Volleyverse reporter Zuzanna Dulnik caught up with Team USA and Volero Zurich libero Natalie Hagglund recently to discuss her experiences with the national team, life as a professional volleyballer, her interests off the court and future aspirations.
Volleyverse: Looking at your summer this year: Club World Championship, Pan Am Cup, Pan Am Games, FIVB World Cup, NORCECA Championship – and that’s not over yet in terms of national team duties, because you still have to play Olympic Qualifier in December. That’s a lot of games for an athlete who joined the team only last year. What else could you tell me about your season despite the fact that it looks extremely busy? How would you evaluate your team?
Hagglund: Man… there are a lot of things that I could tell you about our season. It is one of the most incredible opportunities to be a part of something like team USA. It is fun and exciting but also extremely challenging… like nothing you could ever imagine. You can’t just rely on your athleticism or your skills as a volleyball player because everyone in the gym has those characteristics. You have to learn to set yourself apart from others while also being a good teammate and considering what you can do to make those around you successful. You have to learn about your strengths and weaknesses and then relentlessly pursue improvement in both areas. You have to learn to be good even on your off days or even when you are not feeling great. We train not to be perfect but to be the best version of ourselves.
Volleyverse: You’ve brought back home a lot of medals, but you’ve missed the ticket to Rio2016 in Japan…
Hagglund: In terms of the Olympics, we are working really hard to prepare our best team who will represent us. Not all of us will be representing USA at the Olympics. In fact, most of us won’t be. But… we are all a team and we are working to make each other the best versions of ourselves so that when the roster is chosen, those who are going will be the best representation of our team.
Volleyverse: Let’s think ahead – you are qualified to the Olympic Games. Who will be your main rival on a way to the gold medal? In London and Beijing it was Brazil.
Hagglund: I don’t really think that we have a “main rival”. All teams are great at that tournament and everyone has lost to everyone throughout the cycle. We have to approach every game the same.
Volleyverse: There is no professional league in USA and yet your team is one of the strongest in the world, with younger players regularly jumping in to fill the gap after stars retire. What is the secret to the success of USA volleyball in your opinion?
Hagglund: In my opinion it is the work ethic and the opportunities we are given prior to our professional league. We learn at an early age that hard work is a key factor to success, especially when looking to achieve things that some people do not end up achieving. Use me for example – graduating high school, going to college, getting a scholarship for college, socializing, playing a D1 sport, having internships, interacting with teachers and students, graduating college, job interviews, playing for team USA team. Many foreign players on my professional teams never got to experience those things. In fact, most of them started playing professional volleyball when they were very young… LIKE 14 YEARS OLD!
Now I definitely don’t want to say that the players on my professional team aren’t hard workers because that is completely false… but there is a different mentality when it comes to work ethic that we learn at a very young age and develop through the opportunities we are given in high school and college level athletics and academics.
Volleyverse: Your coach, Karch Kiraly, is a living legend in indoor and beach volleyball. What is it like to work with him five months a year?
Hagglund: Amazing. Truly Amazing. It was funny… the first year I was playing for him he texted me about practice. I looked down at my phone and my heart leaped and I screamed… Karch Kiraly texted me! My boyfriend looked at me confused and said, ‘well yeah… he is your coach now’. I took a step back and thought wow… Karch Kiraly is my coach. Damn.
He is so incredibly patient and understanding which is cool because it’s Karch Kiraly and he was the best player in the world. He could just as easily get frustrated when we don’t understand his techniques or when we make mistakes because he was simply the best… but he never does. He comes in to practice every single day ready to work ready to invest his time in us, ready to teach but does it in a way that is so patient and inspiring. You can just see the excitement in his eyes when you do a simple technique correct for the first time or when you make a great play.
Volleyverse: In 2014 you went through joining senior national team for the first time as well as your first professional club. Courtney Thompson said that she really liked the way you stepped in during the practice without showing any sign of intimidation. How did you feel back then yourself?
Hagglund: I felt intimidated… haha! I love Courtney for saying that because I was trying really hard to be myself and to not show fear in my eyes but I was definitely scared. I was walking into the gym with people that I had watched on TV my entire life. They were a lot older, they were a lot more experienced and I was no longer the boss like I was on my college team. I was the young one again. I was starting over. I was re-learning the game and I had to learn how to keep those leadership characteristics that I had always had while also following those above of me. I also had to learn how to push away that intimidation I felt towards my teammates and just play.
Volleyverse: With your experience so far what would you say is the most challenging part of the Libero role?
Hagglund: The most challenging part about being a libero is having the pressure of being “perfect”. I often times spoke down to myself when I wasn’t playing well… “Natalie, you have three real jobs. You pass. You set. You dig. How can you not get those right?”. You go into practice and you train yourself over and over again to do the same skill. But the more you question yourself or the more you get down on yourself… the harder it gets.
Volleyverse: You found a professional club really quick and it’s one of the strongest in Europe. Could you tell me a little bit more about your experience in Volero Zurich?
Hagglund: I got lucky. Honestly. I really did. It is really tough for liberos to get jobs professionally so I wasn’t expecting to even get offered when I graduated from USC.
I walked into a great situation. I get to learn under one of the best liberos in the world and get to practice against some pretty beastly players. Our president is extremely supportive and involved, our staff team is wonderful. They really take care of us. They want us to succeed as a team and understand that in order to do so, the players need to be comfortable and content. They do a great job of that.
Volleyverse: You have said before that communicating with your foreign teammates is difficult. Would you decide on playing in Zurich if you were to be the only American in the team?
Hagglund: Yes. Definitely! I have been lucky to have Americans on my professional teams but you learn to interact with others just fine … you make friends outside of volleyball… you learn to love yourself and love your alone time.
Volleyverse: The transition from NCAA to pro league, what was the biggest change in terms of athlete and private life?
Hagglund: The biggest change… still the hardest change for me is being away from family and friends for eight months out of the year. You learn a lot about yourself when you are forced to spend multiple months out of the year in a foreign land without the people and the things you know and are comfortable with.
Volleyverse: What keeps you busy in those moments when you don’t train or travel or play volleyball?
Hagglund: I adventure as much as possible… even if it is just to the city. I like to go to a new restaurant, bar or coffee shop every week just to keep things fresh and exciting. I love to read and I take a lot of photos. I am also making a website right now!
Volleyverse: What will the website be about?
Hagglund: There will be a section about me, blogs about my experience overseas and with team USA, my photography, restaurant/bar reviews from the places that I have lived or visited and also a page where I can interact with people – if they have suggestions for me or want to ask questions… pretty much anything!
Volleyverse: What would you do if you haven’t decided on playing professionally after college?
Hagglund: My dream is still to go back to school and get my masters. That is the first thing on my list. I also want to dip my toes into the professional beach volleyball scene. I started playing beach volleyball way before indoor volleyball, so it will be nice to get back out there at some point.