Mary Lake passed through the entire range of emotions this summer while playing for the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball team: Exhilaration, doubt, joy, surprise, disappointment, anxiety, love, you name it.
When she talked about her time with Team USA, the only emotion she wished to express was gratitude.
Gratitude to Team USA for giving her the opportunity. Gratitude to her BYU teammates and coaches for helping her prepare for the moment. Gratitude for a lifetime of hard work that made her good enough to capture that moment.
“It was awesome because it really took me out of my comfort zone,” Lake said. “I was supposed to experience it. That feeling of gratitude allowed me to play free. I’m really grateful for a coach like Heather (Olmstead) that pushed me and helped me to learn that playing sports isn’t always a walk in the park. I’m grateful that BYU got me prepared physically and mentally through competition.”
The summer of 2019 turned out to be very different than what Lake had envisioned for herself.
“I’d probably still be in Provo,” Lake said. “I would have taken some summer classes, worked some volleyball camps and practiced with my team. I would have probably gone to Lake Powell a couple of times. It would have been kind of a low-key summer.”
Instead, her summer became very high profile.
Lake found herself wear the red, white and blue Team USA uniform, competing with and against the best women’s volleyball players in the world. She visited places she’d never been before such as Bulgaria, China, Russia and Italy. She had the opportunity to be coached by volleyball legend Karch Kiraly and former BYU player and coach Luka Slabe. One of only three college players on the team — and the only member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — she was able to develop lifetime friendships with the USA’s top players and discuss views on life.
“I learned so much from them,” Lake said. “Those girls are awesome. They are pros. Being able to hear their perspectives about life was really valuable. I was able to give them some insight on my religion and beliefs. They asked me questions and because of my religion classes at BYU, I think I was able to give them appropriate answers. I’m grateful for the chance to express my faith. How they view life and work was pretty cool.”
Lake’s whirlwind summer began in early May when the two-time West Coast Conference Defender of the Year was named to Team USA’s preliminary roster. After making the travel team as one of two liberos, Lake was off to Bulgaria on her adventure in the FIVB Volleyball Nation’s League.
The first time she put on the USA jersey for a match was a special moment.
“I felt a lot of patriotism,” Lake said. “I’d never played at this level before and it was awesome to be able to represent the country that I love. Being abroad for two months, I really missed my country and being there for the Fourth of July. I was just feeling so grateful for my country and how kind people are in America. I really felt like I was representing that, trying to express my gratitude in my play.”
The cultural experience was unique for Lake, who said she loved Bulgaria and Italy the most. As one of the youngest players on the roster, her older teammates looked out for her. She had a difficult time in Russia, where her passport was stolen. She spent a long, lonely night in the airport while things were sorted out before she flew back to California to train that week.
Slabe provided a bit of a lifeline as Lake adjusted to her new environment.
“I knew him a little bit when he was there with the men’s team and I knew he was a really good coach,” Lake said. “I loved being with Luka on the trip. Being able to talk to someone about BYU and what I was missing on campus, he was really supportive. I felt really connected with him.”
Team USA posted a 12-3 record in the preliminary round to earn a spot in the VNL Finals in China. There, the Americans defeated Poland, Brazil and China to reach the championship on July 7. In a rematch with Brazil, Team USA fell behind two games to none but rallied for a 3-2 victory and the VNL title for the second straight year.
In two months with the team, Lake contributed 44 digs and 134 receptions in 24 sets of play. Team USA starter Megan Courtney was named the VNL’s best libero at the conclusion of the tournament, so Lake’s reps were limited. But she stepped up when she had the opportunity to contribute.
“The most valuable thing I learned was that even at this high level, it’s not always smooth sailing,” Lake said. “There’s always going to be problem solving and figuring stuff out about yourself. I learned you should never feel shame when the season isn’t going perfectly. Volleyball is like life in that it’s hard sometimes.”
Lake will rejoin the Cougars in mid-August to get ready for her senior season, but her busy summer isn’t over yet. After a quick visit with family and friends, Lake is headed to Anaheim for two weeks of training for the upcoming Olympic Qualifier in Louisiana. She said she won’t know if she’s making the trip until the end of the training.
The experience has changed her perspective on what her life could be after finishing her education at BYU next May. A career with the national team and even professional volleyball feel like more of an option for her.
“I was always someone that struggled – not so much with confidence, but that playing at this level would ever be my thing,” Lake admitted. “I never thought I would have something to bring to the USA program. It was cool figuring out that I could play at that level. I’ve got a lot I need to improve, but playing with them or professionally is an option now. It was cool that Team USA likes who I am and is willing to work with me to help me get better.”