Sept. 24, 2009
By Larry Watts
The French Connection is back and healthy. And that's bad news for Ohio State volleyball opponents.
After two seasons battling ankle problems, including a torn calf muscle, Anna Szerszen is getting back into the swing of things. Polish-born and raised in Conflans Ste. Hen, France, the 6-foot-3 outside hitter is one of the prime reasons the Buckeyes are off to a blazing 12-1 start and eager to put last year's 12-20 finish (3-17 Big Ten) behind them.
After a brilliant start to her Ohio State career in 2006, when she collected double-figure kills in 24 matches and was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team, Szerszen has been struggling to get back on track. Joining the Buckeyes late in her sophomore year due to her obligations with the French Senior National Team, she sprained her ankle and then tore a calf muscle.
"I tried to come back too quickly and then sprained my ankle again," says Szerszen, who was limited to 16 matches during Jim Stone's final season coaching the Buckeyes. Ohio State would finish 13-16 (7-13 Big Ten).
The ankle problems would persist the following year. Limited to nine starts, including a season-high 18 kills at Michigan State, in the first 18 matches, she was shut down and underwent surgery to tighten up the ligaments in her left ankle.
"I've been injured for half of my career at Ohio State, so I'm looking forward to coming back and having two healthy seasons," says Szerszen, who is also using the redshirt year to complete her MBA program.
A standout performer on both the Junior National and Senior National teams in France, Szerszen used the word "opportunity" a lot when describing her journey to Columbus. Raised in a volleyball family, her mother, Magdalena, was a club volleyball player in Poland before studying medicine while her father, Jacek, was a professional player for 10 years in Poland, where he won two national championships, and then moved the family to France so he could play professionally another 14 years. Her 12-year-old brother, Nicolas, has already played on three French Cup champions. Her father has been her personal coach and role model.
"It was my junior year of high school when I first got a scholarship offer from Ohio State," she says. "I didn't know anything about United States universities or sports teams at the time, but I did some research.
"Then during my senior year of high school I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do because I had been playing volleyball at such a high level for such a long time. But combining a high level of studying after high school with a high level of volleyball in France is very hard to do. What I found out through my research was the American system is very encouraging and supports its students through both academics and athletics."
It was in March of her senior year when former assistant coach Jamie Holmes paid a visit to Szerszen's home. The French phenom was still weighing the pros and cons of a life-changing decision.
"My mom always told me this would be my decision, but she also advised me that the worst thing in life was to have regrets," Szerszen says. "Before I left I had two offers to play professionally and they almost took my hand to sign the papers. But I can always play professionally when I return to France.
"I was scared to death to come here as a 17-year-old. My mother told me to think five years from now and would I be asking myself, 'Why did I not try this? Why did I not go for it?' I was young and had a long time in front of me."
Perhaps the clincher was how Szerszen conducted herself during Holmes' visit. Since her parents do not speak English, Szerszen, who speaks Polish, French, English and a little German, had to handle all the translation between the coach and her parents.
"After the coach left, my mother told me, 'I think you are ready. I saw you speaking to that woman and I will sleep well at night knowing you are over there because language isn't going to be an obstacle for you,"' she says. "My mother could see I was very comfortable with the language, which is a lot better now, and dealing with situations I wasn't familiar with.
"There aren't many international players in the Big Ten and Ohio State was the only school to offer me a scholarship. I saw this not only as an opportunity to improve my English, but a great opportunity to learn a new culture. To play volleyball for free was a great opportunity."
Szerszen's first impressions of the United States were, "Everything is so big! The buildings are bigger, the houses are bigger, the gyms are bigger and the streets are so much bigger," she says. "And the portions at the restaurants are bigger!
"We don't have take-away boxes in France because the food portions are so much smaller. I was eating leftovers one day while talking to my mother and she asked me what I was eating. I had to explain to her what a doggie bag is."
And Szerszen also discovered Ohio State is very big and the crowds at volleyball matches are much bigger than those she was used to playing in front of.
"Men's volleyball is very popular in France, but the women seem to be left out," she says. "I might have played in front of 1,000 to 2,000 people with my national team in France, but when I came here and we made the Sweet 16 in Seattle my freshman year, we were playing in front of something like 10,000 people. That was such a great experience and made my decision even more memorable.
"Coach Stone would always tell us 'to enjoy the moment. When you get out of here, there won't be 10,000 people coming to see you do what you love doing.' Not a lot of people would have this opportunity in life and could say they did this. It was a chance to show our passion for the sport to the people. It was amazing!"
Although Stone and his coaching staff left after her sophomore season, Szerszen said she never felt abandoned.
"How I pictured the university was that staff and team," she says. "But I had already experienced change with some of the seniors I had grown close to moving on through graduation. The coaching was just another change.
"When those relationships are gone, you learn to take away what is best from them and move on. You can always stay in touch with good friends. We were all excited about having a new coach (Geoff Carlston) and the opportunity to develop new leadership.
"When you come from a foreign country, like I did, you have nothing," she added. "You learn to build relationships outside of volleyball and get to know other people. I have my own apartment and have learned to adapt; that's just how life works. I have built a relationship with a Polish family in Columbus and I have learned to count on them when needed."
Szerszen says she has been adjusting well to the different style of play in the United States.
"In Europe, I would say there is much more fight at the net," she says. "Players are taller and they just hit the ball as hard as they can. Here, it gets a little frustrating because the back row people may be shorter, but they are much better on defense, so they are always digging out a lot of your shots.
"We don't have many subs in France, so the tall people have to play the back row and they don't dig very well because it's so much harder for us 6-foot-3 people to bend down. I don't play the back row very often here, but I am learning to move those long legs a little quicker. The speed of the game in the United States is much more of a challenge."
A three-time Ohio State Scholar-Athlete and two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, Szerszen says she plans to return to France to play professionally and also obtain a European diploma, which would probably take a year.
"I just think it would be good to have a European diploma on my resume also," she says. "But right now I'm just focused on short-term goals and that means my MBA and Ohio State volleyball. When the opportunity finally comes, I think I will be able to do a lot of things."
And if there is one thing Szerszen has proved, she is never one to back off on an opportunity.