By Noah Allison–
Three seniors from this past year’s volleyball team were given the opportunity to play professional volleyball come the end of their collegiate careers. Outside Hitter Lola Arslanbekova is playing for Leonas de Ponce in Puerto Rico, Middle Blocker Gwen Rucker is playing for Azeryol Baku in Azerbijan, and Outside Hitter Kaitlynn James is playing for Sllentuna Volleyboll Klub in Sollentuna, Sweden.
Q: What was your first reaction to hearing you are a part of a professional volleyball club?
Rucker: At first I was super nervous, I remember asking one of my mentors if he thought I could do it, if he believed in me, and he said, “if you have to ask that then you might as well stay in Louisville.” But after talking to him I became extremely excited to be living my dream.
Q: Were you nervous before moving to your new home?
James: I was nervous before moving here because obviously I didn’t know Swedish and I had no idea what the culture would be like. I am also the only American on the team so I knew I would be figuring out a lot of things by myself. Once I got settled here though, things have become routine for me.
Q: How different is your new home from Louisville?
Arslanbekova: Puerto Rico is totally different from Louisville, first of all it is a different culture and it has its own different language so of course the people here are different. It is all very new compared to Louisville, but it is basically the same experience I had when I moved to the United States.
Rucker: Very different. I’m fortunate enough to be eating some of the same foods that I would eat in America and also trying a lot of new things. Baku is a beautiful city, I tell everyone here that it reminds me of a small NYC, but that at the same time it is very different. This is a Muslim city so many of the outfits that are normal to wear in America are inappropriate here, on top of that there are a lot of men around, they are pretty traditional here with the women staying home to watch the kids and tend to the house and the men going out in the city. I would say the ratio of women to men that I see on the street is about 1:15.
James: Sollentuna/Stockholm is VERY different from Louisville. I live about 20 minutes away from Stockholm and that’s the big city in Sweden to go to. It is a large city but the way of life is totally different. There is a public transportation system of busses and trains that everyone uses. Gas is very expensive here, as well as cars so there’s usually one car to a family and you get bus and train passes and use public transportation. My club supplied me with a bus and train pass so I have been able to go anywhere I want in Sweden for free. The population is a lot smaller here as well. “Busy life” to the Swedes is normal life in Louisville if that makes sense; they’re very into living simply. Those are the biggest differences I’ve seen.
James: One of the things that I struggle with is speaking Swedish correctly and adjusting to how Swedish people do things in everyday life. Everyone speaks pretty good English here because of American movies and music. They learn at a young age but I like to try and pick up things and learn while I’m here and it was very hard to adjust to that at first. The way you speak it is very hard and different than English so it’s still something I struggle with.
Q: What helped you get comfortable in your new home?
Rucker: I was fortunate enough to have a former teammate, Anastasia Artemeva here in the city with me and another American Jennifer Tamas. They helped me out a lot. Nastya would call and order me taxis and would always be by her phone when I would get lost in the city by myself. Also it helped that my team is a mix of young and older players that were very accepting. They took me in and since now I am considered a “young player” they showed me the ropes.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
Arslanbekova: In my free time I usually go to the pool or go to the beach and get some tan. On the weekends me and my girls go to the movies or get together for lunch or dinner.
Q: What is the professional competition like compared to the competition you faced at Louisville?
Rucker: It’s very different, but at the same time very much the same. In Baku we train for about 4 hours a day and have matches usually twice a week. I think the game is a little different in the mental aspects; here you play smarter. There are many veterans here, some women on my team are above 30 years old and they know all the tricks and shots to hit on the court. They are wise about the game. The competition is very high, not just among the people you play against but also on your own team. Each day I have to come in and hit each ball as hard as I can and block as far as I can, each day because that’s the standard here. It’s good because it teaches that “you can’t take days off” mentality.
Q: How competitive is your club in their respective leagues?
Arslanbekova: My club is doing great this season. Right now we are first in the league.
Rucker: Our team is in the middle of the pack in rankings right now, we actually just beat a higher ranked team than us. We compete with everyone, not necessarily win every game but teams respect our team and what we can do.
James: When I first got here, my club was towards the bottom of our league. Now, we are currently in playoffs and sit in the middle of our league. The girls have improved a lot since I first got here, so it’s been cool to see improvements.
Q: What are your teammates like? Are they from all over the world?
Rucker: My teammates are so cool. Half of the team is from Azerbaijan, which is good because they can help with local things like shopping, and salon issues. There are two girls from Japan, two Americans, two from Russia, and one from the Czech Republic and one from Cuba. We have a very eclectic bunch. At any time during practice you can hear someone talking in Russian, Azerbaijani, Japanese, English and Spanish. It’s crazy but good because I’m learning little bits of different languages each day. We have some young girls who are around the same age as I am and we have some veterans. It’s great because us young ones are able to learn from the veterans and do as they do and it’s great because we all have respect for the older girls who have played the game longer than we have and they also respect us, we all hang out together there is no age segregation. and I try to teach them some American things. We have a lot of fun together and enjoy hanging out on our off days.
Q: What do you miss the most about Louisville?
James: I miss Qdoba… and I’m hearing there’s a Chipotle in town too so that’s even better. If my teammates saw that I wrote that they would say “That’s so American,” but it’s true! And of course I miss my friends and family but yes, I’m going with the “American” answer on this one.
Q: What are your predictions for Louisville volleyball next year?
Rucker: I think they will be a very great team. The defense will be top of the line; it will be hard for other teams to get a ball to the ground. I think they will be a team that will be small but also a fireball. They will have lots of passion and lots of fight. I’m so excited to watch these girls play and to train with them over this summer.
James: I think that the team is going to be young but fire-y next year. With Tanya, Lola, Gwen, and I being gone, that leaves a lot of positions on the court open for the taking, and I think the girls are going to be very competitive to earn those spots. I still feel like we ended last season with unfinished business, so I hope they pull motivation from last year and be ready to go right from the start. I can’t wait to see how they develop and hopefully I’ll be able to see them in action a few times.
Photos by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal