Above: Bertolacci setting during a Tenerife match
If you think that being vertically challenged stops you going places in volleyball then you haven't met Lauren Bertolacci. Bertolacci – all 170cm of her – has had to fight tooth and nail for every opportunity in volleyball but fight she has and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that she's winning the battle.
Recently she jet-setted out of the country to return to her professional club team in Tenerife, Spain. Yes, not only has this pocket rocket made good on her plans to play professional volleyball she has also landed a spot in not only one of the world's best women's volleyball leagues but also in one of the sunniest, most magnificent holiday spots on the planet.
The coming season with Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Spanish Superliga Div 1 will be Bertolacci's second with the club and her fifth season of professional volleyball after an initial season in French Pro A and then two seasons with the aptly named Fighting Kangaroos in Germany.
For Bertolacci - hometown Keilor Downs in Melbourne's north-western suburbs - the path to European professional volleyball leagues has definitely not been via the path well worn. After getting her first opportunity with the Australian national team not long after the AIS program fell in a heap she realised she was years behind everyone else in the team and had to do something about it. “I figured the only way I could get better was if I did some full time training too, and after a bit of research and asking a lot of girls a lot of questions I found out that Europe was the best option for me. Now it was just a matter of getting over there.”
According to Lauren, what she did next, you should never ever do, but given that she's now in her fifth year of professional volleyball it may not actually be that bad an idea! “I put together some highlights tapes, found emails of every single club in Europe that I could, and sent an intro email to them all. This is definitely NOT how you do it, and do not recommend this way to anyone now that I know what I am doing, but I had no-one to help, no idea what I was doing, and no idea agents even existed...and I'm stubborn and persistent so I just kept plugging away and sending emails,” she says. Initially all her persistence got her were a few nibbles of interest, but out of the blue came an offer to be the second setter at a French Pro A club. Playing in the French professional league isn't something to be sneezed at and despite being equally excited and terrified she jumped at the chance.
Her first experience in Europe wasn't exactly what she expected. Looks of disbelief when she first walked into the change rooms for her first session, a coach who seemingly despised this little Aussie battler and made almost every training session a living hell and a season in which she barely played a set of live volleyball. Where some may have returned to Australia with their tail between their legs the experience only made her more determined. More determined to get better at the game she loved and more determined to find another opportunity in the professional leagues. Her opportunity came at the Fighting Kangaroos in Germany where Bertolacci was starting setter for two years. Now she finds herself in Tenerife, Spain and life couldn't be better.
“Life in Tenerife is amazing! By far the best place I have lived in Europe. It's pretty much always summer, which really helps the joints! I live a 10 minute walk from the beach, and a 2 minute walk from the stadium.” While the island of Tenerife is renowned for it's party lifestyle her club is situated in the north of the island, a much less touristy part of the island. Nonetheless being bathed in sun almost year-round can't be a bad thing.
As for a language barrier it definitely exists but it seems all the international players find their own way of dealing with it. “ I'm not too bad with languages and could understand within the first couple of months, I know what is happening at training, understand almost everything and can hold a basic conversation... but speaking is definitely an issue for me.” Keeping things lighthearted also helps. “Honestly, I know the word for dwarf in French, German and Spanish now.”
She got started in volleyball in high school at Keilor Downs College in Victoria. First came school volleyball, then schools cup, then the state team and then into Victorian state league before her eventual promotion into the Australian team in late 2005.
Bertolacci lists Yoshia Takashita from Japan and Eleonora Lo Bianco from Italy as two players she looked up to earlier in her career. Not surprisingly both setters are not particularly tall! Closer to home Anna Maycock is the player she looked up to. “She helped me from the minute I got in (to the national team) and gave me a lot of advice when I was thrown on the court in those early days, above and beyond her role as captain and setter. I can't explain how much it helped me that she gave me support when I was learning, and that has never changed! Although we are huge rivals in WAVL, especially because she's a South Australian, I tell anyone who asks how much admiration I have for her and how much I still appreciate what she did for me when I first came into the National Team. I don't think she even knows!” she says.
Each off-season Bertolacci returns to Australia to take part in the WAVL with her beloved University Blues. Her four seasons of WAVL action have netted an inaugural gold medal followed by three silver medals. She hopes 2011 will again see the Uni Blues on top of the podium.
She dreams of one day in the not too distant future taking her game to a level where she can play in the European Champions league, something very few Australian volleyball players, male or female, have ever achieved. Given the hurdles Bertolacci has made over to this point we don't have much doubt her dream will soon be realised.
And for the final word let's hand over to the pocket rocket herself. “I'm still loving it and learning every day, the chance to play with great players every day is amazing, and I wouldn't want to do anything else. I really hope that me going over by myself has opened up other girl's eyes to the opportunities that exist over there. Its a fantastic life and one that gives you the chance to play every single day and earn a living, you can't beat it.”