Standing on a mountaintop in Rio de Janeiro, the famous Christ the Redeemer statue a few feet away, philosophy major Haleigh Washington was enthralled.
In the distance Penn State’s rising senior saw tiny boats bobbing in the bay of the Atlantic Ocean and skyscrapers rising above the city.
“It was really just a nice eye-opener of how incredibly insignificant we are,” she said. “As an existentialist, I guess there are moments in life where you’re like, ‘Wow. We really are insignificant.’”
That, Washington said, was the highlight of her 12-day trip to Brazil — along with the rest of the Penn State women’s volleyball team — in early May.
It has become a common occurrence for college programs to take teams overseas, combining games and events with learning and cultural exposure. The Nittany Lion basketball team is heading to the Bahamas later this summer, and the baseball team flew to Cuba in 2015. This was the fifth overseas excursion for the women’s volleyball team, which also went to Cuba in 2000 and was in Brazil eight years ago. Fundraising efforts by the program’s booster club have made the trips possible.
Head coach Russ Rose picked the destinations, this time wanting his team to see the site of last summer’s Olympics and the home of some of the world’s best volleyball.
“I want our kids to have fun, to have a good experience,” Rose said. “We didn’t practice one day. … I want them to have something positive to remember. I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh it was great, but we never did anything. We just practiced every day and played every night.’ That makes your team better, but it doesn’t make your people better.”
The trip was a mix of work and play. The tean took part in a handful of matches against teams from pro leagues and against the junior national team. The Lions did a lot of the typical tourist stuff, taking strolls on beaches and wandering markets, but also hit the courts at the nation’s national training facility in Saquerema.
The tour wasn’t without its hiccups, but players took it all in stride. The team got lost on the way to one match while it was in Sao Paulo and arrived late to a gym that was missing something rather important — lights. The match was over when the sun set.
“We were playing in almost complete darkness,” senior Simone Lee said. “That was a fun, interesting time.”
The next night, the Nittany Lions gave flashlights as a gift to the opposing team.
When they got to Rio, Lee and Clare Powers took it upon themselves to organize a sand volleyball tournament — a must at one of the epicenters of the sport. They divvied up teams, separated them into pools, drew up brackets and took over a court on the beach.
“We were very, very into it,” said Lee, who won the tournament with Powers. “That was so fun. We didn’t think it was going to be as competitive as it was, but it was awesome.”
The group also wandered through museums, saw Olympic venues already neglected less than a year later, picked up items at open markets and sampled the local food — though Bryanna Weiskircher was less than thrilled after she learned the piece of meat she sampled but could not pronounce was a chicken’s heart on a stick.
Aside from those rare incidents, it was a trip that was beyond expectations.
“So much of it is a cultural experience,” Rose said. “They got to go to South America, to a country that really embraces volleyball and soccer. Some of the things they saw and learned had to be really meaningful to them.”
Whether it was dancing to Brazilian music on the court with another team, bonding with teammates for 12 days or climbing to the top of a mountain to look out at a spectacular view, the trip was anything but insignificant.
“It was absolutely unreal,” Lee said. “It was a dream come true.”