Americans playing volleyball overseas always aware of dangers

0
7617
Kim Hill

“My lifestyle has definitely changed in comparison to last season. My teammates and I don’t go out anymore, the New Year’s Eve attack leaving us fearful of any nightlife. Last year we tried to avoid big tourist areas, now we avoid ANY area that is known to be populated by Westerners. 

“I even feel apprehensive at times going to my local mall. We think twice about going to big sporting events, like the professional basketball games here. Basically, it’s always in the back of my mind now, should we try this new restaurant even though it’s in a pretty popular/busy area? Better not. 

“I was at a movie this afternoon and the rumble from the next-door theater was really big, and for a moment I thought, hmmm, I wonder if a bomb just went off in this mall.  It seems a little alarmist, but it’s also realistic.”

— USA Olympian Kim Hill

Terrorist attacks occur in Berlin and Istanbul.

You watch it on the news, read about it on the web. But it’s over there.

Unless you’re an American playing volleyball in Berlin. Or in Istanbul. Or anywhere else around the globe where terrorism is a fact of everyday life.

Quite a few former NCAA players make a living continuing in the sport professionally. We reached out to many of them, particularly a few playing in those two aforementioned cities, and believe you will find their responses quite interesting.

Among them, USA Olympian and former Pepperdine star Kim Hill, who plays in Istanbul, to former Louisville player Erin Fairs, who decided not to go back, to Nicole Walch, who was a standout for Florida State and loves playing in Berlin.

“Playing in Istanbul is really strange because I can honestly say it’s one of my favorite cities in the world,” Hill said. “There’s so much to do and see and so much culture, it’s really incredible.

“But then at the same time there’s so much political unrest here between a controversial president gaining more power and terrorist attacks happening on what feels like a regular basis.”

Said Walch, “Some of the other Americans playing in Germany are wondering if it’s safe in Berlin and I always say ‘Yes!’ ”

Former AVP Pro Mike Bruning is the captain of the USA Deaflympics team, currently evaluating the safety of playing in the 2017 Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Former AVP Pro Mike Bruning is the captain of the USA men’s Deaflympics team, currently evaluating the safety of playing in the 2017 Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

But according to Mike Bruning, a former AVP player who is hearing impaired, this summer’s Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey are in jeopardy.

“Almost all of the American teams have pulled out,” Bruning said, “except men’s and women’s volleyball, and a small portion of the track teams.”

This is by no means a scientific survey, but hopefully it will give you some idea of what it’s like to be an American — and in a couple of cases Europeans — playing in Europe in today’s world.

Matt Anderson passes in World League play/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Matt Anderson passes in World League play/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

“I think anyone traveling has to be concerned with the terrorist attacks,” said USA Olympian Matt Anderson, the former Penn State star who plays in Kazan, Russia. “In Russia, Putin has claimed he’ll destroy anyone who plots an attack, I believe. So I’m a little less on edge. However, we do travel to Europe for Champions League matches and the thought is in the back of my mind.

“To me, it’s a very unfortunate state of our world now. It’s something that is out of the control of those in power and it creates a lot of fear which leads to immense hate and hostility towards many people and cultures. It’s a reality we must live with at the moment and hope for peace in the near future through open communication and diplomacy.”

So many Americans are overseas. Olympians Jordan Larson and Rachael Adams both also play in Istanbul, for example. But not everyone is in a country directly hit by terrorism or in a big city.

Anna Bajde, 22, is from Austria and plays in Germany for Vfb Suhl Lotto Thüringen.

“Suhl is located in the eastern part of Germany and it is one of the oldest cities (the average age of people living here is 50 and it is still rising). It is a small city and hardly anyone knows about it,” Bajde offered by email.

“Therefore, I can say that I really feel safe here. I honestly do not think about terrorism when I leave the house, I do not worry about what could happen, I do not waste any thoughts about what might happen when I go to places where a lot of people are.

“It has been shocking years for Europe and affecting the rest of the world too, but people should not be afraid of the threats of terrorism. I have been celebrating New Year’s Eve in the capital, where there has been a terror attack two weeks before.

“Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying that we shouldn’t be careful, I am simply stating the fact that we cannot live in a world being afraid of anything. I really hope you can understand my perspective.”

