Olympian advises students to best the best they can be

by Jen Wiebe
Garden Valley Collegiate
Winkler, Manitoba

When Olympic volleyball player Michelle Sawatsky spoke to students at Garden Valley Collegiate on November 27 as a part of their Drug Awareness Week, she did not speak directly on drug use. Instead, she sought to motivate students to "live your life to the fullest."

Sawatsky, a resident of Steinbach, Manitoba, played starting setter with Canada's national team. She began playing volleyball in junior high school "for the pure enjoyment of it" and she had "no aspirations to be any kind of a volleyball star."

By Grade 9, Sawatsky was only 5'6" so her coach encouraged her to try out for the midget provincial team. Provincial coaches told her "you're a good kid, but you're just not good enough. And you're way too short to play volleyball."

Not expecting to make it onto the team, Sawatsky moved on and tried again the following year. She was still too short to play volleyball and again she was cut from the team. The year after that, during her grade 11 year, her school team won provincials.

Convinced she was now skilled enough to move up in volleyball, Sawatsky tried out for the juvenile provincial team. During these tryouts, the coach actually told her not to waste the effort in coming, because she wouldn't make the team anyway.

Not three weeks later, the same coach phoned Sawatsky saying both setters had quit the team, and as a last resort, he wanted her to fill the position.

"And that was my glamorous invitation into the world of volleyball," she exclaims, adding that for a second she had been ready to tell him where he could put that invitation!

Playing on the juvenile team, Sawatsky "decided to be the best I could be and to try harder than anybody else. I knew I could be the best I could be because everybody can do that."

Her next step was to play university volleyball. For five years, Sawatsky trained 4-7 hours a day with the team and three times a day with her coach at 7 a.m. Her team won the national championship three years in a row, and two out of those three years, she was awarded "Player of the Year" for all of Canada.

Now, Sawatsky's goal was to play on the national team. When the national coach came to visit, he sat her down and told her: "At 5'6," you will never play national volleyball". Then he handed her an invitation to try out.

Sawatsky said she felt discouraged, but her university coach convinced her she had nothing to lose by trying out. Against the odds, she became the starting setter for the Canadian National Volleyball team and that team qualified for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Although the Canadian team did not win a medal in the 1996 Olympics, they had the opportunity to play against world class competition.

Sawatsky is also a capable musician, and as part of her presentation, she sang a song she wrote for a friend who was cut from the national team just before they flew to Atlanta. As her lyrics indicate, she could well understand how disappointed the teammate felt.

Looking back on her sports career and her height handicap, Sawatsky said: "If anyone would have wanted to take drugs or growth hormones, it would have been me. But that would have been stupid. I couldn't have competed anyway."

"There are a million excuses not to get to your dream," she adds. "Pick what you want to do and go for it."



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