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Why I Play: Volleyball Is More Than Just a Game

Why I…” explores the passion of athletes — from all walks of life, at different levels and with diverse interests — in their own words. Finding your passion is key to staying motivated to live a healthy lifestyle.

Kelsey is a professional volleyball player, 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist for TEAM USA and Under Armour sponsored athlete.

At 10 years old, I might have been the lankiest, most incredibly awkward kid you ever saw. I wasn’t really sure where I fit in, but I knew I had a comfort zone in athletics. That was always where everything made sense. When I started volleyball, it was a way to develop skills that would translate to other sports I played. Learning the game and the relationships that were created made me a bit of a gym rat, and I could never quite get enough.

Eventually, I received a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee. I finished my collegiate career transferring my senior year to the University of Nebraska and upon graduation, had my first tryout with the Indoor Women’s National Team. For some reason, I was lucky enough to be kept around. I spent my first summer out of college training and competing day in and day out with the best for a chance to make a spot with the travel team. Just five minutes after coach Karch Kiraly told me I made my first roster and was headed to Montreux, Switzerland, I called my sister crying. I didn’t know then that I would eventually go to the Olympics, but for the first time, I felt it was attainable.

“I knew that I had a comfort zone in athletics.”

To understand what we do as professional volleyball players, you have to understand our schedule. In the summer, from May to September, we represent Team USA, traveling and competing for major titles against  top international teams. The rest of the year, we play professionally overseas in various leagues. I have been fortunate to play in China, Italy, Puerto Rico — and this coming year, I will play in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s an added benefit to turn what you love into a career, but volleyball has given me so much more than just a way to support myself. To travel, eat, live and experience other cultures from a local’s vantage point has changed my life. The new friendships and unforgettable experiences have made me who I am today.

I absolutely love what I do. It’s my dream, and I’m living it every single day — but it doesn’t come without tradeoffs. We play year-round with two weeks off between each season. I see my family about 5–6 times a year. I’ve missed countless holidays, weddings and reunions. In the gym, it’s intense. A group of 30 women, filtering in from all over the country, vies for a spot on the 12-man roster, with just 3–4 in my position as an outside hitter. The entire experience is an emotional roller coaster from the highs of winning that motivate me to want to achieve more, to the lows that make me believe I am not good enough or I’m undeserving of the opportunity at hand.  


READ MORE > A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL PLAYER


At the 2016 Olympics alone, I experienced all of this in a matter of 48 hours. Our team headed into the semifinals against Serbia, a team we beat earlier in the tournament. After two and a half hours of an all-out mental and physical battle, we were defeated. The United States would yet again leave the Olympics without a gold medal in volleyball. I don’t think anyone slept that night. I ran the entire game back in my head over and over again. As I write this, it still hurts just as bad, but one of the greatest moments in my career quickly followed. Just one day later, we fought together as a team to win bronze. While it wasn’t gold, the power of what it represented and the bond it created with my teammates, is just as gold.

“It’s the truest expression of myself, it’s what drives me to be a better player, a better person, and to pursue something that has never been done before …”

I fell in love with this game because the volleyball court was where I found myself most free and it still is. I always say that if you want to know who I am, watch me play, nothing defines me more than when I’m on the court with my teammates competing. It’s the truest expression of myself, it’s what drives me to be a better player, a better person, and to pursue something that has never been done before — win an Olympic gold medal for the USA Indoor Women’s National Team.

Volleyball has given me so much more than I have ever been able to give it. I’ve learned to face pain and know I’ll be OK. I’ve learned some of my strongest, most loving relationships have come from people I can’t speak the same language with. I’ve learned who you are is not determined by anyone but yourself. And I’ve learned that gratitude is the most essential key to living.

Hometown: Bartlett, Illinois
When I’m not playing volleyball, I’m…: playing beach volleyball or making new recipes
Guiltiest pleasure: Dark chocolate, red wine
Favorite city to visit: Anywhere in Italy, Chicago or Santa Cruz
Cat or dog: Dog

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