The journey of a lifetime for Nicole Shanahan began with a series of false starts three years earlier.
Shanahan, a junior middle blocker, departed Wednesday with her University of Wisconsin volleyball teammates for a 12-day trip to Europe. And when the rest of the team heads for home from Rome on June 17, she will take off for Japan to join a team of Big Ten Conference players touring that country through June 26.
For Shanahan, whose previous international exploit consisted of a Caribbean cruise with her family, the prospect of it all is a little overwhelming.
“I’m just really excited about the opportunity,” said Shanahan. “I think what I’m looking forward to most is gaining a new perspective and learning more about the different cultures while playing a game I love. I can’t even explain how excited I am about it.”
When coach Kelly Sheffield was thinking about which one of his players to include on the Big Ten portion of the trip, Shanahan emerged as the natural choice. And that wasn’t because of her accomplishments on the court, as with previous UW representatives on Big Ten tours like Kelli Bates and Tionna Williams.
Rather, it was Shanahan’s intangible contributions to the program, her work ethic and enthusiasm that made her the logical candidate for the trip.
“She comes in here and she does her job,” Sheffield said. “She works hard, she works hard in the classroom, she’s a team player. She’s very unselfish and provides servant leadership. And she’s somebody who’s paying her own way through school.
“People that don’t play much put every bit of themselves on the line on a daily basis as the people who do play. It’s really hard to get playing time when you’ve got Tionna Williams, Dana Rettke and Danielle Hart in front of you.
“So when it came down to who do we want to go represent us on the Big Ten trip, she was the perfect person to reward with that. I’m stoked for her.”
All that is a measure of how far Shanahan has progressed since her first days as part of the UW program.
Shanahan was still weighing scholarship opportunities with some Big East Conference programs in the spring of her senior year at Oconomowoc High School when the Badgers offered her a spot as a walk-on.
That was a dream scenario for her, so she quickly accepted and reported for summer workouts under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Kevin Schultz.
It proved to be a rude awakening as she found herself in the uncomfortable situation as the new kid in school, uncertain about her ability to hang with her more gifted teammates.
“Nobody knew me and I felt uncomfortable because I felt so new and so awkward,” she said. “My response to that discomfort was laughter, which was not good.”
Things came to a head as the players were lining up to run sprints on the field at Camp Randall Stadium. They were supposed to start when Schultz blew his whistle, but Shanahan kept jumping the gun.
“I kept jumping before he blew it and everybody was like, ‘Come on, what’s up with this girl?’” Shanahan said. “I kind of giggled and Kevin said to me, ‘Nicole, are you going to be a clown or a stone cold killer?’
“That was really the turning point for me. It got me back to reality. From then on I approached every lift as a stone cold killer. I remember a few weeks later I beat Sydney (Hilley) in a race, so that was huge. After that, Kevin, ‘Nicole, you’ve turned into a stone cold killer.’”
Now she’s a stone cold volleyball player who’s about to tour the world.
And even though her playing time has been rare — she’s played in eight matches her first two years, producing seven kills and 13 blocks — Shanahan has learned to measure her accomplishments in different ways.
“I’m a pretty positive person so I just see the benefits in just about everything,” she said. “Just being a part of this program, the culture is something that’s hard not to want to be a part of. So even though I’m not always playing and even though it involves a ton of work, it’s all worth it to me.
“You go home for Christmas break and that’s kind of when I have my reflection time and I’ve had conversations with my parents and my family and they say I’ve grown so much as a person just because being a part of this program has helped build me in so many ways. I’m the most confident person I’ve ever been. Being a part of this program, I’ve learned to be resilient and I’ve learned that work ethic is huge and it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
And soon she’ll have the passport stamps to prove it.
Dana Rettke was supposed to return to the Badgers this week in time to join them for the European tour. But after her performance in the first two weeks of action for the U.S. National Team in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League matches in Bulgaria and Italy, Rettke’s schedule changed.
U.S. coach Karch Kiraly talked with Sheffield about keeping Rettke for another week so she could play in front of the home crowd this week at Lincoln, Nebraska. Rettke sat out Tuesday’s opening victory over South Korea, but she will play in at least one of the other two matches against Germany on Wednesday and Brazil on Thursday. She then will head back to Europe to meet up with the Badgers in Slovenia on Saturday.
Sheffield said it’s no surprise that Rettke, the youngest player on the U.S. team, has made a strong first impression.
“She doesn’t blink,” he said. “Whether it’s big moments or big crowds, she’s not fazed. She’s so hungry to learn and get better. She’s holding her own. We are really deep at that position nationally. There’s a lot of talent at that position. I think at first she was excited to be in the mix and be out there and now I think she’s going, ‘All right, let’s hunt this down and see how good I can get.’ You can tell the confidence continues to climb, which is the whole idea of it.”
Former UW setter Lauren Carlini just recently began training with the U.S. team after helping lead her Italian pro team to the European Champions League title. She is expected to begin play in the VNL matches the next two weeks in China and Russia.