Volleyball: West Aurora grad Carlini hoping Olympic dreams don't get shattered

West Aurora graduate Lauren Carlini is on the 14-woman United States roster hoping to win a Gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She is hopeful the COVID-19 pandemic can be brought under control in time for the games to go on as scheduled.
West Aurora graduate Lauren Carlini is on the 14-woman United States roster hoping to win a Gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She is hopeful the COVID-19 pandemic can be brought under control in time for the games to go on as scheduled.

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West Aurora graduate Lauren Carlini is in a unique situation as one of the few professional athletes in the world still competing.

And understandably, concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic are causing the Olympic hopeful quite a bit of anxiety.

Carlini, who won the Gatorade national volleyball player of the year in high school before becoming an All-American setter at Wisconsin, plays professional volleyball in the Russian League.

Her Dinamo-Moscow team currently is in the semifinals of their playoffs. Those playoffs are scheduled to end April 4, and Carlini has an April 6 flight booked home to Chicago.

But those plans could change at a moment’s notice.

“Knowing every morning I wake up the first thing I have to do is check the state travel and see if they are closing the borders to Russia, is there any new travel updates or restrictions,” Carlini said. “That is literally the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning. It’s a little stressful in that aspect and sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on playing and the matches that we are playing right now because of everything else that’s going on at home, here, and making sure that health comes first.”

Like the rest of the members of the United States women’s national volleyball team, Carlini has been playing professional volleyball overseas since October. The players are scheduled to reunite in May to train for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9.

With the exception of a five-day break to return home for the holidays, Carlini has made her home the past five months in Russia. There’s one member of the U.S. men’s team also playing in Russia, while the rest of Carlini’s women’s teammates joined leagues in Italy, Germany, Finland and Switzerland and have already returned home.

Several of her teammates in Italy just made it back Sunday after a whirlwind trip that included a 350 Euro uber ride to a different airport in Italy, then getting caught in the long lines at O’Hare and missing their connecting flights to their hometowns.

Yet Carlini’s team plays on in Russia and still with fans, though she said Sunday that there’s talk the games will soon be closed to spectators.

“It’s been really hectic with everyone trying to get home,” Carlini said. “We’re kind of carrying on as normal right now but all of us are on edge and aware of what’s gong on and ready to leave if something happens and travel plans change. We’re getting a ton of updates from our USA doctors, our trainers. It’s a little sad and lonely because it’s us and one other league (in Turkey) that’s still playing and open to the public makes me a little uneasy. Just trying to stay calm and look at the facts and not get too overly emotional about it.”

Carlini said if all goes well once the players return home they will all be self quarantined for two weeks. The hope is to start training together in late April or early May in California for the Olympics, which Carlini helped the team qualify for back in August in Louisiana by winning their pool of the Tokyo Women’s Volleyball Qualification Tournament.

The U.S. team followed that by playing a World Cup in Japan in September and finishing second to China, the highest finish it has had.

“Pretty proud of that,” Carlini said.

Carlini said becoming an Olympian has been a lifelong goal, and she’s been on a path straight at that since making the U.S. youth national team in 2010, graduating from West Aurora in 2013 as a three-time Daily Herald All-Area captain, then going to Wisconsin and winning the 2016-17 Sullivan Award.

That award, older than the Heisman, honors the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States, and she was the first volleyball player to win it. Carlini also was a four-time all-Big Ten and four-time academic all-Big Ten choice.

“Ive been wanting to be an Olympian since I was in seventh grade is when I verbalized and vocalized it,” Carlini said. “I try not to think about it too much right now and the possibility it could be postponed but of course it comes to the forefront of our minds that we’ve been working for this our whole lives and we’ve put ourselves in a really good position to be successful, to be an Olympian, and to medal at the Olympics and win the first Gold medal for the USA women’s volleyball.

“And to have that experience possibly taken away from us or postponed would be devastating. By whatever means it takes to get this virus under control and proceed with the Olympics as planned, that would be the most ideal situation because we all know how long we’ve wanted to achieve this goal and this dream. It would just be absolutely devastating if we didn’t get to compete.”

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