By Darren Lum
When former Red Hawks volleyball standout Natalya Gimon made the Dalhousie Tigers volleyball team earlier this year it was a dream come true.
The second-year health promotion student said it felt a little surreal the first time she took to the court for practice at the Tigers’ home venue, the Dalplex.
“I had come and watched games on this court last year when I wasn’t on the team and I watched these girls play … so finally going from the stands to on the court was an amazing feeling. These girls, who I had watched and seen play, I was now playing with,” she said.
This journey for the second-year student had its emotional challenges before head coach Rick Scott told her in September, she made this year’s team.
A year before, Natalya missed the cut in the autumn, failing to make the Tigers roster..
“I was heartbroken for sure,” she said. “It was something I always wanted to do and not being able to do that was for sure very sad for me, but a coach’s job is to make the best team that they can so if that didn’t include me last year that’s at no cost of the coach for sure. I’m just grateful I could come back and that he saw I would be a valuable asset to the team this year.”
Months passed by before she thought of another attempt.
She said it wasn’t until Christmas last year when she came home to Haliburton for the holidays when her parents were instrumental in influencing her to try out for the team again.
They told her if she didn’t make it that the worse-case scenario was that she might not play again.
“A big thing was that they didn’t want me to look back and regret I hadn’t tried and hadn’t done anything,” she said.
Part of her preparation for her comeback included time with the university’s club volleyball team. She played from January until March, when the pandemic came to Canada, cutting the season short. Her club coach was Alex Barrett, who she credits for pushing her to be better, knowing her aspirations to make the university team.
The difference between her first and her second attempt was she was more prepared, she said, and felt more confident.
“Volleyball is an extremely mental game and so coming in as a first year and not knowing anybody, not knowing anything definitely shook me up for tryouts. I don’t think that’s the reason that I didn’t make it, but it definitely played a part so he said, ‘You came back really strong and in shape and that plays a big role in my decision.’”
Natalya said she took on a very thorough off-season preparation, which included weight training and cardiovascular training. With COVID-19 protocols in place in the spring and summer, she only played volleyball with her father and informally at the beach.
Playing collegiate volleyball is a family tradition that she continues.
Both of her parents played volleyball at the collegiate level, which was one of the factors to stay motivated during the year in the lead up to trying out again.
“I kind of just wanted to be able to follow in their footsteps in a way,” she said.
She joins her mother, Andrea Borysiuk, who spent five years from 1985 to 1989 playing for the Tigers as an outside hitter.
Another thing her mother got to share with Natalya was the happy moment, following the positive meeting with the head coach, who told her she made the team.
“It was an anxious one-hour wait until the meeting. I drove her to the meeting and obviously waited in the car. She came around the corner towards the car with the biggest smile on her face. I jumped out of the car and we hugged right in the middle of the street,” she wrote in an email.
Natayla acknowledged a few tears of joy were shed at that moment.
“Yeah, we both definitely got a little teary,” she said.
Natalya’s mother was able to be there for the special memory as she drove her daughter to Halifax from Haliburton.
The fateful meeting came after a couple days of training, the four day tryout, and the requisite 14-day quarantine.
Andrea added she was incredibly happy and overwhelmed for her daughter.
“She has shown great resilience and perseverance to meet a goal. The Dal varsity volleyball program is top notch in the country. It’s a big accomplishment for Natalya and her hard work and determination paid off,” she wrote.
Natalya’s father and her past coach, Dan played one year at Guelph University and then finished out his collegiate career at Durham College. He coached his daughter at the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School and was also the assistant at her club team while in high school.
“As a coach it’s always fantastic to see any of your players move on to the next level. It means that the coaching staff did their job and the athlete took in and implemented what was taught,” he wrote in an email. “As a parent, I’m ecstatic and proud to see Natalya make the Tigers roster. She was disappointed that she didn’t make it last year, but she did make it to the final cuts of a team that was ranked amongst the top three in Canada for most of the season. So we were extremely proud of her even then. She has worked very hard to reach the goals that she set for herself so I’m really happy for her in achieving those goals.”
There are a lot of positives related to being part of the Tigers team during a pandemic her mother said. She believes it provides structure, physical activity, aiding in mental well-being and helps with academics. Without any teams to play this season, Natalya’s parents are disappointed they won’t see their daughter play.
“But we are happy Natalya is thriving both academically and athletically at Dal. We are grateful she is part of an amazing program headed by Rick Scott,” her mother wrote.
Joining the team has meant an adjustment for the 5’8” player, who is among the shortest on the team.
Typically, she was a front court hitter during high school and with her club team, but with the Tigers she will play libero – a player who wears a contrasting jersey and specializes in defensive skills that cannot block or attack the ball when it is above the net.
Her dad said his daughter’s well-rounded game has helped with the adjustment.
“Generally, very tall players focus on net play (attacking and blocking). At 5’8”, not particularly tall for a volleyball player, Natalya learned to be well rounded, and to easily switch roles when required. In post-secondary, volleyball roles become more specialized. Taller players hit and block and the libero position is usually filled by a smaller, quicker player. She is now one of the smaller players so the versatility that she learned early on has helped her to transition into her new position,” he wrote.
She credits her head coach and her veteran teammate, third-year libero Cathrine Callaghan, who has taught her from her on-court play and for the advice she has given her.
Natalya admits to missing getting to attack.
“I definitely miss hitting sometimes, but I do know that I, as a [smaller] player, cannot compete at that level, but I have played power a couple of times in practice so I still get a little bit of it,” she said.
She adds libero is an important role on the team and has enjoyed playing the position.
One advantage to this new position is she doesn’t have to be at the net for hits or blocks anymore. She focuses on just staying back, ready to dig and pass to the setter and covering the other hitters.
Making the Tigers team for the HHSS 2019 Female Athlete of the Year winner provided her a new perspective. It reminded her about how she started out as a big fish in a small pond and then realized when she left that she became the small fish in a very big pond with lots of other athletes. She had an inkling of this concept with playing for her club team, but seeing it firsthand has given her new perspective.
Natalya has been thankful the team has held regular practices, observing COVID-19 protocols.
She feels fortunate to be part of the team, which she describes as a very encouraging and supportive environment, and happy to be able to have a practice schedule unlike universities in Ontario because of the school’s location on the East coast where COVID-19 cases are low. The objective is prepare for a potential season next year.
She said the structure of the program has been beneficial for her academics. In hindsight, she said, it was good for her to not make the team in her first attempt because she was able to make friends and focus solely on academics.
All of her achievements are rooted in the connection she has with her parents.
“They shaped me into the player that I am and were able to prepare me to make a team at this level of competition, which I think is so important we share that as a family,” she said.