One Lithuanian volleyball player's journey from silent teammate to positive playmaker

Once too scared to speak to her teammates, Lithuanian-born Monika Salkute now embraces a new family and a new home on the Syracuse women's volleyball team.

Between sets and after games, the Syracuse women’s volleyball team gathers in a corner of the court. They are often laughing, smiling, or — if things aren’t going so well during the game — discussing game tactics with each other. Monika Salkute, the 6-foot-3-inch, pale, blonde Lithuanian, nods quickly at her teammates’ chatter and laughs loudly when they joke.

A year ago, she stood silent and alone in the corner, too afraid to speak.

“I was so scared,” Salkute said. “I remember on my first day, I was sitting in the locker room, in the corner, and I didn’t talk because I was afraid I would make a mistake, no one would understand me and I would be embarrassed.”

Salkute has little to be embarrassed about. English is her second language, after Lithuanian, and although it is accented, it is understandable.

Still, those first few months of the 2012 academic year—her first at Syracuse—were tough for the sophomore middle blocker. When she arrived in New York in August 2012, it was her first time entering the United States.

“Everything happens so fast here. The culture here, I mean,” Salkute said, shaking her head when mentioning drive-thru restaurants, new songs on the radio every day and people scurrying around campus. “But my days were still slow.”

Salkute’s American teammates tried to make her feel more comfortable. They helped her in obvious ways—speaking slowly, exaggerating body language, using simple words — and offered smiles and support.

“All the time they were helping me,” Salkute said. “Well, helping us.”

She’s referring to the European teammates she has on the team—girls from Russia, Poland, Uzbekistan, whose journeys mirrored her own and struggles adjusting to life in the United States helped Salkute conquer hers. 

“I was more comfortable with them — we were on the same level, made the same mistakes, like a miscommunication.” She remembers her biggest struggle: trying to find a word she didn’t know and trying to explain it to her American teammates. They would just look at her, nodding a little, not unkind, not impatient, but “not getting it,” Salkute adds.

#6 Monika Salkute attempts to block Oakland's #8 Brooke Wadsworth in their match up during the Candlewood Suites Invitational. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

From Lithuania to Syracuse

Salkute, who was born and raised in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, grew up in an athlete’s home. Her father is a basketball coach and her mother is a volleyball coach. Her younger sister is also a volleyball player — who, Salkute notes with a laugh, is not quite as good as her big sister.

“I was pressured to play sports growing up,” Salkute said. “First swimming, then dancing; but in the end I chose volleyball. My parents are definitely coaches. I am still attacked after a game if I don’t play well.” She rolls her eyes. “After every match, my mother rags on me, asks on everything — hitting, blocking. It’s like, ‘Mom, we won and that’s it.’ ”

Salkute’s mother influenced her pursuit of volleyball. Salkute played for her mother growing up before her skill set took her to Zverynas Gymnasium and then to the Lithuanian national team, a stage that eventually showcased her talents to Syracuse women’s volleyball head coach Leonid Yelin. Yelin first watched Salkute play in the 2010 European World Under-16 Championship.

“She stood out,” Yelin said. “She’s a natural jumper. She has good feeling, good timing for blocking. Gifted kid. So I made phone calls.”

Recalling her recruitment period, Salkute wrinkles her brow and shifts her gaze slowly from left to right.

“I was very confused. Someone called me from the U.S. and spoke to me in English," she said. "Coach didn’t have to convince me too hard, but … I was very, very scared.” 

Monika Salkute sits with SU head coach Leonid Yelin. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

So Salkute told herself over and over again how great the opportunity was. She kept telling herself that while she listened to her parents’ exclamations — “they were more excited than me I think,” Salkute said — and watched the jealous reactions of her fellow athletes when they learned she received a scholarship to play in the United States. Those scholarships are expensive and hard to come by for Lithuanians, Salkute said, and most scholarship athletes remain in Europe.

Salkute had the chance of a lifetime before her. She told herself that as she signed the papers resigning her position on the Lithuanian national team. She told herself that when she left her loved ones behind in Lithuanian and moved to Syracuse.

“But time moved so, so slow,” Salkute said. “I thought all the time and I just really missed my friends and my family.”

She tried to take comfort in the few similarities she between Vilnius and Syracuse. The weather in Syracuse and Vilnius is similar. So is the youth culture, though Lithuania receives songs, films and cultural trends several months after they debut in the U.S. The one comfort was the positivity of Americans — an unfamiliar attitude that Salkute embraced.

“And that’s what makes me happy,” Salkute said. “Americans are positive, smiling, excited. I don’t know why. But I love it. I missed Lithuania, but there, people are tired of the old life, not smiling. It helped the transition.”

Monika Salkute reacts to a blocked spike in their match up against the Oakland Grizzlies. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

Salkute began to welcome and embrace those smiles from her American teammates — and from people on campus. They became a source of comfort, a warm invitation to start a new chapter in the U.S. And when she moved in with teammate Valeriya Shaipova, from Uzbekistan, and after Silvi Uattara came from Russia a month following Salkute’s arrival, the over-thinking faded. The opportunity was there for her to take.

Volleyball isn't big in Salkute's native country, Yelin said, so coming to Syracuse was her best option. Salkute agrees, but said she'll return to Europe after her time is up at SU to pursue a professional career.  

“In the U.S. they don’t have much opportunity after college," she said and I want to go as far as I can. But this helps so much.”

That freshman year was tough for Salkute, but she eventually stopped reminding herself about the opportunity. School became easier, though Salkute — who hopes to transfer into the Whitman School of Management — still spends a lot of time improving her GPA. But school and volleyball fill her day, and she no longer has the luxury of time to think about her home.

“I am always excited to go home, of course,” Salkute said. “I was home over this summer. I was with my boyfriend, friends, family, doing beach volleyball. But I was depressed! I wanted to come back and play! I wanted it to be July!”

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