Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini: “I’m so excited to see what’s ahead”

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The Wisconsin crew at the AAU Sullivan Award ceremony in New York, from left, Tony and Gale Carlini, Lauren Carlini, Kelly Sheffield, and UW's Terry Gawlik and Diane Nordstrom

Lauren Carlini is having a blast.

In May she’ll graduate from the University of Wisconsin and move to Anaheim to train with the USA national team.

In the last month, the 6-foot-1 setter became the first volleyball player to win the AAU Sullivan Award during which she made her first trip to New York, was honored with the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor, has worked on some instructional videos and done photo shoots.

And sometime in the next couple of weeks she’ll sign with a Italian pro volleyball team and will play there next fall.

When she started at Wisconsin in 2013, her freshman bio in the media guide had this:

How would you like to change the world? Make volleyball a more popular and highly watched sport

She’s doing her part.

The four-time All-American from Aurora, Ill., a 2020 Olympic hopeful, took a break from the whirlwind that has been her life to catch up with us.

Lauren Carlini, right, with the other Sullivan Award finalists atop the Empire State Building/AAU photo
Lauren Carlini, right, with the other Sullivan Award finalists atop the Empire State Building/AAU photo

VBM: Let’s start with the trip to New York. That must have been so special.

Carlini: Well, first off, I’d never been to New York City and that was super fun. (Wisconsin coach) Kelly Sheffield came with us and he lived there for like seven years and he was like our tour guide and he just wanted to run us all over the place.

We got to see the 9-11 memorial, we went to this awesome bakery, we went to Rockefeller Center and some rooftop bars. My parents (Tony and Gale) were there and (Wisconsin senior associate athletic director Terry Gawlik and sports information director Diane Nordstrom) so I had a whole crew with me.

The other part I was with the other finalists, six Olympians, all gold-medalists, and that was super fun to be able to get in their heads a little bit and be able to talk over dinner. We went to the Empire State Building one day and then we did interviews and photo shoots and got to go up to the 103rd floor. It was crazy. It was like the smallest little walkway and the barrier is at your hips and, whew, you had to be careful. It was pretty scary. It was so cool to be able to talk to them. They were like totally normal kids like anyone else going to college and we’re just blessed with these awesome talents.

It was just a fun two days with a lot packed into it. Then that night ending up winning the award, that was just insane. I’ve seen the video and I have this super-surprised ugly face and I was like, “Me? What! There’s got to be some mistake.”

VBM: You told me you won two of the four categories, the popular votes and the AAU committee vote.

Carlini: Yeah, that’s how I won it. It was just a great night and the AAU was spectacular in hosting us, as well.

VBM: I loved the picture of you after, leaning on a balcony and having a glass of wine.

Carlini: It was on the 30th floor of the hotel (at the New York Athletic Club, where they stayed and the ceremonies were conducted). It was a super cool way to end the night. It was a really nice place and my room had a straight-on view of Central Park.

Lauren Carlini and Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield/AAU photo
Lauren Carlini and Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield/AAU photo

VBM: I know it’s not lost on you that you’re the first volleyball player to win the Sullivan Award. It’s pretty cool for our sport.

Carlini: I think it is. And one thing is I’m a little disappointed in myself because I didn’t know the sheer importance of this award before I was a semifinalist. I had never even heard of it until last year. Someone brought it up and asked why I wasn’t considered and I said I didn’t even know what it was. And then coming into this year and being a semifinalist and then being a finalist I started doing a little more research behind it and seeing all the athletes who have won it before me and oh, my gosh, I wish I had known about this before. It’s something I would have loved to have worked for and set as a goal for myself.

Looking at all the athletes who have won, they were the best in the world when they were competing in their sport. And then coming up through the pipeline of AAU when you’re in club I think it’s so important for these girls to know that this award is possible and it’s something that everyone should try to work towards in the sport of volleyball.

VBM: And of course you played in AAU nationals in Orlando as a club kid.

Carlini: Every year. We won the national championship my senior year and went to God only knows how many semifinals and finals.

VBM: So how does it feel after all this time to not be a school volleyball player?

Carlini: I don’t know, it’s kind of weird because I’m still practicing with the team and I’m still in school here. We just had our Buckinghams (where Wisconsin honors its student-athletes), so I’m not sure it’s sunk it yet, since I’m still practicing with the team and still in the weight room.

But it is kind of bizarre to think I’m kind of in no-man’s land right now and I’m trying to figure out my pro contract and I’m getting ready to move to Anaheim in less than a month, so there’s a lot of change going on, but I’m super excited to see what the future holds for me.

VBM: You signed with Stefano Bartocci, an Italian agent and he flew you and your mom over. Tell me about that.

Carlini: It was the beginning of March and we watched the final four of the Italian Cup and we explored a lot, went out to dinner and we able to meet some owners of different teams as well. He’s been super helpful and we also went to Florence.

Lauren Carlini, who can touch 10 feet, jousts in a match last season against Rutgers/UW athletics photo
Lauren Carlini, who can touch 10 feet, jousts in a match last season against Rutgers/UW athletics photo

VBM: What are your thoughts about becoming a pro and moving to Italy and all that comes with it?

Carlini: It’s a little scary, it’s scary knowing that you’re going to be overseas for eight months of the year and you’re not going to have an American on your team, there will be people who speak English but there will be hard times, as well. So I’m kind of mentally preparing myself for that.

In terms of becoming a pro, it sucks for volleyball because there’s not a lot of information on it. There’s not a lot of information on finding an agent and how you go about that process. The types of teams and leagues that are overseas. Who are the strong ones and who are the weak ones? There’s just so much information on college volleyball and the NCAA and then you get shoved into this whole ‘nother world and you have to rely on other people who have been in that position.

I can’t even name the amount of people who I’ve been in contact with. National-team coaches, prior national-team girls, current national-team girls, just texting them and emailing about anything I could get information about. And I’m so grateful because they’ve been so helpful. Everyone is kind of in this together and I think there’s a really good culture going on in USA Volleyball right now where if you need any help with anything overseas or being a pro they’ll give you an honest opinion on everything. It’s been super. It’s been information overload at times, but having them help out and give me their honest opinions has been super helpful.

VBM: I would think it’s pretty good to be Lauren Carlini right now. You’re having the time of your life and you realize it.

Carlini: I’ve been telling everyone how these past few weeks have been such a whirlwind for me. I knew the month of April would be super crazy, but between winning the AAU Sullivan Award, getting the Big Ten Medal of Honor, being able to go out to Colorado and and developing my brand and creating videos that are going to be able to help kids, coaches and parents in all age groups, and preparing myself to be on the women’s national team in less than a month. And graduating! There’s just so much going on right now and it’s been so crazy and so super busy.

But I’m so excited to see what’s ahead and see where this takes me. I’m excited to sign my pro contract and, honestly, I’m ready to go make history with the U.S. national team. I’m so ready.

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