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Pair of Panthers Still Playing Professionally

Pair of Panthers Still Playing Professionally

Principia College currently has two alums of the College Volleyball Team who are playing professional volleyball over in Europe.  Christiana Speer, a graduate of both the Upper School (05') and the College (09') and Tess Rountree, a recent graduate from the college in the class of 2015. Dallen Russell, a recent graduate and current Graduate Assistant for the Athletics Department, interviewed both girls, in hopes of getting a good feel of their experience as a professional athlete overseas.  First, Christina and Tess give a brief overview of their team and league and then they answer some questions from Dallen.  Read below for the full story!
I'm currently playing for VolleyStars Thueringen, located in Suhl, Germany. The team plays in the 1. Bundesliga, which is the top volleyball league in Germany. I've played for the same team the last four years (this is now my fifth season for them), sticking with them through 3 different coaches and a name change (the club's name is VfB 91 Suhl, but two seasons ago, the 1st team, our team, changed its name to VolleyStars Thueringen). Before Suhl, I played two years in Aachen for Alemannia Aachen.

About the German league: The 1. Bundesliga is made up of 13 teams this year (it varies from year to year, but they try to keep it around 12 teams). The last two teams in the ranking at the end of the season are then relegated to second league, and the top two teams in the second league are allowed to come up to the first league. 12 of the the 13 teams are professional teams, with the 13th team being the junior national team. The teams are located throughout Germany. Matches are generally played once a week, mostly on Saturdays, with an occasional game on Wednesdays. The regular season consists of two matches against each team, one at home and one away. After the regular season, the top 6 teams automatically qualify themselves for the playoff tournament, while teams 7-10 play a pre-playoff round to determine the last two seeds. The winner of the playoff tournament is crowned German Champion.

In addition to the regular season, there is also the German Cup tournament that runs throughout the year. Teams from the second league can also qualify for the Cup tournament. Two seasons ago (2013-14), we made it all the way to the Cup final, which was played in front of 10,000 fans.

Some of the teams in our league also play internationally. This year, five German teams will play in the international European tournaments. There are three European tournaments run by the CEV: Champions League, which is the highest; CEV Cup, which is the next highest; and Challenge Cup. This year, two German teams will play Champions League, two will play in the CEV Cup, and one will play in the Challenge Cup. 4 years ago, during my first season in Suhl (2011-12), we played in the Challenge Cup. We made it to the semis of the Challenge Cup, playing in Innsbruck, Austria; Haifa, Israel; Koeniz, Switzerland; Antalya, Turkey; and Baku, Azerbaijan along the way.

Our team this year is a mix of new and old players (it's usual, at least in Germany, for teams to have a relatively high turnover from year to year, about half and half). We have a new coach as well. It's his first year coaching as head coach, but he's been an assistant coach for several good coaches, including being the assistant coach for a Champions League team in Baku last season. The players themselves come from all over. We have 2 Americans on the team, including myself, 4 Czech players, one from Slovakia, and 3 Germans. Other teams that I've played on have included players from Australia, Belarus, Serbia, Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary, and England.
Could you outline a "typical" day in the life of a professional volleyball player?
"I generally get up around 7:45 or 8, which gives me an hour to get breakfast and prepare for the day before heading to morning practice, which starts at 9:15. Our morning practices are generally done in groups so that we can focus more on individual skills, with each group working for about an hour. We also have weights 2-3 times a week in the mornings. After practice, it's home for lunch and a few hours of rest before team practice in the evening, which starts at 5:30 and runs until 8:30. In the evenings, we work more on putting all the pieces together as a team - connections with the setters, our defense system, sideout, etc. After practice, we head home for dinner. After dinner, I usually spend some time just chilling, reading or surfing the Internet, maybe watching a movie, before heading to bed for a good night's sleep before the next day starts."

Any memorable experiences while you've been living in Europe (social events, sporting events, cultural differences)?
"I've had some really cool experiences over here. Just living in another country for a year and being able to see and experience the various holidays has been wonderful. I love the Christmas markets here in Germany, as do most people here. A friend of mine belonged to a crossbow club, and I got to see and participate in the various events held by the club, including being named Schuetzenkoenigin (queen) when my friend became the Schuetzenkoenig ("shooting king") for the year. Two years ago, our team made it to the German Cup final, which we played in a tennis stadium in front of 10,000 fans. Although the match didn't go our way, the celebration leading up to the match and the atmosphere there was amazing! I've been able to travel a bunch, both with my teams and on my own. Every place has its own gems to see and experience, so that it's hard to compare and choose a favorite. Some highlights include Berlin, Cordoba, Warsaw, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. I've played with and against Olympians and some of the world's best volleyball players. The world is small, and the volleyball world is even smaller. Becoming a part of that world and making friends from all over has been fabulous."

