She’s too young to be their mother, so perhaps we can think of German Sandra Brunke as the big sister of international volleyball players she’s helped send to America.
We spoke by Zoom video recently from her home in Berlin, a place from which she’s normally away more than 200 days a year. Instead, she was home, dealing with helping players come to America while navigating this brave, new coronavirus volleyball world.
“I feel like somebody stole my passport,” Brunke said. “I’m usually flying somewhere.”
For that matter, the week we talked, she was scheduled to go to Norway for a beach tournament.
“For Germans, no way. The borders are closed.
“I’m one of the sponsors and I can’t go,” Brunke said with a laugh.
As it says on its website, VolleyUSA offers “Your first step towards your college volleyball scholarship in the USA or Canada.”
Brunke estimated that there were 105 of her players in American and Canadian colleges this past year, more than 30 in NCAA Division I.
“I follow all of my players. I always want to know how they’re doing, so I constantly try to stay in touch with all of them.”
Since she started the business in 2007, she’s had more than 320 players from 24 countries end up in North America, both indoors and on the beach. Hers is a service that she wishes she had as a young German indoor standout.
And when it began?
She had no clients.
“I started at zero,” she said with a smile. “First it was for me, because I struggled through the whole (recruiting) process. Not knowing how to approach coaches, not knowing the system — there are a lot of rules and regulations — my English was not very good. There were a lot of barriers for me to fight through to get a scholarship.
“I had hoped there would be somebody to support me through the process. It was a pain in the ass for me and a lot of headaches. I always had to go through friends to translate the English of the stuff I got from coaches. It was a tough time.”
She smiled again.
“In that time I already had the idea in my head.”
Brunke grew up in Potsdam in East Germany and was eight when the Berlin Wall came down. She played indoors and on the beach. She had to choose, she said, between playing beach on the youth national level or coming to America.
She played as a freshman at Arizona Western College and then transferred to and played three years at NCAA Division II Hawai’i Pacific (2002-06).
“I was really happy because I could play beach volleyball on the side,” she said, and spent another year another year as a graduate assistant while earning her MBA.
When Brunke was in Arizona, other foreign volleyball players started asking her for help, she said. And when she got to Hawai’i, “More and more players were sending me messages asking if I could help. There were a lot of players who wanted to play in the States and a lot of players who needed scholarships.”
At first, she helped a lot of people for free.
“I wasn’t thinking of it like a business, but the demand picked up. To help everybody for free constantly, it takes a lot of time.
“I was doing my master’s thesis in Hawai’i and I wrote a business plan for VolleyUSA,” she said. “I knew one day I needed to open an agency.”
Brunke played professionally in France, and that year on the side started her business with just a few players. Brunke said she did it for free to figure it out.
But then she blew out her knee and just like that, her playing career ended.
“That was tough for me, because when you train all your life, since you were 9 years old, and they say, ‘No, no more volleyball,’ that was really, really hard, to just stop.
“I said, OK, I need a new mission, and for me the new mission was VolleyUSA. I really wanted to support other players and make it easier.”
She was in her mid-20s and registered VolleyUSA in Berlin, “but that first year there was no income.”
While getting it up and running she moved to Zurich to work for a Swiss professional volleyball team and learned a lot about the business of the sport.
“But then more and more players were sending me messages,” Brunke said, which led her to decide it was all or nothing with VolleyUSA.
“I was a bit nervous, because the income was still quite low. But it was my passion and I was convinced that I had the best time of my life in the States, so it was easy to sell it. There was no better product to sell.”
She told stories about taking overnight trains in Europe while going to recruit or evaluate players to save money on hotel rooms. At first the business focused on players in Germany and Switzerland and eventually added Austria.
Next up came players from Iceland. Eventually she expanded into the Netherlands and then Scandinavia. Now the places from which she gets players include Australia and New Zealand.
Some of her best players in America right now are men. Hawai’i has Jakob Thelle from Norway; Mads Kyed Jensen from Denmark was a freshman setter this season at UCLA; Danish middle Simon Anderson is having a tremendous career at Long Beach State; and Penn State has Norwegian standout Henrik Falck Lauten.
Among her former players are Germans Jonas Umlauft, an All-American at Hawai’i; Tim Dobbert, a German who played at BYU; and Alex Hartheller of Austria, who played at Pepperdine.
Her list of women’s players include German Hanna Wagner at St. John’s; Anna Haak of Sweden who played at Miami and Marquette; Kjersti Norveel of Norway at Long Beach State; Monika Simkova of Slovakia at Long Beach State and now Buffalo; German Merle Weidt, who transferred from Rutgers to Arizona; Iowa’s Edina Schmidt of Germany; German Lea Adolph, who played at Utah; German Victoria Hinneburg, who played at Texas Tech; and Sofie Perrins, a Norwegian who played at Charlotte.
With all the growth, Brunke is no longer the entire staff of VolleyUSA. “We’re a team of eight now,” Brunke said. “At the beginning I always thought I could do it all … but eventually you have to have professional support in certain areas. We have people in IT, I have a video editor, two assistants, one in social media, and another a graphic designer.”
That allows her the freedom to be on the road where she not only sees her prospects play, but meets them, their coaches, and their parents, she said.
Of course, all that travel is a moot point right now. Everything is being done by computer or phone.
When the pandemic started, Brunke — like so many business owners around the world — was concerned.
“It’s the first time in 14 years that my agency has been shaky,” Brunke said. “I always thought it was rock solid. But this is the first time I’ve been nervous about my agency because it’s not in my hands.
“There was a lot to adapt. Some of my players were not able to take their tests (SAT, ACT, English proficiency) on time because some of the test centers were closed. Some of my players were not able to finish their high school exams on time. A lot of exams were moved. There was a lot of improvising.”
She said many players and their families were nervous about going to America and also not knowing what the college season will hold.
There were visas to be had and passports to be updated.
“It’s a challenge. I work with players from 24 different countries and the situation is different in each country. Players from Scandinavia are quite relaxed. They have a lot of space. Norway and Sweden and Finland, they’re not stressed at all. Life pretty much goes on. But players in other countries that are completely locked down, like France or Italy or Austria, they were more nervous because they were barely able to leave the house. It’s quite different from country to country.”
“I was nervous. What do you say, this is my heart,” Brunke said. “I haven’t been doing anything else for 14 years. It affected me a lot. I was very nervous, yeah. There is no plan B. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is my passion, this is my life. This is my baby. I love my job.”