Certain things in two-time Olympian Elaina Oden's childhood
motivated her to learn how to be a good volleyball player.
One of the world's famous female volleyball players and two-time
Olympian Elaina Oden describes what it’s like to play volleyball with a
“pitchfork at her backside.”
As I procrastinated in writing this story, I watched the television show
"60 Minutes". On this particular show, there was a segment on Carol
Burnett and I really identified with something she said. Mike Wallace
asked her how she got started.
She said that she had done a play in college where she played this
character that people loved. Although she had always considered
herself a nerd, this was the first time she was really accepted.
People were stopping her on campus and telling her what a great job
she did and asking her out. She finally fit in.
This concept parallel's my story.
When I was six years old, my father was home
permanently from the
Vietnam War and we moved from Birmingham Alabama to a military
base in Tustin, California.
The south was very different from the West Coast. I went from being
around grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and almost a
completely African American area to being around multi-cultural
military kids at home and affluent white kids at school. It was a shock that
took a long time to get used to, but I made some dear friends through it
In this new environment I was an easy target for the relentless teasing
kids get for being different.
I was a big black girl who's parents were struggling to make ends meet
in an upper middle class environment. My wardrobe wasn't as extensive
as theirs and I quickly grew out of what I had.
My saving grace was that I was an athlete.
In elementary school, during recess I could always be found playing
kick ball or handball or whatever else was in season.
I was always the first girl picked and usually the top pick of the whole
PE class or sport teams.
This sport experience was the foundation for my love for sports and
forged the beginnings of the competitor in me.
I started playing volleyball when I was in the 7th grade.
I was about 5'10" and 180 pounds. I only tried out for the volleyball
team because my sister Kim had been playing volleyball for a
couple of years and she really enjoyed it. Plus I wanted to see if I could
make the team.
So with my father's encouragement, I tried out for club volleyball.
I made the team.
Since I was playing volleyball for a private club, I would not be
identified by my peers at school as a volleyball player until I could play
for the high school volleyball team when I got to 9th grade.
Volleyball is a sport that requires a good volleyball player to be
incredibly skilled in proper technique. I've never seen anyone that was
good at it the first time they tried it. You don't have to be a great
athlete, or 6 feet tall or jump 40 inches.
All that would be nice, but it isn't a necessity to be a good volleyball
player. I've seen too many people be great volleyball players that had
one (or none) of these qualities. I'm more convinced you have to be
smart, cagey, competitive, have great vision, or maybe even a quick
arm swing. These are qualities I have found to be much more prevalent
in my favorite volleyball players than the obvious characteristics.
For the elite athlete, the timing of the development of these skills and
winning mentality is crucial. If they aren't honed and developed in some
way during the early teen years, they might never develop to their full
Luckily I was able to develop my volleyball skills in one of the best
places in the country. For a time I resented the long hard hours I was
putting in volleyball practice, while most of my friends were out being
But later on, I realized that people my age in the top volleyball countries
in the world were training at least as hard as I was.
Without that kind of volleyball training, I might have been a step behind
in the world standards. It was a valuable experience, but a long way
Because I played club volleyball in 7th and 8th grade, I was ahead of
most of the others when I tried out for the varsity high school
There weren't too many other freshmen that lettered in their first
semester of their freshman year and it was huge to be among the first
in the class to have a letterman’s jacket. I wore it proudly around
campus before my other classmates had earned a letter.
During that freshman year, I was able to play volleyball along side
broke new ground for the Vaqueros winning the first CIF Championship in
The high school volleyball team was tight and proud of what was
happening through the season and so was the school. On game days,
we would dress funny to remind people to come and cheer for us. I
remember going to the Thrift Store with my teammates to buy the most
obnoxious jacket and hat I could find. We really thought we were
Like Mrs. Burnett for the first time in my life, something I was doing was
popular. Being a good athlete on a winning volleyball team was a
dream come true. People who were too cool to talk to me in Junior High
School were now calling me a stud as they passed in the hallway.
The idea that I might be an elite athlete affected the way my peers
responded to me. A lot of them said "I'm going to say I knew you
when...". That expectation made me feel obligated to become
something special. It was as if volleyball was my lifeline to being
Playing with my sister Kim was good and bad. She was a role model for
me. She had that "classic" volleyball build - long and lean and she is a
definite overachiever. During her high school career, she played in the
summers with other elite volleyball players around the country in
tournaments where international volleyball teams competed.
