.

Originally published in August 2014

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