by Suzanne Curtiss ’14

Pura vida” reads a wooden sign that hangs on the office wall of Kalamazoo College Head Volleyball Coach Jeanne Hess.

“Pure life” in Spanish, pura vida is a philosophy of life in Costa Rica. A philosophy that has become both mantra and verbal reality check for the Hornet volleyball team.

Pura vida is our team slogan,” says volleyball player and rising junior Quinn McCormick. “It just means, ‘I’m good, everything’s fine.’ We say it when we’re stressed, and it’s a way for us to put things in perspective and remember our trip.”

McCormick is one of the 11 volleyball players that engaged in a K-Plan-esque 13-day training trip to Costa Rica in June, and she was already on site. Coach Hess and the rest of the team met up with the math major, who, since March, had been studying abroad in San Jose at the International Center for Development Studies (ICDS).

The team participated in all aspects of an abbreviated K-Plan, including daily service projects, international engagement, individual home-stays with Costa Rican families, and an intense classroom experience. Hess believes the volleyball court to be “the best classroom in the world.”

Every three years the NCAA allows athletic teams to travel internationally during the off season. In 2009 Hess journeyed with her team to China. In the fall of 2011 Hess wasted no time making preparations for another trip abroad.

She made the decision to stay within the hemisphere and engage with one of K’s study abroad partners, ICDS. Fundraising for the trip began in January 2012.

“I wanted everyone to go on the trip regardless of their ability to pay,” says Hess. “The team wrote to the people who support them in their lives and asked them to now support their dream of playing volleyball in Costa Rica.”

Parents and the community gave generously, and the dream became reality. 

In Costa Rica, the team faced fierce competition, traveling around the country to play eight matches. Competitors included the University of Costa Rica, club teams, the Costa Rica national and junior national teams, and the Athletes In Action Team, a Christian organization consisting of collegiate (including Division I) players from nine U.S. states.

“I was so proud of our team because we accepted every challenge,” Hess says. “We competed with everyone.”

In her book Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, Hess defines “competition” as “to work with.” By working with each other and high-level competitors, the Hornets discovered their strengths as individuals and as a team, and, through the sport, explored both physical and spiritual boundaries. That process, says Hess, is what she means by “sportuality.”

The Hornets took pictures with every team they played with. They were able to improve their Spanish and help the international teams with their English.

“We felt that we helped lower-level teams perform better, and the teams that performed at a higher level helped our team play better,” says Hess. “We had this universal understanding even though we spoke different languages.”

This universality of the game is one of the takeaway lessons Hess wanted the team to understand.

“It doesn’t matter the venue, it doesn’t matter with whom we compete, or the language they speak; it’s still the game,” she says. “We found joy in these games, we found strength in these games, and we found will in these games.”

Off the court, the Hornets found these same values in service with the Costa Rican community.

ICDS divided the team into three service groups. One group worked with autistic and special needs children in daycare, another group worked with the elderly, and the third group volunteered at Franklin Roosevelt Elementary School, where they helped teach pre-kindergarten students English and set up a science fair for grades three through six.

Hess calls the trip “an infinite loop of giving to and receiving from the Costa Rican people,” and states that no one gave more than their host families.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” she says. “We immediately became members of their families.”

Hess became especially close with her host mom, though given the minimal difference in their ages, “She was more like my host big-sister,” Hess laughs. Despite not speaking Spanish, Hess and her host mom were able to communicate through patience, understanding, gratitude, and the translator app on the coach’s phone. In fact, the app enabled them to share some of their most meaningful moments.

“In the middle of a conversation, I would speak or type in what I wanted to say because I wanted her to understand what I felt,” says Hess. “When I would play it or show it to her we would have these incredible moments of connection through technology.”

Hess is now Facebook friends with her host mom’s granddaughter, and plans to remain in touch with the family, even promising to return to their home in Costa Rica. “Next time I visit” she said to her host mom on the last day, “I will speak your language.”

The players, too, made strong bonds with their host families. On the day of the team’s departure, a bus went around to pick up all of the players at their homes. Hess recalls a scene full of tears and smiles, and cries (both delighted and desperate) for the coach to take pictures of the players and their families.

McCormick found saying goodbye to be particularly difficult,
Volleyball is "the best classroom in the world."
having been with her host family since her March arrival.

Before studying abroad, McCormick had not been away from her parents for more than two weeks, and she found tremendous comfort in being welcomed into a new family in Costa Rica.

“I didn’t expect we’d become so close,” she says. “I’m glad I was able to make these connections.”

Hess says she’s grateful to the Center for International Programs for its assistance and to ICDS for going “above and beyond the call for hosting us for two weeks and for providing experiences that allowed us to bond, play, train, and experience the culture,” she says.

She doesn’t know how the trip will affect the team’s performance this upcoming season, but she is certain that team members will hold on to their experiences in Costa Rica for the rest of their lives.

Hess says joy was the ultimate emotion of the trip and is glad that the team discovered their own “sportuality.”

She’s currently in the process of beginning preparations for a children’s “sportuality” book.

“Team bias is indoctrinated into children at an early age,” she says. “I think ‘sportually’ speaking, children need to understand that there’s something greater than ‘my team.’ There’s a level of competition greater than all of us and I want to put that out there in children’s language.”

Hess plans to involve K alumnus Bill Venema ’59, a pediatrician at Bronson Methodist Hospital, with the project because of his experience communicating and working with children. And to make it a true K undertaking, she will also enlist as illustrator art major and recent K grad Laura Burnett.

There are more stories that Hess believes need to be told from a “sportual” perspective, and she hopes to have time to focus on these stories during her upcoming sabbatical (January through March, 2013).

For now, Coach Hess is focused on preparing her team for the upcoming fall season. She urges her players to remember the meaning of pura vida, to remind themselves why they play, and to never lose sight of the joy in the games.

Read more and peruse photos of the life trip at the team’s blog.

Photo 1 - Newly arrived in Costa Rica, the Hornet volleyball team poses before the words they adopted as a motto.

Photos 2 & 3 - Hornets celebrate a point against Santa Barbara in their first match of the trip, then take time for a picture with the team at the end of the match.

Photo 4 - Coach (and author) Jeanne Hess and K volleyball players with elementary school students during a day of working together.

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Karen Melaas on September 18, 2012 at 9:01 am
Love the 'sportual' perspective idea! It speaks about uniting two ideas, to causes, into one future! (Mom of Eli, K'zoo College '08)
Lorraine Hopping '82 on September 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm
Sports IS a universal language, and this international program gets to the core of the K experience. Back in '79-80, two of us Hornet volleyball players studying in Caen created our own version, forming a new university club team that included a dynamite setter from Japan, a wall of European hitters, and us. We practiced hard and played men's teams in scrimmages—there were no other women's teams in the immediate area. We had to leave mid-season, when our foreign study ended, but those games and those players form some of the strongest memories I have from overseas.
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