The life of a professional volleyball player is not all fun and games. Just ask Marisa Field.
The UBC Okanagan Heat alumnus, who also won the CIS national championship twice with the UBC Thunderbirds, is currently plying her trade with Engelholms VS in Sweden – her eighth European club in the past six seasons, and second this year.
The 28-year-old had to transfer to the Scandinavian team from Panathinaikos AC in Greece after Christmas, when her Greek team failed to meet a league transfer deadline for import players. The fumble left Field on the outside looking in — and needing a new club.
“Things this season have been a bit crazy,” said Field, a native of Kelowna and former Kelowna Secondary School Owl. “I took an opportunity to play in Greece, and a couple of months into it, things changed. The overall economy in Europe is a little bit sketchy for professional volleyball these days. There are definitely a couple of countries that you have to be a little bit more wary of, and I knew that about Greece going in. I went with it and had a good time while I was there.”
A botched transfer deadline is mild in comparison to Field’s experiences in Spain with CV Las Palmas as a first-year pro. Sometimes players like the 6-foot-2 middle blocker have to contend with their own team’s management not providing them with a safe or livable environment while they’re under contract.
“I couldn’t even list the amount of stories from my first pro experience in Spain, there are just so many to choose from,” admitted Field. “It got to the point where I went home at Christmas and almost didn’t want to go back. A couple of days in a row we went without lights or electricity because they didn’t pay the electric bills. Another time it was the same thing but with the water — we had to fill milk jugs with water from the gym and cart them home just to flush the toilet.
“Our apartment was infested with bugs – you never knew where they were going to drop from. If you opened up the kitchen cupboard, they would drop on your head. They crawled out of the couch, and they nested in your closet. You never knew what to expect. I got in trouble for eating too many sandwiches once — that was one for the books. Just ridiculous things that you would never expect you’d have to deal with. My first year was definitely my rockiest season and biggest struggle. It was a huge shock.”
The challenges don’t end at home — some of the gyms that Field has played in have been filled with fans that were just as volatile as the pests in one of her past apartments.
“The most excited fans I have ever seen – crazy, actually – were in Greece,” Field said. “The fans there are just absolute diehards and they are borderline scary. They were absolutely, by far, the craziest fans I’ve ever seen in any country I’ve ever played in. There are some gyms that you don’t want to get too close to because you can’t be sure what they’re going to do.”
As obtuse as these scenarios might sound to someone who hasn’t been subjected to such things, they are all too familiar to the ears of fellow athletes who have also pursued their dream overseas – to the point where it can be cathartic to listen to other competitor’s stories and tell them your own.
“I’ve had a lot of really good experiences in my years of pro. I’ve met tons of people and made a lot of really good friends. Part of the reason I love playing professional volleyball overseas is the lifestyle experience — getting to live in different countries and adapt to different cultures.”
It’s a weird lifestyle,” Field said. “People who play understand it and it’s kind of normal for us. We laugh at each other’s ridiculous stories about what’s happening, but if you’ve never been in that situation and haven’t experienced any of it, people can’t really believe what they’re hearing when you tell them. I was 22 when I went over there, just out of university. I don’t think I would have survived without my Canadian teammate Brittany Paige (Vernon) who was with me there. She was a lifesaver. She definitely helped me get through that season and to continue on. If I had been alone, I’m not sure I would have survived that one.”
Teammates aren’t always just shoulders to cry on and ears to listen in trying times, they also have provided Field with some of her most enriching experiences while abroad.
“The first weekend that I was in Sweden, a Canadian friend invited me to go to London with a huge group of Canadians and Americans who were also playing here,” Field recalled. “I invited my American teammate and my Brazilian teammate, and we trekked there together to meet them. There ended up being a group of around 20 people who were either Canadian, American, or Swedish and had also brought their teammates. We had a huge crew. Things like that trip are the moments that I find get you through an eight-month season abroad – all the grinding days in the gym, the weekdays you spend at home in a small town not doing anything.”
