While the pandemic ended Kiera Van Ryk’s Italian adventure sooner than planned, she’s keen for an eventual return to Europe to play the sport she loves.
Volleyball has long been a passion for the Surrey resident, a standout on the University of British Columbia women’s team for two years before she sought to challenge herself by playing pro with Volley Bergamo of Italy’s Serie A1, one of the top leagues in the world.
She announced her decision last July, not long after the UBC squad won another national championship and Van Ryk earned the inaugural Lieutenant Governor Athletic Award as U SPORTS Female Athlete of the Year for the 2018-19 season.
“I would say the decision (to leave for Bergamo) had nothing to do with the team – I loved the team and (coach) Doug (Reimer), the coaching staff, was great, and the girls on the team were great, but it was more of a decision on my side, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with school,” Van Ryk recalled.
After two years of kinesiology classes, that pursuit wasn’t for her.
“I was looking for something else to do, and I wasn’t sure what that was,” she continued. “So it was the best time to kind of explore new adventures. And also with the national team, we had Olympic qualifiers coming up and I wanted to be playing against some of the best players in the world to help prepare for that, to see if I could help the national team in that way, to be the best player I could be. It was just a good year to go experience a new adventure and see what volleyball had for me over there.”
The Now-Leader caught up with Van Ryk a couple of months after COVID-19 forced the Surrey Christian School grad to return home to Fleetwood several weeks earlier than planned.
Since October, she’d been living and playing volleyball in Bergamo, a city located about 30 kilometres northeast of Milan. The pandemic ended the pro club’s season a couple weeks early, and Van Ryk managed to book a flight home from a city hit relatively hard by the virus.
“I was in an apartment pretty close to the gym, so I had my own space,” she explained. “There was a bit of uncertainty, but I was pretty calm and not too worried, because I had some good friends on the team – we couldn’t see each other but we were there for each other and kept in contact. I think it was more stressful for my parents, not knowing if their daughter could come home or not, so I think it was great relief for them when I was able to get home – and for me, too, to be back in my hometown.”
In the Italian league, Van Ryk said the Bergamo team sometimes played in front of close 2,000 spectators.
“But I’m not really good with numbers,” she added with a laugh. “They’re pretty passionate about volleyball over there, and it was really interesting to see the difference between there and here in Canada, all of Europe. The game is pretty big there.”
On the court, Van Ryk was signed as second opposite, meaning she wouldn’t be a starter. She learned the game from a couple of veterans ahead of her on the depth chart, and did manage to start a few games.
A month into the season, the Bergamo head coach up and quit, leaving Van Ryk without a connection to the one person she knew from her days on the Canadian national team.
“There were a few things like that, but overall it was a good experience there (in Italy),” Van Ryk said.
“I think as the season went on I definitely grew a lot and was able to start a few games, so was a cool opportunity for me to get some playing time,” she added. “It was a good experience to ready me for national team. I was excited for the VNL that was supposed to happen this season, but that got postponed until next year.”
The 2020 VNL, or Volleyball Nations League, was scheduled to be played in Ottawa this month. Van Ryk and her fellow Canadians were to face the Netherlands, Poland and Japan from June 2 to 4, in a VNL debut for the women’s team after winning a qualifier last summer, but the pandemic ended those plans.
“Qualifying for that last summer was a big step for us, and we were all looking forward to that tournament,” said Van Ryk, 21.
For now, for whatever comes next, she’s trying to stay in shape, and that includes workouts with her father, who once coached her in volleyball.
Her one-year contract with Bergamo now expired, Van Ryk is looking for other opportunities to play pro in Europe next season.
“I’d like to go back there and play,” she said. “But my focus right now is the national team, and we’re waiting on a few more details for what will be allowed and the new regulations that have come out. We’re still looking at what it all means, but we’re staying connected with hopes of being able to get together this summer, for sure.”