VANCOUVER — In building the most successful Canadian university women’s volleyball program of its generation, UBC Thunderbirds head coach Doug Reimer has brought some of the country’s best and brightest talent War Memorial Gymnasium.
Yet the juggernaut which captured six straight U Sports national titles from 2008-13 has never operated within the vacuum of its own incredible success.
And now, it’s providing a real-life example of how university sports in this country can positively reflect the evolving academic needs of its gifted student-athlete population.
Case in point, when the Thunderbirds wrapped up the first half of their Canada West season in Edmonton with a sweep of the MacEwan Griffins last December, its star left-side hitter and fifth-year forestry major Juliana Kaufmanis, was almost 13,000 kilometres away, fully engaged in her study of eco systems in tiny villages up and down the east coast of New Zealand.
“I was in the rivers looking at fish, catching bugs and doing lab work, which was perfect for a nerd like me,” she says of accepting a five-month work-study term on the other side of the world, one which would cause her to miss half of her senior season.
Kaufmanis, now just over a month into her return, has quickly regained her place within the starting group of the No. 4-ranked ‘Birds (14-4) who open a weekend series against the visiting Regina Cougars (3-17) on Friday (6 p.m.).
With the playoffs looming, her return alone has boosted UBC’s fortunes on the court, and Reimer needs no convincing of that.
Yet on a completely different level, a broader benefit has been gained, and it comes from the act of truly respecting those we call student-athletes.
“The kids have five years (of athletic eligibility) and you can’t just lock them in the gym,” begins Reimer. “They have to be able to explore other stuff and we as university coaches have to be more adaptable because the academic world is changing. It’s not all about just being in a classroom anymore. Philosophically, it’s important that we support that.”
If it was just lip service, those words would ring hollow.
STANDING TALL DOWN UNDER
The best way to describe the wayfaring journey Kaufmanis has made, as she’s navigated her way through classrooms and lecture halls on the Point Grey campus, is to compare it to those figuratively unlocked doors at War Gym.
For her, it’s been all about exploring through open doors.
“I started out in the sciences, then went to arts, came back to sciences and then I found forestry,” she begins. “When I read off my course list to people, it has poetry, calculus, art history and physics. It’s quite a contrast and I get some quizzical looks.”
Yet the sampling helped her find her true fit.
“It’s quite science based, but it incorporates a social dimension,” explains the grad of Richmond’s R.A. McMath Secondary. “I am passionate about environmental and social issues and so it’s all connected to things like poverty and indigenous issues. This degree has allowed me to explore the social side of ecology and biology.”
Yet the decision to leave her team on the eve of her final season was not easy.
Kaufmanis, one of the top graduating seniors in B.C. high school Class of 2012, spent her first season on the UBC roster as a rookie reserve, experiencing the team’s run to a sixth straight national title.
“I thought about it long and hard,” Kaufmanis says of the huge weight that rested on her decision. “I have to hand it to Doug and this wonderful program that I didn’t have to pick between my two passions. Not every coach and not every group of teammates would have been this supportive.”
Clearly, the experience abroad, basing herself out of Christchurch’s University of Canterbury and venturing into the region’s vast ecological wonderlands, was both life-changing and career-affirming.
Kaufmanis immersed herself in the region’s Maori culture, even spending nights sleeping in a traditional longhouse, known as a marae.
“To live in a little coastal town, be part of their community and to learn about their traditional environmental management was beyond cool,” she says.
And she laughs about the fact that, unlike outdoor life in the B.C. wilderness “none of the native species in New Zealand can kill you. All of the animals are really chill.”
A SPIKE IN EXPERIENCE
A five-month respite from volleyball was the longest ever for Kaufmanis.
Yet as involved in her studies abroad as she was, her Thunderbirds were never far from her heart.
“I tried to watch all of the webcasts of the games when I was away because I wanted to share the same collective memory of the team,” Kaufmanis says. “There was already going to be a mental hurdle of being away, but I wanted to be as engaged as I could when I did come back.”
To that end, she sought out any opportunity she could to get some touches in.
One day, at Canterbury, she happened upon a university-aged men’s team, short on numbers, who were preparing for a competition.
Unannounced, the six-foot Kaufmanis approached them and asked if she could train with them.
“I practised with them as much as I could,” she laughs, “but I know they were thinking ‘Who is this girl and why does she sound so funny?’”
In all seriousness, Reimer says he didn’t have to think twice when Kaufmanis first broached the idea with him over a year ago.
“I told her that she had earned this opportunity with the way she has contributed,” he said. “And ever since she’s come back it’s been pretty seamless. But it’s not like she was someone who just wanted to go away and take some classes. She has a really deep commitment to the environment. It’s something she eats, lives and breathes.”
Just like volleyball.
And to that end, a true-student athlete says: “I just have immense gratitude to have gotten this win-win situation.”
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