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    Column: West Aurora’s Lauren Carlini reacts to making Olympic team in women’s volleyball. ‘Couldn’t get the words out.’

    By Rick Armstrong, Chicago Tribune,

    2024-06-12

    Good for you, Lauren Carlini . Good for you.

    The commitment, hard work and perseverance has paid off.

    Last week, the West Aurora graduate was one of 12 players named to the roster of the women’s volleyball team that will represent the United States this summer in the Paris Olympics.

    A 6-foot-1 setter who has had a successful seven-year professional career overseas, the former Wisconsin standout realized a dream that dates back to grade school.

    The news came via email from USA Volleyball.

    Her first call was to her dad, Tony .

    “It was pretty emotional,” he said of Wednesday’s announcement. “She couldn’t get the words out at first. She was shaken, and it took about a minute. And my emotions were all over the place.”

    Players had a two-hour window to share the news with relatives and friends before they were expected at a congratulatory outing for the team in the Los Angeles area.

    Emotions ran especially high for Carlini. Three years earlier, she didn’t make the U.S. team that went on to win the gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that were delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic.

    Her college coach, Kelly Sheffield , was ecstatic when she reached him in an airport on a recruiting trip.

    “She’s dreamed about this her whole life,” Sheffield said. “I remember meeting her and her family the first time at her house. I asked her what her most prized possession was, and she pointed straight up at an Olympic flag fastened to the ceiling above her bed.

    “When I asked why, she said, ‘Every day when I wake up, I say to myself, ‘This is what you’re working toward. And every night, I look up at it and think about how that’s the dream.’”

    Retired teacher Sue Ludwig , who coached Carlini at Jewel Middle School, learned the news through a social media private message from a member of the family.

    “It was kind of upsetting Lauren wasn’t on the team for the last Olympics,” Ludwig said.

    Carlini had several years of club volleyball under her belt when she arrived at Jewel in sixth grade and worked with teammates who had never played before.

    “She was doing things my eighth graders were trying to do,” Ludwig said. “She was so good working with teammates. Her patience was amazing.”

    By the time Carlini reached eighth grade, games would be packed with fans wanting to see the team play, according to Ludwig.

    A four-year varsity player, Carlini led West Aurora to a program-record 32 wins as a senior when the Blackhawks won the conference title and their first regional in 15 years before losing to eventual Class 4A state champion Benet.

    Carlini was named the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year and also ranked as the top volleyball recruit in the country for her class.

    Everything seemed to come easy as she became Wisconsin’s first four-time all-conference player in the Big Ten and a four-time All-American, the last three first team, under Sheffield’s tutelage.

    Her senior year in college, she won the Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in any sport.

    Now 29, she has played three pro seasons in Italy, three in Turkey and one in Russia but plans to play professionally at home.

    She has signed on with League One Volleyball as one of the founding athletes for LOVB Madison, an entry in the new women’s league that plans its inaugural season in January 2025.

    “The first time around and being the last person cut was hard,” Sheffield said of the Olympics. “It’s like a sledgehammer to the head, but she didn’t give up on herself. She continued to work. She chose the harder path. The easier path would have been to throw her hands up and say, ‘That’s it.’

    “It’s never a straight line for even the most successful people. It’s not easy for anybody.”

    This week, Carlini and the U.S. team are in Fukuoka, Japan, competing in the third week of the FIVB Volleyball Women’s Nations League, an annual tournament featuring the top 16 teams in the world that finishes June 20-23 in Thailand. It impacts world rankings that determine the final six teams to qualify for the Olympics.

    “This is her goal, what’s driven her,” her dad said. ”She’ll always be Lauren Carlini, Olympian.”

    Hopefully, there will be more to come for Lauren, whose family already has flights booked to France.

    Many of us will be watching.

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