I was born in the city of Potsdam in Eastern Germany. Growing up under communism, things were different from what people experienced in the Western world. My early years were shaped by limited travel and material resources while regularly hearing gunshots, an indication that someone was trying to escape to the west and had been targeted by soldiers.
One way my family and I experienced freedom was through sports, like the Olympic Games. Inspired by a legion of focused athletes, my parents took me to the local playground and encouraged me to exercise instead of just frolicking in sandcastles. I gave sports and fitness my all, and by the age of 8 I was chosen best athlete from all 13 grades in my school.
That same year, the wall dividing Germany came down. My father went west while my mom and I stayed in the east. Besides working, returning to university to study and taking care of me, my mom enjoyed playing volleyball (and still plays). She eventually dropped me off at a Potsdam volleyball gym for the first time. To catch up to the other players, I had to do hundreds of reps setting and passing by myself against a wall, a frustrating task because I badly wanted to jump on the court and have fun like the other girls. My coach Janet Eberhardt remained patient even though I seemed like a hopeless case and my grandfather was endless in his encouragement.
I discovered my passion for the game, and for 10 years I played in a club in my hometown, with my SC Potsdam teammates becoming like a second family under the wonderful guidance of our coach Jens Hugo. Via ambition and discipline, I succeeded in advancing to the highest amateur league in Germany, called the “2. Bundesliga.” I was only 16, a rare feat for my age group, and it was the first time I felt the international vibe, having a Russian coach (Sergej Fjodorov) and playing with athletes from other parts of the world.
Having completed my final examinations at high school, I asked myself what comes next. Quitting volleyball was out of the question, but competing in a higher league while pursuing a college degree could be challenging. Both need to be pursued individually, as combining college and sport is basically nonexistent in Germany and many other European countries. Around this time I attended a beach camp in Hamburg with the national team selection to prepare for the U23 European championships, which was a big deal for me as I always wanted to represent my country. At the camp, a friend shared that I could combine volleyball with a solid education in the USA. And, even better, I could finance my studies by means of a sports scholarship!
I was determined to make a path for myself. I received a ton of information from American volleyball enthusiast Klaus Mayer and had the chance to give Mike Herbert, a big-name American coach, a tour of Berlin when he visited the city. I dragged him on a super long walking tour, but he still sent me his book on how to be a champion volleyball player, which inspired me even further.
Yet over time I found out that it wasn’t so simple to obtain a scholarship. At first I had no idea how the league system works, plus I had to contend with language barriers while figuring out what tests to take and how to get a playing license. And I had to apply for a visa and deal with time pressure, as I was very late in entering the recruiting process.
It was a whirlwind experience. I did well on the math SAT but had a difficult time with the language-based part of the exam due to my then limited English. The paperwork was headache-inducing and seemingly never-ending. I wondered how would I get through all of this?
But with patience, flexibility and major support from my friends and family, I reached my goal. During the summer of 2001, I received a phone call from Coach James Finley from Arizona Western College. “Sandra, do you want to become a Matador?” he asked, referring to the school’s athletic program. “We really want you here! We have a scholarship for you…”
Once I received the offer, I had to hustle like never before to obtain my visa to enter the US. Nonetheless, I was soon ready to begin my first academic year at a junior college in Arizona.
Saying goodbye to my mom at the airport was hard, especially when she passed me her good luck glass prism. She said whenever I’m having a challenging time, I should look through the glass and the world would sparkle again. To this day, I take the prism with me wherever I go.
For a girl coming from Germany, the terrain in Arizona was astounding. All I saw from the plane window as I approached Yuma was dry land, no buildings. “Where’s the city? Where’s the water?” I thought. “Man, they’ve really sent me to the freaking desert!” I was picked up at the airport by a man in a cowboy hat, Assistant Coach Carlton Finley, son of James. On the long drive to campus, I couldn’t stop gazing at the stone formations, sand dunes and cactus valleys. The dry heat of 45°C burned into my skin and I was tired, but my eyes were wide open, absorbing everything.
Carlton brought me straight to the gym, where the team was practicing. Words can’t express how excited I was to meet my new team. Upon seeing Coach Finley’s joy and passion as he led practice, I immediately knew I was in the right place. I got big hugs from my teammates and a girl who introduced herself as Danielle screamed, “You will be my roommate!”
My first walk through campus brought a smile to my face. Lots of palm trees and cacti, full sunshine and many new faces. I was overcome with emotion, thinking of this new land while also thinking of my family and friends back home. Though my English language skills were still limited, my language of volleyball was fluent, so it was easy and fun to integrate with my fellow athletes and students. I was amazed by the vibrant team spirit and use of sports psychology, and eventually we made it to the national championships, finishing 10th in the nation.
Because it was my dream to study travel industry management, I left Arizona after the first year and accepted an offer from Hawaii Pacific University, aka HPU. I continued playing volleyball there for another three years while I pursued my bachelor’s degree. This was a momentous decision, as Hawaii—its powerful volcanoes, ocean and mountains, the fragrant air, the colorful rainbows and the beautiful , caring energy of the island’s people, what I view as Aloha spirit—greatly influenced me. This philosophy has shaped my personal worldview and inspired me to start a business where I give back to others.