Tim Kelly, the former UCLA player who runs Bring it Promotions and matches players with professional clubs, just left Europe where he went to Istanbul. He’s currently in China.

“Every time I see another terror attack in Europe on the news I worry about any players or friends I have in the area, but the same goes for the bombs and attacks in the USA as I have friends and ex-players there too,” said Kelly, perhaps the most well-traveled person in volleyball.

“I think its just a part of life that we’re having to deal with right now. I’m just finishing up a trip through Turkey, southern France, Italy, China, and Korea myself, and I just try to remember that bad things can happen anywhere, and you just have to do keep living your life and enjoying what you do.”

Kim Hill
USA star Kim Hill plays in Istanbul, site of several terrorist attacks/Ed Chan

Kim Hill plays for Vakifbank in Istanbul, where among the tragic events was last June when a shootings and a suicide bombing in the airport killed 45 and more than 200 were injured, and 39 were killed in an attack and more than 70 wounded at a nightclub on New Year’s Eve.

“This is my second season here and last season, yes, things were happening, but it didn’t feel like it was happening consistently,” Hill said. “I live on the Asian side of the city, which feels far from all the craziness that happens on the European side. 

“Also the other Americans I know that play here live in neighborhoods that, while on the European side, still are pretty far from the tourist areas which are the biggest target.”

Hill, from Portland, Oregon, is a 6-foot-4 outside hitter.

“My parents visited last year and saw where I live so they were more comfortable with me coming back for a second season. All this is to say that this year it’s definitely been taken up a notch. After the coup in July, I was much more wary of coming back, but what’s shaken me the most was the recent night club attack on New Year’s Eve. The attack happened at the same club that my team had our end-of-the-season celebration at last year, so we’ve all been there.  A lot of girls on my team have been there many times, we very often go to places just across the street from there. Even that very night I had friends and teammates who left the home we spent the first part of the evening at to go out in that same area, with the thought of maybe going to that club. Fortunately for them, they arrived to find the area blocked off, the tragedy having already occurred.

“All that is to say that this most recent attack really hit close to home.  I even see it in the faces of my Turkish teammates, this attack really getting to them as well, not just the foreigners who are an obvious target.

“My lifestyle has definitely changed in comparison to last season:  my teammates and I don’t go out anymore, the New Year’s Eve attack leaving us fearful of any nightlife. Last year we tried to avoid big tourist areas, now we avoid ANY area that is known to be populated by Westerners.  I even feel apprehensive at times going to my local mall.  We think twice about going to big sporting events, like the professional basketball games here.  Basically, it’s always in the back of my mind now, should we try this new restaurant even though it’s in a pretty popular/busy area?  Better not.  I was at a movie this afternoon and the rumble from the next-door theater was really big, and for a moment I thought, hm, I wonder if a bomb just went off in this mall.  It seems a little alarmist, but it’s also realistic. 

“That is to say that I’m not constantly living in fear. My daily routine is the same, going mostly between practice and home and other places in my neighborhood, but Turkey is definitely not the safest place to be right now. I often feel sorry for my family and friends who worry about me, when all they see in newspapers is the latest attack in Istanbul and hurry to send a text to make sure I’m OK. But for now it’s all a part of the job!”

Another European perspective: Mechell Daniel, 21, played at South Alabama. She is from Chelmsford, England, and plays for OrPo in Finland.

“I have no fear of terrorism while living in Europe,” Daniel said. “I am currently in Finland and feel very safe here. I also lived my whole childhood in England and never had any issues. I actually feel safer in Europe than I did while I studied in America. I can assure you Europe is a very safe place and you do not need to be afraid of such issues.”

Former Texas star Khat Bell plays abroad in xxx/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Former Texas star Khat Bell plays abroad in Manisa, Turkey/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Former Texas star Khat Bell plays in Manisa, a smaller city near the sea about a six-hour drive south of Istanbul.

“But I’m constantly flying in and out of (Istanbul),” Bell said. “So I’m there pretty often.”

Turkey, she said, is “ an amazing place. So far for me, I haven’t had any kind of negative activity. It’s fun, I’m enjoying the people, and the culture and the environment. I love it. I’m really enjoying it.”

Bell played in Korea last year. She got to Turkey in August and went back home twice, in the fall for her sister’s wedding and then for the holidays.