Seeing as though you graduated from Principia College, I'm wondering what valuable skills and knowledge you've brought to your professional career?
"After graduating with a degree in math, computer science, and Spanish, it made perfect sense to pursue a career as a professional athlete (wink emoticon).  But I've still used skills and knowledge gained in my time as a student at Principia College. Certainly the Christian Science foundation that I brought with me has been a big help in a physically demanding career that is very focused on the physical picture. Living in a foreign country and working together with teammates from around the world requires an appreciation for others and an openness of thought to new ways of doing things, which many of my classes and the diversity on campus helped me cultivate. Although there hasn't been much call for my knowledge of Spanish here in Germany, knowing how to learn a language certainly came in helpful for learning German. In one of my classes in college, we talked a bit about some of the considerations and pitfalls to keep in mind when translating, and we practiced translating both written texts and live conversations. Little did I know then that I would be called upon to translate German to English a couple of years later within my team, as well as for some businesses and individuals who needed professional materials translated. Life as a Professional Athlete also requires a great deal of flexibility and spontaneity. Luckily, one of my coaches at Principia had the motto "Flexibility is our middle name.""

If you had one piece of advice for college athletes seeking a career as a professional athlete, what would you say (particularly for female athletes)?
"I think the most important thing for any athlete, regardless of the sport or the level of play, is to love the game. That's why we all play the game we do. As for those specifically looking to play professionally, put in the effort to make contacts and interact with people. The professional world in any sport is small and connected. Once you start making contacts, you'll be amazed at the opportunities that will open up because of a contact who knows someone who knows someone else who just happens to be looking for someone like you for their team. Professional sports also depend on sponsors - being able to make contacts and interact with current and potential sponsors is vital to the survival of any professional club. It's not always the easiest thing to do (coming from one who certainly has not mastered the art yet), but it can really pay off."
I'm wondering if I could also ask for any advice for graduating student athletes, whether or not they are interested in pursuing sport or athletics as a professional career.
"As I was preparing myself to go overseas after graduation, not knowing if I would find a contract or not, my motto was, "If it happens, great; if not, that's great, too." It can be intimidating not to have a plan upon graduation, or not knowing what the next step may be. But I've found great peace of mind in trusting and knowing that regardless of what comes to pass, it will be fabulous.

And for those student athletes not ready to hang up their sport shoes quite yet, but not wanting to pursue a professional career either, I'd encourage you guys to try and find opportunities to continue to play, whether in an adult league, or in the park on the weekends, or wherever. You may have to put in some effort to find (or establish) a group, but the relationships and friendships made on the court/field are unique, and definitely worth it. And now is the time to do it; trying to find the time, the energy, and the group later on after careers and families have taken priority is difficult. Think about what a difference it could make if we as adults could bring back playing sports for the love of the game and the love of camaraderie, not for the attention or the money it could bring."

"I play for VASAS SC (VASAS Sports Club) in Budapest. This sports club was started in 1911 and now has 18 sports (12 team sports and 6 individual sports). Being one of the most popular sports clubs in Hungary with 10,000 fans, they remolded their brand to "family comes first" in 2008. Aerobic Fitness (aerobic gymnastics), athletics (track and field), wrestling, ice hockey, canoeing, handball, basketball, football (soccer), boxing, volleyball, chess, skiing, tennis, hiking, gymnastics, swimming, water polo, and fencing. Handball is a huge sport in Europe. It almost looks like a mix of indoor soccer and basketball. I still have yet to go to a game so I can't tell you how it works.

The volleyball program has athletes of all ages. My team has the professional players as well as some junior players for a total of 16 people. We have 2 liberos, 4 middle blockers, 5 outsides, 3 right sides, and 2 setters. The professional players range in age from 22 to 29. The junior players are seniors in high school or freshman in college. Very few girls grew up in Budapest, most of them came here to play volleyball. There are four international players, two Americans and two Brazilians. The other American, Meredith Hardy is from Tennessee and went to Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU) and is a middle blocker on the team. She just graduated in May with a degree in Sports Science and we didn't meet each other until we got in the car to drive to Budapest. We played in Maribor (where we tried out) together but didn't get a chance to talk. This is her first experience playing pro ball as well. The two Brazilians are both 29 years old and have played professional volleyball for 8 years. They wanted to come to Hungary to live in a different part of the world and experience something different. They played together earlier on in their career so they knew each other before coming here. My team has three girls that played for the Hungarian National Team so they didn't come join our practices until they finished playing for the national team which was the end of September. Our head Coach, Zoltán Jókay, was also away with the National Team. Our assistant coach, Balázs Buday, was running practices.

