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BY TINA GRAUDINA

In partnership with The Owl Post

 
 

Dad dedicated his whole life to volleyball.

Mom, instead, to athletics and, although she did a little bit of everything, her absolute favorite discipline was the high jump.

Here: I grew up as the direct emanation of their passions, fifty-fifty, and I became a young woman with a heart already split in two, perfectly divided between beach volleyball and the bar to jump head first.

I remember the extremely long nights spent without being able to sleep when it came the time to choose what I wanted to do when I was older.

I've always been a good, sensible, sweet child, and I was so close to both my coaches that the mere thought that, preferring a sport I would end up hurting one of them, kept me from sleeping.

Then, like most important choices in life, everything worked out and I didn't even notice it.

I found myself in increasingly important beach volleyball tournaments, aiming for more and more prestigious results, and before I even realized I had made it, my choice was already in the books.

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Today I certainly wouldn't be the same person I am now, nor the same athlete had I not carried out two such different sports for so long.

I was a big girl, tall but not too tall, and learning to run and jump in the right way gave me already a big advantage over my teammates and opponents on the volleyball court.

And then, as a plus, there was also the mental aspect: that incredible concentration of pressure that is the high jump and, in general, track and field.

You train for three months, sometimes even longer, just for those five seconds on the platform. A moment of perfection, of absolute performance, which comes at the price of a gigantic effort. You can't do wrong, you can't fail, and every repetition is loaded with a huge weight, assuming the character of triumph or disaster.

It's the now or never mentality, which over time I have been able to translate also into beach volleyball and make a new awareness of it.

 

In my sport, it is impossible to have the intensity of such an approach spread over a whole set. But knowing that I can go with my mind to that special place when playing for crucial points, allows me to feel strong and to be clutch when it matters the most.

And I know it's something that may seem worthy of a Hollywood movie, but at the end of the day I live in Los Angeles, and all American sport is permeated by this cinematic rhetoric. Either you accept it or it overwhelms you.

When I chose to move here, to attend USC, and play in the NCAA, the thing that impressed me the most was finding out how the players, the staff and the whole environment lived and narrated their intimate sporting beliefs.

"First place and nothing else."

No one accepts anything less than victory.

Defeat is not contemplated, it is neither understood nor respected.

Back home, in Latvia, to say that you are leaving to win is almost understood as a sign of arrogance, of little respect.

It means attracting criticism and, of course, bad luck.

In the States, everything is hyper-competitive, pumped, and noisy, and if something is in your head then you are entitled to take it out, to tell the whole world. No one will judge you or laugh at you.

I have won my shyness and learned to face the greatness of the aspirations that live in my head. Even if, even today, when I sit for an interview for a Latvian newspaper, I lower the tone of my words a bit, to make them sweeter to the ears of my fellow countrymen.

But now, if I leave to win, I say it without any problems.

America has always been in my destiny, even when I was too young to know it. In the summer we came to visit my older sisters – my step-sisters to be precise –, who had moved here, and some of the most beautiful memories I have are just those in which as a child dad taught me to cycle at the Latvian Center, during very hot summers, lost in the uncontaminated nature of the American forests.

Many years later, at the end of high school in Latvia, I decided that I too should cross the Ocean and come and look for my fortune in the California sun.

The previous seasons had been very hard and tiring, because my daily life was only full of so many things to do and little time for me.

I would get up before 7 am, go to school, train all afternoon, study in the evening, and then the cycle would start over the next day.

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And yet, I've always been lucky enough to feel sport as a game, and the choice to go to college would allow me to continue on this double track and feel like both an athlete and a student, without getting stuck in one of the two characters.

 

Right now, I'm learning to appreciate the States and the way Americans live life, especially sports.

Everything is competition and meritocracy, and on campus, they treat us, athletes, like we're real stars.

Even though I like being a young student in Los Angeles, I can't imagine staying here long term, because over time I'm starting to miss home and everything it means to me.

 

This is hard to explain, as there are good people and good friends on both sides of the ocean. But there is something about Latvia that no one can ever fill or replace, and that is the feeling of belonging.

The feeling of being in the right place, in my place, where even if I don't speak to anyone, I know that everyone is thinking and dreaming in the same language in which I do. I love Latvia and sooner or later I will go back there because that is where my roots lie.

Back home, there is almost a sort of stigma, like a collective judgment that rests on the shoulders of those who choose to go abroad to study or work. Almost as if emigrating was the expression of disaffection or disdain for one's country and what it has to offer. While, instead, it has never ceased to be my center of the world.

 

Before I go back, however, I still have many things to accomplish, the first of which will be the Tokyo Olympics of 2020.

And in a journey like mine, which is full of corners and turns, the strongest desire I feel, perhaps the only one I feel, is that of clarity.

I want a straight path under my shoes, without intersections that confuse me. Because, after so much running and changing, I want to feel like I am led by a specific purpose.

Latvian and a little bit American, volleyball player and high jumper, student and athlete: there are many different things, and I hope they all come together in a single, vivid path.