At the airport in Honolulu, my new coach Tita Ahuna welcomed me with an “Aloha, e komo mai,” presenting me with a beautiful flower lei. Here I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the planet’s most isolated island chain, a startling contrast to Arizona. Despite the sweet as candy greeting, training under Coach Ahuna was rough and intense, but I’m thankful as it prepared me for life.
Our home games were unforgettable. The gym was usually packed with students, fan clubs and cheerleaders. I always got goosebumps when our marching band started performing and the Hawaiian anthem was played before the match. After the games we all came together, and the families spoiled us with specially cooked meals. For us internationals players, the experience was meaningful as it gave us a feeling of being home.
HPU had students from 138 different countries, and I was completely stoked to be among a group with such diverse backgrounds. I was also involved in extracurricular activities, becoming a member of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, or SAAC, where I supported athletes in all aspects of their lives and organized events. In my second year at HPU, I was elected SAAC president and received the “Member of the Year Award” at the end of the term.
I wanted to continually make a difference for athletes and thought about how I could support international volleyball players who wanted to come to the USA, to make the process easier and help them avoid some of the difficulties I faced. For my master’s thesis, I wrote a business plan about a future venture called “VolleyUSA”. While writing, I knew that one day I would open this agency.
At the end of my third year at HPU, I received my bachelor’s degree in business administration, specializing in travel industry management with an honorable mention (“cum laude”). I then started my master’s in my fourth year, accepting a graduate assistant position with the HPU volleyball team and receiving a scholarship for another year. I completed my studies in the US in 2006, earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with honors in Honolulu. I will never forget the smell of all those beautiful flower leis around my neck.
After earning a graduate degree, I had several options to shape my future. Not only was I offered high-position jobs in the tourism industry, but I also received enquiries from various European professional volleyball teams. Due to my passion for volleyball and my interest in discovering different countries, cultures and languages, I decided to play professionally in France. I consequently accepted an offer from the club Volley Nantes Atlantique.
Besides playing volleyball and improving my French, I still had the vision to make VolleyUSA happen. I kept advising players and, after observing their struggles to overcome the obstacles involved in obtaining a US or Canadian scholarship, I decided to transform my business plan into reality. I began compiling information and writing content for a possible website.
The pro season slowly came to an end and sadly, at one of the last matches, I tore my ACL. For someone who has trained with full-on passion for most of her life, it was devastating to realize that I had to stop doing what I loved so much overnight. The recovery didn’t go well and my plan to continue playing professionally in Brazil, Puerto Rico and other regions vanished. Luckily, I had a new dream to give me strength—opening VolleyUSA.
While working towards launching the agency, I accepted a job offer in 2009 from the professional volleyball club VBC, Volero Zurich, and assisted the head coach Svetlana Ilic while taking care of marketing and logistics for the European Cup. It was hard at first to be on the “sidelines” and not play, but at the same time I was in my element and enjoyed being around high level volleyball. Plus I was learning much more about the business side of the sports world, an invaluable experience for what was to come.
As more student athletes became interested in playing college volleyball abroad, I devoted myself to the development of VolleyUSA as an agency with a unique personal orientation, helping young players in Europe who didn’t realize that scholarship opportunities existed in the US and Canada. The website and its functionality had shaped up nicely and my promotional materials looked sharp, so I took the business to the next level and connected with players as a recruiter.
After recruiting student athletes from Germany, Switzerland and Austria during my first years, I slowly expanded into other regions such as Iceland and Scandinavia, and later the Netherlands, Spain, Slovakia, Luxembourg, France, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Australia and New Zealand.
Upon receiving more and more interest from Australian players, coupled with my curiosity to explore another side of the globe, I decided to shift my base to Sydney after a brief stint in Barcelona. The British Commonwealth system was completely new to me, and after learning a slew of rules and regulations, I attended the Australian junior and school championships in Melbourne and Brisbane as well as the junior national beach championships in Adelaide, Perth and the Gold Coast. I also enjoyed building ties with coaches and clubs in nearby New Zealand, feeling a strong connection to the country and Maori culture, with its clear Polynesian links to Hawaii.
In 2017, I returned to my roots and set up shop in Berlin. On the plane back to Germany, I shared parts of my story with the person seated next to me, who said “May I ask how old you are? Because it sounds like you’ve lived 5 lives already!” After residing in 7 different locales, I returned to my home country a changed person, seeing things with a nuanced bird’s-eye view. I can now speak several languages, a great benefit to the recruiting process, and continue to enjoy forming authentic connections with people from all over the globe.
I’m thankful to have assistant support from one of my former student athletes, Lea Adolph, who graduated from the University of Utah and understands the process of applying for a scholarship quite well. I feel honored and humbled to represent young athletes who belong to the best players in the world in their age group, witnessing their development on and off the court.
Every morning I’m excited to start working, to share the Aloha spirit and make a difference in another person’s life. What a privilege, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be involved in. This is what I’m supposed to do and this is what I’m doing.