By Aaron Fishell
Rocky, Hoosiers, Miracle. The Bad News Bears, Rudy, Tin Cup. Moneyball, Major League, 42. Cool Runnings. Everyone loves a good underdog story and former Western Michigan University volleyball player Gillian Asque is doing her best to give them another one.
Gillian had her life planned out for her, and it sounded like it would be a good one: Graduate from WMU in April with a degree in Environmental Studies and Political Science, go to law school – she’d already been accepted to the University of Florida, the University of Colorado Boulder, Michigan State, Vermont Law, Tulane and Marquette – and proceed to save the world as an environmental lawyer.
Then, a phone call over Christmas break from the president of the Jamaican Volleyball Association changed everything. He asked if she and her sister Simone, 24, who plays professional volleyball in Denmark, would be interested in joining the Jamaican national team as it sought to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
Gillian decided to put her life on hold and take a chance at reaching the plateau of sports; becoming an Olympian.
“You don’t have to be a certain age to go to law school and do the other things I want to do in my life, but I don’t know how long I’ll be healthy and able to play competitively,” Gillian said.
Hercules might have had an easier time completing his 12 labors than the Jamaican women will have qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. The team can qualify in a few different ways, but the two easiest ways are to come in first or second in the 2015 World Cup or win one of the four World Olympic Qualification Tournaments. The first step is making it out of the Canadian pool — in which the Jamaican team is ranked last — that features Canada, Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jamaica.
Gillian’s sister Simone is realistic about Jamaica’s chances to make the 2016 Olympics and said making the 2020 games is a more feasible goal for the team.
“But there’s always a chance,” Simone said. “No one thinks twice about Jamaican volleyball right now and if we can change that, that would be really cool.”
The Asque sisters won’t be the only ones taking a long shot at an Olympic dream. The Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, or International Federation of Volleyball, allows 12 women per team and has official rankings for 131 national teams. Of the 131 teams, just 10 make the Olympics. And that is just for volleyball. Twenty-seven more sports will be at the 2016 games.
Gillian describes herself as a strong hitter. She said she makes up for her relative lack of height with a good vertical jump. She’s good at “reading” what is happening on the court and that helps her make good plays defensively.
At practice, she regularly communicates with her teammates and encourages them with high fives after a good play. She clearly takes what she is doing seriously but has fun too. In between points, she sometimes does a little dance.
“I’m very passionate, so I bring a lot of energy.”
Gillian was born in the United States but is eligible for the Jamaican national team because her mother is from Jamaica. She hasn’t been to the country since she was 4 and is looking forward to not only playing volleyball but absorbing the culture as well. She said she is especially excited about trying the cuisine. She is not without apprehensions about joining the team, however. Gillian said she is anxious to see how her style of play will blend in with teammates she has never played with, or even met.
Gillian grew up in Chicago and started playing volleyball in elementary school on a team coached by her mother. After finishing Whitney M. Young Magnet High School – the same school Michelle Obama attended, she notes with pride – she had a decision to make. She was offered a basketball scholarship to Old Dominion University and a volleyball scholarship to Western Michigan. Her preference of school was more important than her preference of sport, she said.
While volleyball paid Gillian’s way through college, it was not necessarily part of her plan after graduation. As she grew up, she spent time in Chicago’s Crescent Park and Dan Ryan Woods park. That, coupled with watching her mother compost regularly, inspired Gillian to go into environmental studies.
She said many of the students in her environmental studies classes came from a more rural background. They were there because they were interested in agriculture or outdoor activities like hiking and camping. Gillian has never done any of those things. She wants to make sure future generations of city-dwellers have the same opportunity to get in touch with nature that she had by making cities more sustainable and closing the gap between nature and city life.
Those who think the world needs another great environmental lawyer as soon as possible should root against Gillian and the Jamaican team. Cinephiles who want to see Hollywood make another movie about a down-and-out sports team that wins the championship despite all odds should root for them. Either way, it looks like Gillian Asque will be just fine.