My build was much different than hers and I wondered if I had to look
like that--to do what she did. Regardless of what my weight was, I
made it a goal of mine to achieve the things she had by about the same
time she had. The drive that she inspired helped me to be the
volleyball player I was.
If Kim's accomplishments were a carrot stick in front of me, my younger
sister Bev's talent was a pitchfork at my backside. When I didn't feel like
training, the thought of Bev easily achieving everything I had ever done
made me work hard. Yes, I was the Jan Brady of my family. But I really,
really wanted to be the one that came to mind when people asked who
the best Oden sister was.
The pressure to be the best drove me to do some things that if I had to
do all over again I wouldn't. I had been heavy all my life and I assumed
that I always would be. It would have been nice to be thinner, but I
thought my volleyball was progressing nicely.
I was getting better and making All-Tournament volleyball teams
consistently, so I was getting done what needed to be done, right? It
was always in the back of my mind to do something about it...some
day...until a scale was brought in for us to weigh in at volleyball
practice and some day was now.
Something I had feared came true, but I knew that things worth
having never came easy.
One of my goals was to become an Olympian.
But if I was going to become an Olympian, I would have
to find a way to shed the weight. But seeing this weight loss
through meant that my commitment went from being 3 hours
three times a week at volleyball practice to a commitment 24
hours a day 7 days a week because of the weigh-ins.
Now when I came home after practice, I couldn't partake in my
I learned how to lose weight in all the wrong ways.
As I shared this story with a few people, I've realized how common and
destructive some of the things I did were. At first I had no idea how I
was going to get the extra weight off. I thought that to lose weight,
you had to eat only the foods that were specified on a diet. I didn't
know the concept of burning off more calories than you take in or
making calories count. All I knew was that keeping it on was simply not
Basically I found myself in a cycle of fasting before volleyball practice to
make weight, then binging afterward.
To get the weight off for the next volleyball practice, I would do
everything from excessive exercise to diet pills. I made a game
of beating the scale and it was miserable.
I won't get into details of the things I did to lose weight, but if I had it
to do all over again, I would have been more conventional. I would
have sought professional help, read a book or two on the subject or got
advice from someone who had lost weight and kept it off. I still have
ugly memories of my high school weight loss experiences and I wouldn't
wish this on anyone.
Throughout my 17-year career, I never did manage to get my weight
down to something that any of my volleyball coaches nor I would
have liked. I had to endure things like obnoxious fans at other schools in
college yelling rude things at me, and panicking about having to weigh
But somewhere along the line I learned to play volleyball harder
and smarter when I was heavy because I would convince myself
that the other volleyball team thought I was fat and slow. I was
going to show them that I was a force to be reckoned with, no
matter what I weighed.
Looking back at my career, I managed to accomplish most of my goals.
I was the number one high school volleyball recruit in 1985.
I won a State Championship in track my senior year.
I received a full volleyball scholarship to the University of the
Pacific where I was a four-year starter (and won back to back
NCAA National Volleyball Championships) and started for two
I have a Bronze Medal from the 1992 Olympics and was a
member of the All 1980's Decade Volleyball Team and the All-
Millenium Volleyball Team according to Volleyball Magazine.
The trick...was finding how to be a good volleyball player... despite my
Get more volleyball information on how to be a good
volleyball player from some of the worlds famous volleyball players.
This story "E.O. Learned How To Be A Good Volleyball Player" was
written by Elaina Oden exclusively for the Volleyball
Voices project created and produced by April Chapple. No
reproduction is allowed. All rights reserved. Volleyball Voices copyright
Do you have a great story? Share it!
The Volleyball Voices editorial project is an ongoing work in progress and I invite you and all Inspiring Female Volleyball Players readers to contribute their own personal stories of the obstacles they had to overcome in order to enjoy or excel at playing volleyball.
The purpose of this project is to empower, educate and inspire female volleyball players to become self-confident athletes with positive body images and through this collection of stories to provide ideas and inspiration to IFVP readers that will serve to help improve self-esteem.
The ultimate goal is to create the largest collection of inspirational female volleyball players stories on the web and your help is needed to accomplish this goal.
Are you one of the female volleyball players that have had to overcome any of the obstacles in the list mentioned above?
If so, please add to the collection by submitting your own story of overcoming obstacles.
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