Positive situations like that one have leveled out the more challenging times for Field, who has also played professionally in Germany, France, and Switzerland.
“I’ve had a lot of really good experiences in my years of pro,” Field said. “I’ve met tons of people and made a lot of really good friends. Part of the reason I love playing professional volleyball overseas is the lifestyle experience — getting to live in different countries and adapt to different cultures. I like to take on new challenges each year that I play.”
After getting comfortable with all the irregularities of living in a foreign country, there is also the matter of getting down to business and doing the job you were brought over from the other side of the world to do.
Field’s challenges have not just been off the court – she’s had to make adjustments on it as well, particularly now in Sweden.
“It’s a lower level here in Sweden than I’m used to playing,” Field admitted. “I’ve taken on a bit of an assistant coaching and leadership role here with a lot of younger players. It’s one of the first times I’ve been playing with so many players who are younger than me and who are still developing. I’m used to being on teams with players around my age or older. It’s definitely been a new challenge.”
The young Swedish squad is approaching playoffs after finishing in first place in the league – a key position to end up in, as it allows that team to pick its first-round opponent in the opening best-of-five playoff series.
Some teams naturally opt to select the lowest seeded opponent, while some choose based on proximity and difficulty of travel through a potentially long and arduous series.
If all goes according to plan, Engelholms VS will be hoisting the championship cup in two months or less. Field is still waiting to hear how involved she will be in her team’s playoff run though, as she’s currently dealing with a back injury that has kept her sidelined recently.
“Since I arrived in Sweden I’ve had problems with my back,” Field said. “I’m not sure what’s going on. It’s been a little bit different and more severe than anything I’ve had before. I was playing up until almost two weeks ago and we decided it would be better for me to take a little break and have it looked at while we had some easier games to play.
“It’s the dream of every player who plays for their national team to get to the Olympics. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to go to the World Championships, but that Olympic dream is always in the back of your mind."
“I’m going for an MRI to find out what’s going on and then hopefully we can see from there. My fingers are crossed that it’s not a disc or anything too serious and that I can get back on track here.”
Her back has not been her only ailment – Field has been playing with glasses since 2013, as a result of an eye injury she incurred on the court while in France, although she’s able to play through it.
“I was closing a block and the ball went awkwardly off my wing blocker’s arm and into my eye,” Field recalled. “I was basically completely blind for a couple of days. Blood filled up my eye and I couldn’t see through it. I was terrified. I was in France, and they weren’t too keen on speaking English there, and no one was really telling me what was going on.
“I was scared to death that I was going to have to have eye surgery in a foreign country. They were concerned that my retina had detached. Luckily for me I didn’t have to have surgery on it, but instead I ended up being in bed for about six weeks straight, just lying at a 45 degree angle, keeping my eye dilated at all times and waiting for the blood to drain out of it.
“They told me that if I got hit in that eye again I could go blind. So the glasses are there for safety now. They were a little bit weird to get used to at first, but now I don’t really notice them so much.”
Besides Engelholms’ current playoff run, Field has additional volleyball to get back to when she’s healthy – she’s been playing on Team Canada’s national team since 2007, a squad that is holding on to a glimmer of hope that they will be granted admission into a tournament for the final qualifying spot at the upcoming Summer Olympics.
Canada was eliminated from contention in January at the NORCECA volleyball championship after failing to beat the United States, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico, but they may have found a backdoor to a second chance.
Seven countries (Brazil, China, Serbia, Russia, Argentina, USA, and Cameroon) have already qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament, and five vacancies remain — four of which will be decided at the World Olympic qualification tournament in Japan in May.
An Intercontinental Olympic qualification tournament will be played in Puerto Rico May 20-22 to determine which country will fill the 12th and final vacancy. This secondary event is where Canada may still have a chance.
Making it to the Olympics would be a dream come true for Field, but it’s not something that will come easily. To make things worse, history is not on her team’s side either – Canada has qualified for the Olympic tournament only three times since the sport debuted at the Games in 1964. In 1976 and 1984 they finished eighth, and in their most recent Olympic appearance in 1996, they finished tied for ninth. Statistics aside, Field is still set on achieving her goals, whether it’s this year or in another quadrennial.
