The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
Teegan Van Gunst had planned a fun summer for herself.
She planned to embark on her beach volleyball career, playing with twin sister, Annika, while also beginning graduate studies.
So much for the best laid plans.
Just as things started getting underway, she was forwarded an email from Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Michelle Collier. The email had been sent from USA Volleyball and was an invitation for Van Gunst to play with Team USA in the 2017 World University Games in Taipei, Taiwan.
“Michelle showed me the email and was like, ‘Hey, would you want to do this?’ It kind of caught me off-guard, like, ‘What is this?’” Van Gunst recalled. “It was pretty cool. Then the communication kind of kept going from there, figuring out when, exactly, it was, what dates I’d be gone, all that stuff. We got it worked out.”
Talk about an offer you can’t refuse!
Van Gunst, who last summer got to train for 10 days with the U.S. National Team in Indianapolis, was about to represent them in this prestigious competition.
She flew to Los Angeles and met the team. The group got about three days to get to know each other, then took off for the other side of the world where they’d get another four days of prep.
“There were people from all over the country,” Van Gunst recalled. “There were a couple of other ACC people, a middle blocker from Duke, a setter from NC State, then there were people from up north and out west in California, and Texas. We pretty much had people from all over the place.”
For the next six days, Van Gunst and all of Team USA would try to navigate Taiwan, learning the culture and way of life off the court, while challenging some of the best college-age talent from countries all over the world on it.
Teegan, who had never been to an Asian country, found the former actually a lot less daunting than she’d expected.
“I’d heard that it would be a culture shock and that kind of stuff but it was definitely a really cool experience,” she said. “The people were the friendliest people that I have probably ever met. I heard this was the biggest sporting event that they’ve held so it was a huge deal to have all of us there. Whenever we were walking around, the people were pretty much in awe, asking for pictures and stuff. It was definitely an awesome experience.”
Seeing the nation was as awesome for the team as being seen was to the locals.
“We got to explore Taipei. We got to see Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist temples that are over there. We went to three or four different ones in different cities. The architecture, the detail is absolutely amazing,” she said. “We also got to see some of their monuments. Kind of like our Lincoln Memorial, they have one for their first president (Chiang Kai-shek) sitting up in a seat, kind of looking over a garden area. It was very beautiful up on a hill, so you could see part of the city.
“We got to see the Taipei 101, I think that’s the eighth-tallest building in the world right now -- it was No. 1 up until the early 2000’s. We got to go up there and you can see the whole city from up there. That was really cool,” she added. “Then a few of us hiked up what they call ‘Elephant Mountain.’ We did that right before sunset, so we got to see the sunset over the city. It was a very beautiful view of all the buildings and all the people. That city is very dense -- a couple of million people live within that city and it’s pretty vast. So we got to see quite a few different things, which I was excited about.”
Getting accustomed to being on the floor together took some doing, but the collective competitive spirit helped speed up that transition.
“Competition is competition when you get down to it and if you can train your mind to think that way then you have a routine that you go through for every match, no matter what level it’s on,” Van Gunst said. “There’s definitely something exciting and special about putting on a USA jersey and representing your country. I don’t know if I can necessarily put it into words, but it was an honor to be asked to be on that team, then to go play and represent. All of us on the team had the same attitude towards that.”
After a 3-0 loss to Japan in its first match, the U.S. swept Latvia. They lost a 3-2 thriller against a small but exceptionally quick and strategically versatile Thailand team then won a pair of five-setters against Mexico and Czech Republic -- the latter saw the Americans rally from 0-2. They’d conclude play with a tough 3-1 loss to Brazil.
Getting to see the Brazilian team was interesting enough, but for Van Gunst, the match became even more memorable.
Already without primary setter, NC State’s Maggie Speaks, lost to injury in the first set against Mexico, the U.S. would lose its other setter, Val Jeffery of Youngstown State, when she tore her ACL in the second set.
What ensued made an already unique experience legendary for Van Gunst.
“The coaches said, ‘Hey, Teegan, you’re going to be our setter now!’ I had never played setter before. That was new,” she recalled, adding with a laugh, “Not too many people can say that they switched positions on the international stage.”
Unfortunately, the story didn’t come with a Hollywood ending as Brazil took the final two games, but that couldn’t dampen the memory.
“It was definitely fun just because it was new and something different that I’ve never played,” Van Gunst said. “At that point we were out there to have fun and enjoy our last match of the tournament so we all got together and we’re like, ‘Guys, we’re going to make the best of this. Let’s go out and have some fun.’ Obviously, they all knew not to expect anything perfect from me, setting-wise, so it was just a bunch of trial and error, just figuring stuff out. We really did have fun with that last match.”
Teegan came out with a definite appreciation for the setter position.
“You definitely get a different perspective when you’re actually playing the position,” she said, with a laugh. “All the intricacies and the difficulties of the position kind of come out when you’re thrown into it.”
She also gained an appreciation for Taiwan and its culture and left feeling enriched by the trip.
“It was great to enjoy and just take in the moment,” she said. “If I ever get the chance to go back to Asia and play then I’ve kind of been there and done that before so it’s not as much of a shock, which is good. But I think most important it was the experience. Our teammates, our coaches, we all got along great. I think that could have made or broken the whole trip -- how well we could come together as a team and really enjoy the experience and take in everything. So it was definitely an experience I will never forget. I’ve made new friends from teammates that we had over there, that we’ve stayed in contact since we’ve been back. The volleyball community is broadening with every opportunity that I get.”