“One thing for me is that there’s stuff going around everywhere and I can’t be afraid. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” Bell said.

But she admitted that she has had frank conversations with teammates and other players, asking, “What’s it gonna take for us to say ‘We can’t play anymore, we have to go home?’

“We don’t know what that would be.”

Fairs did. She left her Maltepe Yali team in Istanbul in early January and is now in Puerto Rico, and playing for Aibonito, just more than an hour’s drive south of San Juan.

“It’s not safe where I was,” said Fairs, a product of Houston whose bio when she was at Louisville included “Post College Ambition: Play Overseas.”

She said she got more information from people back home, like her parents.

“I was really close to everything. I know other girls stayed, but I think their clubs were taking better care of them.” said Fairs, the only American on her team. “My club was not good about that kind of thing. So I just thought it was just better to leave the situation.”

Basketball player Sugar Rodgers left, too: This is from a story by The Associated Press:

The New York Liberty guard traveled to Turkey this past fall after the WNBA season ended to play basketball there. She had spent a few years bouncing around other foreign leagues, then signed with Osmaniye — a team about two hours from the Syrian border.

The former Georgetown player lasted a month in the country town where she was living before returning to Virginia in November.

“I heard about a bombing that killed 17 people about two hours away and right there I was like I don’t want to stay,” Rodgers said. “The government shut off all lines of communication so I couldn’t get on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp. It was pretty scary not to be able to communicate with anyone.”

Rodgers was one of about two dozen WNBA players playing this winter in Turkey. For years, the 14-team Turkish league has provided the opportunity for players to supplement their WNBA incomes in the offseason, offering salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — sometimes more than three times what they make in the U.S.-based league.

The story also included Americans who have stayed to play basketball in Turkey, including Shavonte Zellous, another Liberty player who played at Pittsburgh and is from Orlando.

Former Florida State player Nicole Walch
Former Florida State player Nicole Walch

Speaking of Orlando, Nicole Walch is from Stuart, a little more than two hour’s drive away.

Walch plays in Berlin, where a Christmas-market terrorist attack when a truck was driven into a crowd killed 12 and injured five times more.

“This is my first full season abroad. I played the spring of 2016 in Puerto Rico right after graduating from FSU and I love Berlin,” Walch said. “It is a great city to be in for me because I love how there is so much to do and the German league is fun but still competitive.

“My teammates are great and I even have one of my best friends from home on my team as well.”

That’s former FSU setter Sarah Wickstrom, also from Stuart, Fla., who is in her second year in Berlin. Wickstrom, Walch said, had planned to go to the market the day after the attack.

“It’s nice to have someone that knows the city as well as a good friend,” Walch said.

“Before the Christmas market got attacked and I was coming here, my family and friends were always telling me to be cautious. That the world in general is not safe right now, not specifically Berlin, but just to be cautious. My mom is always texting me and calling saying the same thing, to avoid crowded areas and if you do go to them, just be aware of your surroundings. That is a very hard thing to do.

“It’s not like any of the people in the Christmas market could run away from a huge semi truck coming through the gates. So it’s more about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luckily for me, I was in Florida. None of my friends or teammates were there either. I did receive a lot of texts and calls of people wondering if I was OK, because I had just gotten back into the States. Even some of the other Americans from Germany reached out and asked if I was safe, which was very kind.”

In an eerie foreboding, Walch said when one of the first weekends that the market opened, she and some teammates visited to check it out and it wasn’t crowded but a German teammate told her they were afraid of ISIS attacking.

“I was a little concerned and wondering why we were there in that moment if that is what she thought, but she reassured me that these concerns happen all the time and that we couldn’t not come to the markets just because we were afraid. That is how I feel, you can’t live your life being scared of what could happen. So my friend basically called it saying there would be an attack, but before the attack.”

Walch said she and Wickstrom talk about safety.

“We are both on the same page that we don’t want to spend our year in Berlin being passive or scared. Some of the other Americans playing in Germany are wondering if it’s safe in Berlin and I always say yes! I mean there are so many bad things happening in the world, you can’t say that Berlin is unsafe. I mean Orlando, Florida, was attacked and that is an hour from my house. And the shooter was from my hometown. So anything can happen anywhere.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here