Eight Countries, One Team

FIU women’s volleyball turned distinct playing styles, multiple languages and diverse cultural backgrounds into a record-breaking season

By Deborah O’Neil MA ’09

How the women of the FIU Women’s Volleyball team made it happen will be stuff of university legend.

Senior Yarimar Rosa’s powerful kills were obviously key to their record breaking 32-4 season and 2009 Sun Belt Conference Regular Season Championship.

But there were more subtle factors. Like fear. With an arsenal of volleyball plays from around the world and with rapid-fire Croat and Spanish no one else understands, they left their U.S. opponents often guessing, sometimes uneasy. And there’s sweat. Lots of sweat. They’re squatting their bodyweight on a barbell.

Perhaps most important to their success is something no one except the women talks about much: Respect. It explains a lot about how 15 women from eight countries speaking seven different languages harmonized worlds of differences into winning strengths.

“I love the fact that we are all different. That’s what makes us great,” said sophomore Sabrina Gonzalez of Miami. “We love each other and love where we come from. That’s what shapes our team character. We are so different and we are so patient in trying to understand each other.”

Says freshman Jovana Bjelica of Serbia, “I think I came to the best university for myself. It was easier to adjust. Some of my friends are in Memphis or New Orleans and it’s hard for them to live there. Miami is not a typical American city.”

The alchemist behind this winning formula comes from far away herself. Coach Danijela Tomic, a Croatian from Bosnia, says no matter where the students are from, they come to FIU for the same reasons: a good education and a chance to play with a great team. A shared purpose unites them.

“They have to be selfless,” said Tomic, the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. “For the team to succeed it can’t be ‘me.’ It has to be ‘we.’”

Assistant Coach Trevor Theroulde, born in Trinidad and educated in Germany, says having such a diverse team requires a different approach to coaching.

“People assume if you are from the same background you are the same. We tend to coach the forest instead of the trees,” he said. “What this dynamic has created for us is we are more aware. We talk to individuals and make it work for us in a positive manner. We look at coaching the trees, at the individual styles.”

With nine international students, the players and the coaches confront extra challenges like students’ visas, the effects of homesickness on their academic and athletic performance and the language barriers. In the beginning, the teammates had to learn how to communicate with each other. Someone would yell “Switch!” and nothing would happen.

“When we count in drills, somehow it’s always off,” said Chanel Araujo of California. “We’ll go from 30 to 40 in one jump.”

Eventually, the teammates taught one another and developed their own lingo – a vibrant mix of Spanish, European and English smack. Someone scores a point: “Un punto! Ohhhh!” The USA-born teammates encourage the international players to use language to their advantage: Speaking in Serbian or Spanish on the court messes with the other team.

Fifteen times a year the players sing Happy Birthday in English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Croatian and Serbian. Nina Colon from Miami is speaking Croatian. Ashlyn Balensiefer from Indiana knows all the Reggaeton songs.

“I’m learning the world isn’t Indiana,” Balensiefer said. “I saw the U.S. as the world. This has made my horizons bigger.”

Tomic herself was an international student-athlete who played for the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. So she knows, for instance, how tiring it can be for the five Eastern European student-athletes to speak English day and night. She understands how puzzling the university can be with its credit hours and many requirements. She knows how much they miss food from home. She also nurtures the team’s sense of family because she knows it will provide the support the student-athletes need.

“I was really scared when I came here,” said sophomore Andrea Lakovic of Montenegro. “Having these girls around makes you feel comfortable. We’re one big family. You have people who will support you.”

Tomic makes a point of telling all potential recruits just what the FIU team is all about.

Do you like diversity? Do you enjoy learning about other cultures and languages? Do you like winning? You’re going to love FIU.

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