How Athletes Unlimited Found A Home For Volleyball Veterans The United States of America

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Aury Cruz has been around for a lengthy time. When the Olympian began her career in 2000 with the University of Florida women’s volleyball team, the sport continued to use sideout scoring. Twenty-one years later, the 39-year-old outside hitter had never imagined herself playing professional volleyball in the United States.

Cruz first believed Athletes Unlimited sought her as a counselor due to her considerable international playing background. She thought that establishing a professional women’s volleyball league in the United States would benefit the sport’s growth.

“I thought, ‘This is fantastic for volleyball in the United States and the young ladies,'” Cruz said.

Accepting A Dream

Cruz was taken aback when league officials followed up with her soon after that. They invited her to participate.

“This is what I’ve always desired,” Cruz said. “It was a dream come true to play so close to home. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of this history. [I instructed them to] include me.”

The Player Executive Committee reached out to other globetrotting athletes competing in the remote reaches of the volleyball cosmos through their network. Their efforts landed them on Lindsay Stalzer, a seasoned outside hitter who has spent the last 15 seasons abroad, most recently in the Philippines.

The 36-year-old, renowned for her adaptability and incredible jumping abilities, also accepted a deal quickly. Playing in her nation was a pipe dream she entertained while abroad, one she considered but never imagined would come true.

“I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if the United States had its professional indoor league,” Stalzer remarked. “We could remain here since we have such an abundance of skill.” After you graduate from college, it’s rather depressing that you’re forced to enter the corporate world, find work, or play in another nation. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I felt I wanted to be a part of it.”

How To Make The Numbers Work

Both fans and athletes had concerns regarding player compensation before the start of the season. New leagues sometimes have the complex problem of giving balance attractive enough to attract talent without jeopardizing the league’s long-term stability. Athletes Unlimited pledged $1 million in salary commitments for the 44-person company, including a $10,000 guarantee and up to $35,000 in incentives for each participant by Citrus North Loans.

“I’m OK with the compensation,” Stalzer said. “Of course, there is an incentive to perform well and contribute to the league’s success by earning an end-of-year bonus. It’s a novel structure, but it’s being embraced by everybody.”

Navigating international volleyball’s compensation system is challenging since the sport’s best players earn up to $1 million per year playing in Turkey or China. Still, it can earn as little as $1,000 to $2,000 per month in lower-tier European tournaments.

Tim Kelly, who represents some professional volleyball players via his firm Bring It Promotions, said that the intricacies that compare Athlete’s Unlimited compensation to those provided worldwide are problematic.

“What people don’t realize about wages is that they cover everything,” Kelly said during a recent phone chat. “If you’re fortunate enough to earn a million dollars, you’re exempt from all expenses, including taxes and insurance. They’re flying you over, providing you with a place to stay, providing you with a vehicle, and sometimes providing you with food. You pay self-employment tax only when you return home. The difference between this and an Australian wage is that you are responsible for some of your own bills and taxes on them. When individuals attempt a straight comparison, I believe they are making a mistake.”

Stalzer acknowledged that early-career volleyball players would not become wealthy when they moved from college to the pros. However, they may get valuable experience living in another nation and still come out ahead if they made prudent financial decisions.

“Especially when you’re starting, you’re not in it for the money,” Stalzer said. “You do it for the experience, the desire to continue playing, and your passion for volleyball.” You will earn enough to save if you are prudent with your money. While you’re at a particular location, you don’t have a lot of costs. They put you up in an apartment or hotel and offer you a lot of amenities.”

Players fresh out of the club and college systems, where every need has been met for years, sometimes laugh at entry-level earnings. Kelly said that people usually overlook advantages while evaluating the whole package.

“Some of the guys struggle with it,” Kelly said. “It has to be more about the experience than it is about the money. You may call yourself a professional if you earn $2,000 or $3,000 per month in Sweden or Germany; that’s quite a bit of money to save, but you’re actually doing it to play volleyball and live abroad.”

The Art of Playing the Game

Cruz, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist and member of the University of Florida Hall of Fame, said becoming a pro required a complete mental shift. Everyone is now competing for a career, which may be in stark contrast to your college peers who aim to do anything other than continue playing the sport.

“In college, they attempt to convince you that you have a role to perform,” Cruz said. “We’re going to play a little more conservatively, avoiding squandering chances and minimizing mistakes. When you play internationally, you are putting forth a lot of effort. You are not playing for the sake of amusement; you are playing because this is your work. You were hired to accrue points. It makes no difference who is next to you; you are doing your job.”

Saints Jordan Larson, Sheila Castro, and Bethania de la Cruz raised the league’s bar. It was a tense test on the court.

“The competition is much more fierce than I anticipated,” Stalzer added. “I’ve spent the past six years performing in the Philippines. It’s an excellent league; I like it. However, the average height of the players is far lower than here. This league has a number of large, powerful players. The competition is really tough, the stakes are quite high, and these three match weekends are grueling. You’re exhausted after each weekend, and then you only have three days with your new crew before starting anew.”

Longevity Training

Cruz and Stalzer, both in their late 30s, have worked out how to deal with the physical punishment that comes with a long career. Both outside hitters have shown exceptional jumping ability and resilience during the compressed season, which they credited to their enhanced training emphasis.

Stalzer said that she takes very little time off during the offseason, preferring to train practically year-round, while Cruz hired a new personal trainer in 2016. She said that the expenditure was essential to ensure her continued participation in the game for a few more years.

“The first discipline an athlete need is to work out to maintain a healthy body rhythm and consume a balanced diet,” Cruz said. “You learn how to maintain a healthy physique. While on the [Puerto Rican] national team, you travel four months with the squad and then spend eight months playing abroad. Your body does not have much recovery time, but if you are disciplined with your exercises, you can help your body survive longer. Occasionally, you just say, ‘All right, I’m done.’ I’m not interested in playing anymore; I want to have a family or be close to my family or friends.’ Then you understand that this is my work; this is on which I rely. I must work; I must prepare myself to be fit in order to do the task.”

Pioneers Setting The Standard

Cruz and Stalzer were pioneers of Athletes Unlimited, slated to launch a second volleyball season in 2022. They finished fourth and twelfth in the overall standings. They have achieved milestones off the court. They secured their own Topps trading cards and raised money for charity organizations via their network.

Stalzer treasures the whole experience and hopes that her increased notoriety will encourage future athletes to follow in her footsteps.

“It means the world to every girl who is now playing or has previously played volleyball in the United States,” Stalzer said. “As a child, I adored female athletes in general. To have a league of amazing volleyball players so visible to young children, young ladies, young athletes, and even guys, I believe is invaluable.”

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