The Kentucky volleyball team and staff returned from a two-week trip to China Wednesday night, where they combined competition and culture into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Wildcats visited five cities, played seven matches against some of the elite Chinese professional teams and went on an educational journey along the way. The team visited historical sites and landmarks and took a class that began a week before they left and continued in China.
"It certainly didn't disappoint. It was an amazing experience, volleyball-wise, culturally, school, you can't replace it here in the States," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "We wanted it to be an educational piece. They learned a lot of new things, from the history to some of the beliefs and spiritualties. That alone helped them understand that the world is much bigger than us and why we wanted to do this. It was a great learning experience for not only our players but our staff as well."
For the student-athletes, the trip was not only an opportunity to bond with their teammates and get better on the court in preparation for the 2014 season, it was a chance to experience an entirely different culture and lifestyle and get out of their comfort zones.
"It was an unforgettable experience, I'll remember it forever," junior Morgan Bergren said. "We made some awesome memories as a team. We came together, we worked through some hardships together, like the food and getting acclimated. ... Those things didn't bring us down, we were able to get through them."
In addition to the adjustment to Chinese cuisine, the language difference was a difficulty.
"The language barrier, there were very few people who are able to speak English," Skinner said. "Communicating in different ways, through singing, dancing, hand gestures. We wanted our players to be a little uncomfortable, to experience something out of their comfort zones and know that there is a completely different life outside of what we know."
An important part of the trip was the educational aspect. Before departure, the team took Tia Chi and brush calligraphy lessons and began studying Chinese culture and history. Andrew Maske, an art history professor who specializes in the arts of Asia, traveled with the Wildcats.
Professor Maske provided insight and lessons along the way both in the classroom and at historical sights.
"Our professor would give us background (information) and tell us more about it," junior Kayla Tronick said of each historical site the team visited. "I like that, because he gave more depth to it. I loved seeing the Great Wall. It was breathtaking, you climbed up and saw over the entire city of Beijing. We also saw the underground tunnels where China escaped from Japan when Japan was trying to take over. It was underground cities, which was neat. It gave me the chills thinking people walked through the tunnels and lived down there."
Kentucky played seven matches in China against professional teams. The Wildcats went 3-3-1 against the seven pro teams, many of which were older and more experienced than UK's squad of sophomores, juniors and seniors.
"They are pro teams, they practice every day and are in their upper-20's," Skinner said of UK's opponents in China. "The experience and ability to play those games for us was outstanding. Each match was very competitive. Overall volleyball-wise, we took a step forward. Being able to wins some sets, win some matches, will develop a lot of confidence in our players."
Listen to the Kentucky volleyball team sing the Dynasty Song on the Great Wall here.
A daily blog from UK's experience in China can be found at http://ukvbtochina.com/, while photos from the Wildcats' two-week trip can be viewed here.