June 8, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
From the day Michelle Collier took over as head coach of Georgia Tech Volleyball, she’s tried to express the genuine passion and love for the game of volleyball as played in her native Brazil.
But Collier knew no words could substitute for the players seeing it for themselves.
With NCAA rules allowing for an international visit once every four years, she jumped at the opportunity to bring the team to her home country, doing so from May 6-17.
“I thought Brazil gave them the cultural aspect, the volleyball aspect and then also just understanding the culture that we’re trying to create,” Collier said. “It was an opportunity for us to get to know each other a little bit better as staff and players, and just kind of spend some time together in an environment where I grew up so they could understand my background and where some of my ideas and some of my values come from. I thought that was important for them to have an opportunity to see that.
“We competed really well, we were able to do a lot of sight-seeing and we were definitely able to bond as a team,” she added. “We went through a long bus ride and we saw the positive side on everything that was different in their culture, so I think it was a great learning experience. For me it was extra special because I got to go home and see people, coaches that I played for, players that I played with, friends, and family.”
While volleyball was important, so was getting to experience day-to-day Brazil.
“It wasn’t a normal trip like we do our road trips,” Collier said. “We would go see Christ the Redeemer then go practice and play in the afternoon. So they had to kind of flip that switch about, ‘Hey, this is fun and this is business.’ We were able to do that and be in a different routine and see that they were ready to compete when they needed to compete. So it was cool to see that.”
While in Rio, the team played matches on May 7 against Tijuca, Botafogo and Flamengo, and on May 10 against Fluminense. After a trip to watch the Brazilian National Team and a day in the resort town of Buzios, they made an eight-hour bus ride to Sᾶo Paulo and played against Pinheiros on May 14, Sesi and Bradesco on the 16th then Sᾶo Caetano on the 17th. They won them all.
“We dominated the teams that we needed to dominate,” said Collier. “Then the last two matches, especially, were challenging. They were against some top under-22 teams in Brazil and we responded well and we beat some really good players on the other side. It was exciting.”
Getting the opportunity to observe the National Teams practice for the Olympics in less than three months then meet with them also was a unique experience.
“They have a real respect and pride in what they’re doing. That’s the culture we want to create here,” said Collier. “When we’re playing the game of volleyball let’s be our best, let’s respect the game, and let’s make sure that we’re prepared to honor the game when we step on the court and do the right things and play the right way. Being able to see how they handle practice and what their demands are, a lot of time it’s things that we are saying and asking of our players. So I think it was a really cool opportunity.”
“I really enjoyed watching the Brazilian National Team play,” said junior setter Gabby Benda. “It definitely helped me put things into perspective of how I need to train and compete when I get back to Tech. I tried my best to almost mimic the women’s Brazilian National Team setter. She was amazing. I will bring back my mental and physical game at a higher level and just being thankful to play the sport I love every day with some great people.”
The Jackets immediately noticed and had to adapt to a vast difference in style of play.
“Overall their volleyball IQ, understanding of the game, and finesse are much higher than the American style,” said senior middle blocker Annika Van Gunst. “We tend to focus on power and explosiveness, which are both very beneficial attributes but the Brazilian teams were much more focused on shot placement and out-smarting other teams. They were constantly making adjustments and throwing curve balls at you when you least expected it.”
In going undefeated in their eight matches the team learned valuable lessons which ideally will pay off this fall.
Just as important, they learned as much about the people playing the game and where they come from, and grew personally. As with the difference in style of play, the players instantly saw the difference in lifestyle and found greater appreciation for what they have — another of Collier’s goals going in.
“For me, this trip was way more about learning who I want to be as a person than it was about physically getting better at volleyball,” said senior outside hitter Teegan Van Gunst. “It’s a process of continuously reminding myself of the opportunities and experiences I’ve been blessed with through this sport, holding fast to the sacrifice it took to get here, and fully embracing the discomfort and perseverance that’s inevitable to move up from here. Different adventures on this trip kept driving those truths into my head, and showing me just how small I really am, which is actually freeing to be more of myself and strive to make the biggest impact I can.”
The resilience and spirit of the Brazilian people shone through and on the Jackets.
“One of the biggest things was they got to see just how happy people are in Brazil, despite all their difficulties, traffic, and things are not efficient and you drive by and you see high-rises then you drive by and see the slums,” Collier said. “It’s two different worlds within a country and the discrepancy between, but in the end, everybody was very friendly, they really enjoyed what they’re doing, they’re passionate.”
“Brazilian culture is very vibrant and passionate. Everything the Brazilians do is with their whole heart,” said senior setter Rebecca Martin. “I saw this specifically when we went to the soccer game in Maracanã Stadium. All of the fans showed as much passion as the players and it was amazing to see an athletic environment where everyone in the stadium demonstrated their love for the game.”
People in Brazil also demonstrated their fervor for the upcoming Olympics.
“Everywhere that we went people were asking, ‘What country are you guys from?’ ‘Are you playing in the Olympics?’” Collier said, with a laugh. “Rio is already getting that vibe of getting the foreign teams there to train and to be in the Olympics. So it was really cool to just kind of be a part of that environment and I think it’s going to be really neat to watch the Olympics, being able to say we’ve been there.”
The trip was extra special to junior outside hitter Gabriella Stavnetchei, who got maybe the nicest sightseeing experience of all in getting to see her family, an experience she happily shared with her teammates.
“I love that they got to meet my family and try some of the amazing things I always tell them about,” said Stavnetchei. “I love the Brazilian culture. I am Brazilian and I was proudly born and raised there. I know we have big issues in our country but the culture is definitely not one of them. Brazilians are warm people who make everyone feel welcome. The food is amazing and the country has an unarguable natural beauty. My favorite part was being able to show my teammates a little bit of where I came from and my culture.”
The entire team will bring home special memories, a greater appreciation for each other and, ideally, techniques and a state of mind that will carry over to the court this coming season.
“I think this trip definitely helped team chemistry,” said junior outside hitter Ashley Askin. “Everyone was able to relax a little bit off the court and it was cool to see different personalities come out. Even with the coaches, it was awesome to get closer with them.”
“I saw how much passion and purpose we should be playing with,” said Martin. “I hope to bring back the same purpose and joy from playing in Brazil back to the States. I grew a lot in my perspective of how the game is played and seeing how privileged we are to play the game we love for a school we want to represent.”
Collier was proud of how the team represented Georgia Tech.
“They represented the program well,” she said. “A lot of times, foreign teams go there and they don’t get the respect that we got. I think that that’s cool. So I was very proud of them to be able to really represent the sport the way that we wanted to represent the sport. Every coach that we played against they were always very complimentary of how we’re playing the game. That, for me as a coach and for us as a staff, it’s the greatest feedback we could receive.
“We left a good impression of Georgia Tech in Brazil,” she added. “When people talk and anybody hears about Georgia Tech they will remember the good volleyball that we played and just how polite and respectful our players and our staff were. So we left there with a very positive image of Brazil and I think we left our image very positively there in Brazil, too.”