With hindsight being in the clearest vision, viewed from the sunny and humid resort life she’s currently living, there isn’t much about Canada that Olivia Chychrun can recall being especially fond of. It’s cold, unbearably so in the winter. The peers with whom she grew up weren’t her favorite. Beach volleyball was little more than a side thought.
As she was nearing the end of her junior high days, Chychrun wasn’t looking forward to high school but the step after. Already, she was ready for university, a life elsewhere, somewhere warmer, somewhere with beach volleyball, somewhere not Ontario.
“I was ready to leave and go somewhere else,” she said.
Only, she didn’t have to wait for university to find, literally, both greener and sunnier pastures. She could get the university life she so coveted as a high schooler. She’d just have to move to Florida to do it.
Altitude Academy is at once the first and only educational institution of its kind in the United States, a fully-accredited beach and indoor volleyball academy located in Port St. Lucie, Florida, in which students are treated and behave much like an NCAA Division I athlete would. Four hours of school per day — from 7:30-9:30 and 1-3 p.m. — are split by a pair of two-hour volleyball practices, which is followed by an hour of lifting and a study hall. There are coaches, nutritionists, trainers, a wellness center — everything a student-athlete would envision in a university or even professional program, much less a high school.
While located at a Club Med resort, the days are not filled sitting in beach chairs and watching the ocean ebb and flow. It’s intense, as rigorous academically as any college, as physically demanding as a professional beach volleyball federation.
“The idea was kind of taken from the National Team program that we had,” said Altitude Academy coach Kaya Marciniak, who competed on the Polish National Team after completing high school. “We trained twice a day and we had the time slots for our school work at the time and we did the mental training with the fitness component. We did video review. That was the idea for how to run this program. Here, the players are prepped for the highest level of play.
“In Europe we don’t have competitive college volleyball; we just go straight to pro, and that’s what I did. The idea is the same: We wanted to make sure the kids here in this school train the way the professionals train on the international level. If you are this age, if you can make it through that training, the college is going to be so easy for you. You are mentally and physically prepared for the workload and the commitment you need to make at the college level.”
A program like that, with a schedule as full as Altitude’s, is why a raw, young athlete like Chychrun, who had only a sampling of beach volleyball experience prior to attending Altitude, was able to commit to a top-tier Division I school in the University of Alabama Birmingham. It’s how 19 players have gone on to compete at the next level since 2016, many of whom went Division I, including powers such as South Carolina, Florida International, Florida State, Stetson, as well as Division II juggernaut Tampa.
“My game has changed completely,” Chychrun said. “When I came here, I was athletic and I could kind of figure it out, but Kaya and Piotr [Marciniak, an Altitude coach and current professional player on the AVP Tour] gave me technique. Looking back, I still have videos from two or three years ago, and the difference is insane how much I’ve changed in a year or just a couple months. It’s amazing.”
There are occasions, sometimes daily, in which Chychrun, and any other student at the Academy, has to pinch herself. Just three years ago, she was enduring a cold Canadian winter, devoid of beach volleyball and a group of like-minded peers who are as obsessed with the sport as she is. Now she’s living on a campus that doubles as a swanky Club Med resort, practicing twice per day, taking a reasonable amount of classes, with a future beyond anything she could have envisioned for herself.
How many high school kids can say that?
“Anytime I’m just walking through the resort or it’s warm in the winter or I’m going to practice in the morning and then again in the afternoon, I’m like ‘I can’t believe I went to school for eight hours and was looking forward to one indoor practice and it was cold outside,’” Chychrun said. “This time I’m going to the beach. That happens all the time: Wow, this is my life. This is amazing.”
With the Marciniaks serving as the coaches, the sheer amount of volleyball IQ, understanding, and empathy is unrivaled. Both competed for the Polish National Team. Both dominated on the erstwhile NVL. Both have enjoyed success on the AVP Tour. But it isn’t just an effective practice plan or specifics on how to block or hit a deadly line shot that they can teach. The Marciniaks also bring with them the enviable knowledge of how hard to push a teenager, for they lived this exact life, minus the academic portion.
It’s why they take Wednesdays off. “Rehab day,” Piotr jokingly calls it, in which the students are taken to a wellness center in lieu of practice. The afternoon is for mental training, run by a sports psychologist. Then there’s video analysis and classes on nutrition and recruiting.
“We try to touch on every aspect of it,” Piotr said.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Academies such as IMG, also in Florida, have popped up across the country, but they are largely catered to sports such as basketball and football. Norway’s Top Volley Academy, which produced Olympic gold medalists Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, provided the model for how to run an academy for both indoor and beach volleyball.
“If you want to paint a similar picture to who we are, it’s very similar to what Anders Mol has in Norway,” Piotr Marcinak said. “It’s a boarding volleyball academy.”
That, with a bit of an American twist. As Kaya Marciniak mentioned, there is no collegiate competition in Europe; American athletes — most of them, anyway — do not go directly to the professional tours but into the booming NCAA system. The training schedule, then, is not designed to have them peak for, say, an AVP or FIVB event, but for an NCAA showcase.
“Every day relates to the next day and the next week and the next month so we can get us ready for those peak moments,” Altitude Director of Volleyball Melissa Piazza said. “We pick our tournaments where the colleges are going to be.”
This past Thanksgiving weekend was one of those tournaments. The result? An Altitude athlete was able to commit to a Division I school on the spot, ensuring both the next step of her competitive and academic career.
“The coaching that they’re going to receive and the people we know, that’s part of the reason we have a college placement,” Piazza said. “We know what it takes to get kids to that level. When kids graduate from here, they can handle the workload from their freshman year. They’re ready to play. They’re not going through that freshman rut where they’re trying to learn that balance of school and life because they’re already making those decisions in two or three years being with us. They’re ready.”
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