17 Aug 2019

Veteran volleyballer has seen the haves and have nots

5:35 am on 17 August 2019

New Zealand women's volleyballer Lauren Fleury has seen how the other half lives.

Lauren Fleury celebrates with the Volley Ferns. As the libero, the defensive specialist, Fleury will be seen prowling the back court in a different coloured top.

Lauren Fleury celebrates with the Volley Ferns. As the libero, the defensive specialist, Fleury will be seen prowling the back court in a different coloured top. Photo: Supplied

She's the most senior member of the New Zealand women's volleyball team that's about to compete in the Asian Championships in South Korea, which doubles as an Olympic qualification tournament.

The Volley Ferns are unlikely to make headlines back in New Zealand, with the sport never really having any media pull here.

They are also funding their own way.

But as one of the most popular sports in the world, Fleury knows what it's like to play in an environment when you're given the resources to be the best you can be.

Fleury grew up in Tauranga - one of the strongholds of the sport in New Zealand.

In her last year of high-school she was spotted by scouts when her college team made the final of the Australian Schools Cup.

"They started talking to me, I didn't really think much of it and then after Christmas, I started getting a lot of stuff in the mail from schools in America."

At that time it had been a while since another Kiwi had gone over so there wasn't really anyone for her to talk to but Fleury thought it was an opportunity she should grab.

So in 2002 she went to America on a four-year scholarship which paid for everything from fees to food.

She arrived at McNeese State University in Louisiana for what was an intense initiation into the machinery of American college sport.

Fleury had been given a fitness and conditioning programme for the two months before she went over, but nothing could quite prepare her for what was to come.

"The first two weeks were pre-season so it was two or three trainings a day, anywhere from six to eight hours a day. Then during season, we would train most days in the afternoon for three hours. Some days we would have weights or conditioning on top of that. We played three days a week so Sunday was the only day we had off.

"You feel how much higher the intensity, skill and fitness level is. On the first day I realized it was a massive step up from anything I'd played before."

Fleury was in the starting line-up for her first match in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and had access to resources she'd never had before.

"Even the little things, like you know you didn't have to pay for strapping tape. If you wanted to get anything taped or strapped before anything, whether it be a practice or game, you just turn up and it's done for you. You've got doctors and physios at your disposal and there's just heaps of resources and facilities."

Fleury said the team inevitably lived out of each other's pockets.

"You just spend so much time with your teammates. But it shows when you're out on the court. When you play against other teams, you can actually tell if they don't really like each other off the court. It is a lot of work and it's a lot of physical and mental kind of pain. So you really want to know that you've got the support of your teammates, when you're sort of going through that every single day."

NZ volleyballer Lauren Fleury setting the ball.

NZ volleyballer Lauren Fleury setting the ball. Photo: Supplied

The US men's and women's volleyball teams are consistently in the top four ranked teams in the world so it's also part of the national psyche and standards are high.

Sometimes they would get yelled at by the coach.

"The thing you have to remember with university coaches in America, is that's their full-time job. That's how they feed their family. So if you're not winning, they could get fired. So yeah, they have to be really, really tough.

"I had two coaches in my four years and I really liked both of them and I learned a lot from them. But yeah, sometimes it's pretty tough when they are sort of just losing it a little bit. That's where it comes back to having your team and everyone being in the same boat that helped you get through it."

When her four-year scholarship was up, she got an academic scholarship to do her PhD in science at another university.

Working 70 to 80 hours a week at graduate school meant it was impossible for her to play volleyball for the next six years.

She returned to New Zealand in 2013 and soon took volleyball up again in Wellington.

It wasn't long before she made the New Zealand team.

In the 10 years she had been away, a lot more Kiwis had taken up volleyball scholarships to the States, including members of the current New Zealand team.

"It's been good to see more people getting exposure to that level of volleyball, bringing back that experience."

Volley Ferns captain Kim Smith played for the Black Ferns in the mid 2000's, so brings international level experience, just in a different sport.

This year Fleury is the libero, which is the defensive specialist, a position she switched to after a major knee injury a couple of years ago.

Before suffering the injury, Fleury attended the Asian Championships in the Phillipines - a country that treats volleyball like New Zealanders treat rugby.

The way the team was looked after was a reflection of just how big volleyball is in Asia and around the world (over 800 million play worldwide).

"We got met at the airport and taken through the diplomatic customs lines. We had armed police guards, like a SWAT team that would accompany our team bus everywhere. On our last night we wanted to go to the equivalent of McDonalds for a feed and they insisted they come."

And then there were the fans. Fleury has played in front of far bigger crowds overseas than she has in New Zealand.

"Excited kids wanting to come watch and get autographs and photos. So yeah it was pretty different to over here."

The players have again had to pay for everything themselves to get to the Asian Championships, where traditional powerhouses like China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand will be gunning for Olympic qualification.

With only 12 spots up for grabs, it's harder to qualify than the FIFA World Cup.

The Volley Ferns following this week's warm up game in Thailand.

The Volley Ferns following this week's warm up game in Thailand. Photo: Supplied

Fleury strongly believes New Zealand has the talent that can match it with a lot of other countries, but that's not the issue.

"Many of those countries are full time professional - that's what they're doing day in, day out. They're going around the world playing tournaments all the time.

"You could be the best player in the world, but you have to have a good team. The difference at the next level becomes the team chemistry and how well you play together. You need to have that instinctual knowledge of where everyone's going to be on the court. And it literally has to be built over hundreds or thousands of hours of training together. That's why we trained so much in America."

Volleyball has been around in New Zealand since the 1950s but the more glitzy variation of beach volleyball has somewhat overshadowed indoor. There are also other newer sports getting lots of attention like women's sevens.

Perhaps the most promising thing that's happening to women's volleyball right now is that it's one of the fastest growing sports in New Zealand secondary schools. It's especially popular among girls.

In time the flow on effect from that might see more funding and more recognition for the sport.

But for now Fleury is just happy to represent her country.

"Obviously, I would love our sport to get more recognition and funding. But I also recognize we're not the only sport in that boat, there's lots of sports where people have to fund their own way. But you do it because you love the game and representing your country and competing against the best in the world. So yeah, that's just kind of the way it is."