My older sister got a full ride to play volleyball at West Virginia University. So my parents “encouraged” me to start playing volleyball. So in my senior year of high school, I made the varsity team and was promptly told to get off the court after the referee blew their whistle. To which I willingly obliged. I applied to Virginia Commonwealth University and my parents “encouraged” me again to try out for women’s volleyball. Fortunately the coach at VCU was an amazing person and teacher. Wendy Wadsworth taught me the game from scratch and by my senior year I had earned a scholarship, got named team captain and made All Sun Belt Conference. I was addicted, played every day. Grass, beach wallyball, you name it. After graduation, my coach offered me the assistant coach job which I loved for two years.
Then thinking I was ready for the pros, moved to New York City to walk on with the New York Liberties coached by Mary Jo Peppler. I never played, just shagged balls and commentated once with Chris Marlowe. Waited tables and worked in a bakery. My pro career didn’t pan out, so I went to graduate school at UMASS and kept playing USVBA with Eastern Athletics out of New York City. That was 1987-88 and it was a great time to be a female athlete! Our sponsor flew us all over the country to play. The best trip was the Caribbean Invitational in Miami. Beautiful Gabrielle Reese was playing for Florida State and I shut her down 🙂 So much fun! Played the Jose Cuervo Beach Volleyball Tour that summer and met Scott Mose, the head coach at Rutgers. He was surprised a big girl could move and told me his friend in France was looking for a middle blocker and that I would love Cannes. So in June 1988 while I was interning for Virginia Slims Tennis in New York City, flew to Wimbledon for work, then on to Cannes for my tryout.
The coach hated me from the instant he saw me. But I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. He didn’t speak English so I told a junior player in the gym to tell him that I could beat him in doubles. He agreed and lost. The President of the team took me to dinner that night and handed me a signed contract. Fortunately Scott’s wife told me what to ask for in addition to the basics: a flight home for Christmas! I signed the contract and flew back to New York to finish my summer internship.
A Duke player was supposed to be returning to the team, so I felt comfortable that there would be another American on the team. In August she changed her mind and I left alone for France in August. My mom was furious “you are a stubborn mule. You don’t even know these people!”
The first few weeks sucked. I was bound and determined to make it, but like a typical American, I assumed everyone would speak English. Not the case at all. After my first practice I went to the locker room and my teammates sat on a wooden bench naked and smoking. And let’s just say they had never seen a razor. The image was permanently embedded in my brain. All I could think was “how will I survive here?”
A few weeks later, this wonderful, hilarious Dutch woman arrived. A former Olympian who had married France’s best player Laurent Tillie. Caroline Keulen Tillie saved me. She had traveled the world and she became my roommate on the road. I just adored her. She had just given birth to their first son Kim Tillie (now playing professional basketball in Barcelona). I wanted the life she had created for herself. We had so much fun together. I wasn’t half the player she was, but she looked out for me.
During the day I would attend the College International de Cannes (part of my contract). And was speaking French fluently by Christmas. So that was handy when the coach would scream at me, I could scream back in French. By the end of the season, he shook my hand and thanked me for putting up with him.
Racing Club de Cannes was the #2 team in France. Racing Club de Paris had the National Team players, so we always lost to them. But we beat everyone else. We were entered in the European Cup.
First round was Tormo Barbara Xativa (Barcelona). We traveled there first, tough team. The referee continued to call me for being in the net. To which I grew increasingly irate because I pride myself for never being in the net. Finally I grabbed the referee stand and shouted “I’m not in the fucking net!” My first red card ever and was ejected from the match with a rain of pistachio shells and bottle caps falling around me on the bench. That was quite funny actually. We lost in five. I vowed that I would never lose my temper again and when they came to Cannes, I had my best match ever and we won 15-13, 4-15, 15-10, 15-10.
Second round we were off to Thessaloniki, Greece. We annihilated them home and away. In Greece, a fan came out of the stands with a tin foil wrapped package for “the American.” It smelled amazing, so I ate it. My teammates were stunned, “you should never eat something from a fan!” Spanakopita. Ah, so tasty! Then the Greek players delivered a similar package to Cannes and my teammates inhaled it. We had qualified for the third round, first time in the club’s history!
Went home for Christmas and my family thought I was crazy for giving up my boyfriend and a career in New York City to “wander around” in France. I was more than happy to return to France. Next up was third round of European Cup in Russia! I was not going to miss a chance to go to the storied Soviet Union. OnJanuary 7 we left for Moscow. Played an exhibition match against Dynamo, lost in three. Then flew 8 hours on Aeroflot (worst airline known to man) and lost to Alma Ata 15-9, 15-7, 15-13. They pounded us, but we all had a good laugh and plenty of vodka after. Our European Cup was over when Alma Ata came to Cannes and blew us away again. The Russian players were just lovely and desperate to find the first train out of their own country.
To pass the time, I walked a ton. The weather in Cannes was perfect for walking and plenty of vistas overlooking the Mediterranean to stumble upon. I wrote letters to my boyfriend who worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And I studied French and took French cooking classes. I lived with a beautiful French lady and her toddler son. Our “maison” overlooked the sea and was within walking distance from our home gym.
It was a brilliant year abroad. But they needed a better middle and I was anxious to get married. So my team drove me to the airport with little gifts and we promised to keep in touch. Facebook has made that incredibly easier these days. Caroline Keulen Tillie’s second son Kevin Tillie was playing at UC Irvine two years ago, so on Spring Break my husband and daughter got to watch him play. Incredible player and like his mom, so disarming and fun. He’s now playing professionally in Italy. I would highly recommend any player in Italy to go to Ravenna and introduce yourself. He’s not married and is quite adorable.
Another teammate Ines Escobar ended up marrying Laurent Tillie’s best friend Jean-Marc Jurkovitz (on French Olympic team at 1984 Olympics). So we hosted their son Natan Jurkovitz for the school year last year. We fell totally in love with this kid. He was desperate to get to America and embraced his life here. He’s an incredible basketball player. One night Natan suggested we watch his favorite movie, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKXP-KrY2UY and during the lonely athlete abroad scene said, “aw, Jen-knee-fer it’s you in France.” That made me cry.
Six Things I Wish I Would Have Done While Playing Overseas
Only making $1,000 a month, nothing else was possible in 1988-89. Did all I could do.
But if I’m playing in 2014 and making decent money:
- I would have stayed after the season ended for the Cannes Film Festival.
- I would have purchased a Hermes scarf.
- I would have visited Italy.
- I would have visited Switzerland.
- I would have visited Germany.
The funny thing now is the Racing Club de Cannes players are posing nude for calendars. I would have loved to have been a calendar girl. haha!
Advice for current players:
- Limit yourself to an hour a day online. Write a blog, post photos and logout. Don’t be a sad sack. You get to be what most people dream of.
- Save everything! Magazine stories, news clippings, match posters, friendship gifts, flags, etc.
- Embrace being the big, dumb American. It’s your excuse to get to know people and have more fun!
- Learn the language.
- Try their favorite food and host dinners for your teammates.