MONROE, La. – Being an Olympian is something graduate student Amy Grabiec strives for. She heads to Colorado Springs, Colo., early Friday morning to pursue that dream—she's trying out for the U.S. National Team, and hopefully, a spot on the 2016 Summer Olympics roster.
"For Amy to be able to be here an extra year playing on the sand for us just continues to allow her to pursue her dreams," head indoor volleyball coach and director of volleyball operations Patrick Hiltz said, "I'm real excited for her and it's a great opportunity for her."
Those dreams Hiltz speaks of are playing in the Olympics, but it is a long process to get there.
"I found out about the tryouts last year, so I went out to get some experience. I was looking at the USA Volleyball website and I found out they were having tryouts. I heard from some other schools that they were also sending the players, so I wanted to see what it was like and see what I was getting myself into," Grabiec said.
This isn't her first go-around with USA Volleyball or newly-appointed US National Team head coach Charles "Karch" Kiraly. Kiraly was an assistant with the US Women's National Team during the 2012 Olympics and was at the 2012 tryouts. So was Grabiec.
"She's made this attempt before and just the experience of being there with hundreds of other volleyball players from across the country, with a new system under "Karch" Kiraly, is going to be really wonderful for her," Hiltz said
"Last year was just an experience. I didn't have any indoor eligibility left so I had to go for the US National Team, but they were taking cuts from the previous team for the London Olympics. They were cutting the team from 30 down to 13," Grabiec said of the experience.
When asked if this year's tryout was an open or if it was by invitation only, Grabiec said: "It's somewhere in the middle. The big schools know about it, and USA Volleyball contacts them. Other than that, girls from other schools are allowed to go to it, so in that sense, it is open. But, there is a cutoff date. You might have to be waitlisted or you may be able to get right in."
Grabiec estimated that nearly 200 people will be in the gym, going for about 30 spots to play in international competitions. Those 30 players then compete for a spot on the Olympic team in 2016 and a chance at gold.
As with any national team tryout, the process is lengthy and crowded.
"They split you off into red, white and blue teams. Usually, the liberos wear the white jerseys, so there could be between 50 and 100 girls there just for that position," she said.
The tryouts last just the span of a weekend. There are three practices a day on Friday and Saturday, while by Sunday, the USA Volleyball coaching staff have chosen who they want to see, Grabiec said.
"If you practice early Sunday morning, you're probably not coming back. But, the later in the day the practice is, the better it is. Through the tryout, if you start to get into the blue or red group, that is good because the blue group is the number one group. You always know your color and you know where you stand. If you're in the red group one day, that's not to say you're there all weekend, You just have to work your hardest during that practice to get to the blue group," she said.
While Grabiec is a strictly sand player at ULM, the Cleveland, Ohio, area native is no stranger to the indoor game. She was a four-year letterwinner at Cleveland State University, and she has two coaches at ULM who stress cross training on and off the sand pits.
"We adjusted our sand volleyball practice [Wednesday] and moved it inside to help Amy prepare for the Olympic indoor team tryouts," Hiltz said.
Wednesday's practice was the first time Grabiec has come close to playing in an indoor competition in over a year.
"It feels good to play indoor volleyball again because that was my first love," Grabiec said.
Head sand volleyball coach David Fischer has collegiate indoor and professional sand volleyball experience and has tried experienced top-tier competition.
Fischer said: "There's a few things [Grabiec] can do to prepare for a high level tryout. One: She needs game experience, and she got that being a four year stand out libero at Cleveland State. Two: There is conditioning and she is a fitness nut. She is also doing our sand volleyball workouts, so I feel she will be as fit as anyone there at the tryouts. Lastly, there is being in the rhythm of the game. That's why we adjusted our sand practice today. We wanted to get her some indoor reps."
The indoor game and sand game may both be volleyball, but they are distinctly different.
"The ball comes faster indoors. People jump higher. There are different angles and there is no wind. Today, the idea was to get her ready to fly out and to help her make the U.S. National Team," Fischer said.
Grabiec echoes Fischer's assessment: "It is hard to adjust back to the indoor game because the ball is smaller and moves differently. There is no wind and the air current is different. It's a faster game so it's hard to adjust. Instead of looking for shots, you have to be ready for those bangers."
Getting a national team tryout is not only an individual honor, but it helps the volleyball program as a whole, too.
"Just the fact that someone from our volleyball program, be it sand or indoor volleyball, is making that attempt tells us that we're starting to attract volleyball players that take this very seriously. This is part of their life and their dreams," Hiltz said.
Making the team, on the other hand, would move the university forward by leaps and bounds.
"If she were to make it, that puts ULM up there with the nation's elite volleyball programs in that we have a national player coming out of our school. Five years ago, people would say we were crazy to even think about it, yet here we are. We have someone making an attempt at it and it would be real exciting for everyone involved," he added.
Grabiec could know her fate as soon as Sunday evening. If she does make the national squad, she wouldn't be the first Warhawk to represent her country. Marcela Araya andBlanca Ocana have played for Costa Rica and Guatemala in international competitions, respectively.
If she doesn't make it, Grabiec plans to try out for the beach volleyball team, as well. Either way, after this year, she hopes to trade the maroon and gold for red, white and blue.
ULM's sand volleyball season begins March 9 in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
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