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BY JENIA GREBENNIKOV

In partnership with The Owl Post

 
 

Sometimes I say that my career has been a fortune.

A simple and magnificent fortune.

I really think so.

I don't say that out of fake humility or to underestimate the value of my work.

Everything arrived with unexpected simplicity.

Everything arrived as a direct consequence of the natural talent that I cultivated with the levity of those who didn't have to do it.

Someone would call it passion.

Stronger than fatigue and more important than learning the basics.

Without it, it’s like having a brand-new car and finding out gas stations are all closed due to a strike.

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Even today when they ask me:

"But how do you do it?

How did you catch that ball? "

 

I reply that I don't know.

I really don’t know.

It all comes automatically.

An unconditional reflex, the result of having seen that exact same ball millions of times, and of having attacked it every time.

Always. Attack the ball before she attacks you.

I am the product of pure passion, and passion is not something that can be taught to you. At no age and for no sport.

When I was a child the ball was always in my hands, as if it were glued or tied to my wrist with a string.

Jenia comes with the ball.

There were no alternatives.

No plan b.

Where I went, there was also the ball, coming in a single package that made us, in fact, one thing.

In the beginning, it was a Super Tele, one of those balls so light that every touch becomes completely unpredictable because it constantly changes its flight.

A ball too light produced an equal number of joys and pains, but at least I was sure I wouldn't break too many things while playing in the house.

Plus, the light ball has the great advantage of being suitable for many different games, not only for volleyball. I also played soccer, basketball, and anything else that went through my mind.

Traditions, however, are hard to change and even in my house, there were two sports more important than the others: volleyball and ice hockey.

 

The first memories I have are the many 3-on-3 volleyball tournaments that my father played in France, on the beach, or on the grass. Seeing him run and jump under the net moved something inside me, right where my stomach is, and I suddenly became his first fan.

 

Mum was also into volleyball, and when she trained a group of kids on Saturdays, I always joined them. I didn't care if I was 4, 5, or even 6 years younger than them.

It wasn't important.

I was only interested in playing and, above all, in dreaming big.

In fact, my sport models were mainly those of Hollywood.

Space Jam and The Mighty Ducks. I watched and watched those two tapes over and over until they became completely consumed because I was sure that when I grew up I would become a champion.

I didn't know in which sport, but I was sure this would happen.

Until my teenage years, I alternated volleyball and hockey.

To respect the family religion, of course, but also because inside of me I felt a very strong and visceral love for these two sports, so different and so alike.

There’s the same hunger behind them, the same competitive spirit.

In one of them, your energy may easily turn into a fight, while in the other everything you need is filtered by the net.

I was good.

But to be honest, I was better at one of them.

I was so good at playing volleyball that most of the weeks I skipped training and went straight to the game. I could do that well anyway.

And I had more time to improve on the ice.

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But as it happens to everyone, the time came for me to decide what to do as a grown-up.

I was 16 years old.

I still remember when my father told me that I would have to make a choice, hockey or volleyball, but we both knew that my heart had already taken that decision.

He saw it in my eyes.

And I saw it in the reflex of his eyes.

Volleyball was calling me. It was all too perfect and almost movie-like not to make me completely fall in love with it.

I quit hockey, which is a sport you cannot do as a hobby, because it’s expensive, it’s not suitable for part-time workers, and I used all my passion to turn the dream of becoming a professional volleyball player into reality.

 

At the time I was a spiker.

Also, because, let's face it, how nice it is to score a point?

Put the ball on the ground, jump over the net.

That year my dad agreed to coach our home team, Rennes, in the top French championship, and I couldn’t wait for my chance.

I knew it.

I knew he would call me to join the roster and the day he signed the contract I was happier than he was.

So, I started training with the team.

Same passion as always, but much more consistency than before, because there were some impressive bombs flying onto the court.

I was the smallest of all and to be part of the team I had to turn myself into a libero.

To be honest, I was only waiting for my 18th birthday to be able to have my first official contract and I thought that on the first useful occasion I would return to my natural position.

 

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A libero doesn’t score.

Never.

It’s like the goalkeeper of a football team.

You only notice him if he plays badly if he misses an important ball.

The stronger he is, the more invisible he is on the court, except for a different uniform from the rest of the team.

I didn't see the beauty of it.

I didn't understand it.

Plus, I’m an instinctive athlete. The weight of every technical mistake stuck with me, like a chewing gum under the sole of a shoe that prevents me from running fast on the next ball. 

At first, it seemed to me that everything was moving at a triple the speed.

I was late on every ball.

In the understanding of the game, in the technical gesture and in the physical reaction.

It was all too much.

With the passing of the days, however, the balls began to slow down, as in a delicate slow motion, and I began to understand where it would fall, where to position myself.

What to do to make the team better.

 

Then my father raised the bar.

At home, the television was always on Italian channels, Rai Sport in particular because it was free, no subscription was needed to watch it.

We used to watch the Superlega and I sat with my nose glued to the screen as I used to do for Space Jam and The Mighty Ducks.

 

“If you want to get there, you have to play as a libero.

If you want to be a real player, that's your path ”

 

I felt the passion burning inside me, just like in the years of hockey and Super-Tele. It was just looking for new ways to reach the surface once again.

In the path that led me to become a libero, a great one, I never lost the deepest desire to reach the top, not even for a second, and my talent has always found a way to express itself in its own way.

Wild and with few rules, first of all, respect for veterans.

 

I keep getting mad for my mistakes, like when I was 16, but now that I’m 30 I know that a mistake is not the end of it all and that if my team wins, well, then it’s okay.

I always rethink about the balls that I missed and I see them again dozens of times.

In my head not on TV.

Because I feel the same as I used to, guided only by the unstoppable desire to play and have fun. The technique has improved, slowly, and I learned how to become a pro, but at the end of the day, when I close the bag and go home, the old truth appears in my head and in my heart:

 

Jenia always comes with the ball.