“It’s the dream of every player who plays for their national team to get to the Olympics,” Field explained. “I’ve had the amazing opportunity to go to the World Championships, but that Olympic dream is always in the back of your mind. I don’t think any athlete ever feels like they want to retire from their sport until they’ve done everything they can to make it there. Having put nine or ten seasons into the National Team program, it’s definitely on the top of my list of goals and dreams to accomplish. I’m still crossing my fingers that we get this chance in May. If we don’t, then I’m planning to continue my volleyball career with the National Team and play for Canada for another four years in hopes of clinching a 2020 berth.”
"It’s been tough at times for sure. Perseverance, absolute commitment and dedication, and the passion of playing for my National Team has kept me going over the years."”
Her desire to stay on with the club for another four years is largely due to the recent announcement that the national team will be moving their home base to Richmond, BC in 2017.
“It’s was a boost in my motivation and excitement in playing again,” Field said of the move. “At this point, I felt like I could go either way – retire, or keep playing and try and make the 2020 Olympics. I’ve reflected on that a lot lately.
“In the beginning of my career, I wanted to play, see what happened, get some experience, and travel. This year has been a bit of a rocky season for me. Moving back to B.C. and being a lot closer to home and my family and my friends has been a huge factor in me wanting to play again for another four years.”
On the surface, the move just looks like a team packing up and relocating to a new city. But there are deeper implications of this move than what meets the eye.
“The team was in Winnipeg for over two decades and it was great that the University of Manitoba hosted the team for that long,” Field said. “Everyone is grateful for everything they put into us. The gym there is really nice. It has nice high ceilings and all that, but we didn’t always have priority over having that gym while we were training. We’d get kicked out so that various other groups or activities could have it instead, so it was not a good situation for a National Team program.
“For a lot of years, our weight training facility was absolutely less than ideal until they finally built a new facility. [The new facility] was really nice, but it was too late in the cycle for us to get to utilize it. We were working out in an unfit environment. Day in and day out, those little factors wear away at you.
“Now is a good time for a fresh start, a bit of a reboot. We’ll get a new outlook on things and a lot of really good resources. I know the Richmond Oval and the whole committee that put together the bid have really worked hard and are really excited and dedicated to improving things and making our experiences there really positive.
“It gives us a whole new energy and motivation. About 85% of the team is from Western Canada, and a lot of them are from B.C., so we’re all pretty pumped about being closer to home. It makes a big difference when you are giving up a lot of your personal life and family time.
“You miss out on friend’s weddings and big events when you are away. It’ll be nice to be a lot closer to home and have that support system nearby. Vancouver — and BC in general — is a great place to be, and the appeal of it will bring in new players and new talent, and keep the older players happy.
“A gym’s a gym in a sense — but it does make a big difference when you’re training six days a week, all summer for five or six months of the year with Team Canada. You’re sacrificing a lot of things to do that. Everyone does it willingly, but if you can increase the happiness factor to your personal lives, it does make a big difference in training results and pushing ourselves in the gym. It’ll be a big boost in morale and a really exciting change for the team.”
It’s not easy for any player in any sport to make the cut on a national team roster, let alone stay on it for nearly a decade. Field is no exception, but she has managed to make herself a fixture for Canada at the middle blocker position, and is still primed to stay that way for years to come.
“It’s been tough at times for sure,” admitted Field. “Perseverance, absolute commitment and dedication, and the passion of playing for my National Team has kept me going over the years.
“I’ve definitely struggled at times, but I’ve also had amazing experiences out of it. I’ve played with my best friends for years and years. Knowing what I’ve worked for and worked towards with my teammates thus far has kept me going and continuing to want to be better and keep that spot on the team.
“I hope I look back on that and realize that I had a really great run, and all those years of dedication were appreciated. It’s been amazing to be on the team for this long.”