Lauren Carlini set for ‘huge’ VNL finals with Olympic dream in sight

Team USA setter Lauren Carlini says the chance to win a slice of the $1million FIVB Volleyball Nations League prize pot would be the “cherry on top” as they aim to defend their title in China next week.

Speaking to WTMJ Extra, Carlini revealed her Olympic ambitions, aims for the rest of the season and the struggles of spending eight months away from family and friends.

The University of Wisconsin graduate has been an integral cog in Team USA’s machine during the preliminary VNL matches and is set to play a crucial role in their charge for a second successive title in next week’s final round.

“This is a huge tournament,” said the 24-year-old American. “Not only for USA but the world. We have the Olympic qualifiers at the end of the season and then the World Cup in Japan but this is a really good chance for the girls to get experience – and money if we end up winning.

“It also gives the coaches a chance to see how we fit best and helps them make cuts going into the Olympics next year.”

Team USA registered 12 wins from 15 games across five weeks of round-robin action and have been drawn alongside Poland and Brazil in Pool B in the VNL finals.

Carlini, who was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award for America’s best amateur athlete in 2016 – an award won by Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Florence Griffith-Joyner – admitted it’s a challenge playing several teams in a short period of time.

“When you’re playing for your club team overseas you play with a lot of foreigners, so when you get back with USA team, you play with your friends and team-mates back from college. It’s the best of the best on the national team and you get out there and play different styles,” continued Carlini.

“Russia and Serbia will play a high ball and bang it, whereas Japan and Thailand play incredible defense and it’s really frustrating. It forces you to be a better player and it’s so much fun going out to play with your friends in big tournaments like this.

“I knew I always wanted to play in the Olympics and be an Olympian. From the moment I said it and put it in fruition – the second I said it out loud – it’s been driving me. It’s been my dream to become an Olympian and it’s crazy that we’re only one year out.”

Long season away “gets lonely”

Carlini has been a part of the USA set-up since her sophomore year at college and revealed the first time she joined the squad in Anaheim, California was “an eye opener”. She also admitted you cannot “take anything for granted” despite her performances in the VNL so far.

After graduating in 2017, Carlini joined Igor Volley Novara in Italy as she embarked on a professional career overseas and has admitted spending extended periods away from home is “lonely”.

“It’s cool to play out in Italy because you experience other cultures, meet new people and train with some of the best players and coaches in the world.

“For eight months of the year, from September to May, we’re overseas. You don’t get to come home, not even for holidays as you’re just playing and training.

“It’s a long season and when you’re away from your family – it’s hard and gets lonely. When you get back with the USA, you make sure you’re always doing stuff, whether it’s going to beach or just getting together.

“Most of our money is made overseas. When we come back and get the opportunity to earn prize money like the VNL, it’s the cherry on top.”