We play in three different cups and one championship; The Middle European Cup (MEC), the Challenge Cup, the Hungarian Cup, and the Hungarian Championship.  The Cups and Championships run throughout the year. We might have a Hungarian Championship game and two MEC games in one week. We are in the A division in Hungary, the top division in Hungary.  We won the Hungarian Championship last year and we got second in the Hungarian Cup."

Could you outline a "typical" day in the life of a professional volleyball player?
"I wake up at 7:45 and eat breakfast and get ready for practice. I leave the apartment at 8:30 to go to the bus stop and catch the bus to practice. Living in a major city like Budapest, everyone takes the public transit. It takes a half hour to get to the gym. Morning practice starts at 9:30 and is two hours long. This practice is usually mostly passing, digging, and serving. We don't jump during morning practice because it is too much to do twice a day. After practice I go to lunch; I take the bus to a restaurant that sponsor's our team. In my contract, I get two meals a day, Monday through Friday from the restaurant (so 10 meals a week). I order dinner to go because our night practice gets out late and it's nearly impossible to make it there before the kitchen closes. After lunch, I walk 15 minutes to my apartment and usually take a nap, read, or relax before afternoon practice. Afternoon practice starts at 6 and I leave my apartment at 5 to get there early. I usually get into the gym a few minutes early to start stretching and rolling out. Practice is two and a half hours and I get home around 9:15. Then eat dinner, shower, and I got to bed around 11. I live with the other American, Meredith."

Any memorable experiences while you've been living in Europe (social events, sporting events, cultural differences)?
"The first weekend I was in Budapest, my coach picked us up from a hotel we were temporarily staying at and took us to a volleyball stadium just outside the city to watch a Hungarian National team play against Greece. I met a few of my teammates for the first time. The game was really exciting and I had never seen so many fans at a volleyball game before.  Hungary won and the fans were going crazy. It was awesome to see so many enthusiastic supporters.

Also, the following Thursday was a national holiday, Foundation Day. Meredith and I stood near Chain Bridge and watched fireworks set off from boats in the river, off of Chain Bridge, and also from the top of the hill where the castle is. It was a thirty 30 minute firework show that nearly everyone in the city came to watch and a story of the holiday was played over the speakers along the sidewalks. I couldn't understand the story because it was in Hungarian, but I enjoyed hanging out with all the Hungarians in the center of the city; the entire section of the river was surrounded with tens of thousands of people."

Seeing as though you graduated from Principia College, I'm wondering what valuable skills and knowledge you've brought to your professional career?
"Among the many things I have learned through my experience at Principia, discipline and integrity have been especially prevalent in my current career path. I have noticed how integrity has become very important in holding myself accountable to always improve as an athlete. Principia has always challenged me to be disciplined throughout every aspect of my life, specifically with my consistency and punctuality. Consistency is so important in the world of professional sports, in work outs and performance. You have to be consistent and constantly improving on the consistency."

I'm wondering if I could also ask for any advice for graduating student athletes, whether or not they are interested in pursuing sport or athletics as a professional career.
"Mary Ann pushed our volleyball team at Prin to constantly improve upon our mental toughness. This is something that makes great athletes stand out from the good ones. You cannot have self-doubt because it hinders your growth in consistency and mental toughness. Self-belief is essential in keeping mental toughness. I can't say I have any advice for female athletes, I feel like it's the same for both genders."

Head Volleyball coach Mary Ann Sprague, who coached both Christina and Tess commented:
"It was obvious when both Christina and Tess showed up their freshmen year that they had the physicality to grow into international players. Each of them shouldered quite a load on their respective Principia College volleyball team, and each grew tremendously as women during their tenure at here. Both Tess and Christina had to grow their volleyball skills, and their maturity as competitors. Our program and coaching are definitely strong enough to serve this purpose.

It is such a pleasure to introduce the right players to the right agent, and to help them navigate their path towards playing professionally. Whenever I check in with these two and ask them if they are still having fun - their love and appreciation of the opportunity makes me smile deep inside."


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