The Volleyball Nations League (VNL) is a large-scale volleyball event that brings players from all over the world together in an epic battle. It is an initiative of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and Volleyball World, aimed at promoting the sport and reaching new heights. Milene has been fortunate enough to travel with the VNL for three weeks and document grassroots projects.
Her journey began in vibrant Bangkok, Thailand, where she witnessed not only the showdown between the women’s volleyball teams but also the impactful grassroots projects in collaboration with Let’s Keep the Ball Flying, a Dutch NGO. This organization strives to make volleyball accessible to everyone, in partnership with Volleyball World, the FIVB, NeVoBo, and VNL 2023.
In this blog, Milene shares her experiences and takes you on a journey full of adventure, volleyball, and discovery.
The Adventure Begins in Bangkok
The streets of Bangkok are infused with energy and the aroma of exotic spices. The Dutch women’s team, dressed in their orange uniforms, exudes the same energy as they prepare for their matches. I feel the excitement in the air as I mingle with the crowd, ready to be part of this spectacle. The women’s volleyball team has just arrived from Hong Kong, and their determination is palpable. I can’t wait to see them in action.
But this journey goes beyond attending matches. I am here to experience the essence of volleyball, to witness its impact on people’s lives. In collaboration with Let’s Keep the Ball Flying, we have the opportunity to visit various grassroots projects and capture the stories of participants. This journey promises to be a grand and enjoyable adventure, although it involves a lot of work too.
Bangkok has so much to offer, from bustling markets to serene temples. I explore the city in my free time, savoring the flavors of Thai cuisine and immersing myself in the rich culture. But the highlight of my stay is undoubtedly meeting Nootsara, a local legend and a source of inspiration for young volleyball players around the world. Her story, from her first international tournament at the age of 12 to her current adventures abroad, deeply touches me. Nootsara has played as a setter in the national Thai team but now plays in Texas, USA.
In addition to attending the matches and exploring the city, we are also involved in the grassroots projects supported by Let’s Keep the Ball Flying. Alongside Nootsara, we visit a school outside Bangkok, where we organize a volleyball clinic. Despite the heat (38 degrees Celsius, 85% humidity) and the sweat dripping from our arms, there is an unparalleled energy and enthusiasm among the children. They are eager to learn and improve their volleyball skills. It is a touching moment when I realize that volleyball is not just a game but a source of hope and possibilities.
Onward to the Philippines
After a week filled with intensity and unforgettable experiences in Bangkok, it’s time to travel to the Philippines. The Dutch women lost their final match against Canada, thus falling short of reaching the VNL finals. As we board the plane, I feel the excitement of the new adventure that lies ahead. In our luggage, we carry not only our personal belongings but also T-shirts, shoes, and balls received from the Turkish, Dutch, and Canadian teams. We will distribute these to local communities in the Philippines as a symbol of solidarity and connection.
Upon arrival in the Philippines, we are welcomed by the warm smiles of the local people. It’s as if the energy of the country surrounds us, inviting us to partake in their passion for volleyball. Besides basketball and boxing, volleyball is one of the most popular sports in the country, and it continues to grow. We stay in a luxurious hotel, an oasis of comfort amidst the bustling city. The staff is incredibly friendly, and the players, coaches, and referees are cheerful. We hang out with two commentators and some FIVB and Volleyball World staff members. It promises to be a delightful week.
The First Match of the Long Men’s Team against Canada
The men step onto the volleyball court, ready to measure their strength against Canada. The stands buzz with excitement as the game begins. The Netherlands is strong, too strong for Canada, and wins the match 3-0. A good start is half the battle. But my focus this week is not only on the matches; it’s about the people and the stories coming together here. We meet Bruno, the setter of the Brazilian team, who donates his shoes to Let’s Keep the Ball Flying. This gesture of generosity and solidarity is part of a larger movement of players and teams contributing to the development of volleyball communities around the world. Canada also donates clothing, shoes, and even some protein bars after their elimination.
Visiting the Volleyball Community with Spike & Serve
I am accompanied by Nicole, a talented volleyball player from the Philippines and the founder of “Spike & Serve,” an NGO that focuses on creating opportunities for children in underserved communities across the Philippines. Together, we visit her community to witness how volleyball changes lives. It is a touching experience to see children, despite the limitations and challenges they face, wholeheartedly engaging on the volleyball court. Their resilience and determination are inspiring. Of course, we play a few games of volleyball on the field. No ceiling here, just trees that prevent us from playing too high and diving? We play on asphalt, so it’s better not to dive. However, they perform incredible jump serves, and all of this on bare feet. I am impressed.
The days in the Philippines fly by, filled with intense matches, heartwarming encounters, and moments of pure joy. We watch the duel between Japan and the Netherlands, where passion and technical finesse come together. It’s a battle that goes beyond the scoreboard; it’s a celebration of the sport and the camaraderie it creates.
But the highlight of our journey comes when we meet the indigenous people of Bataan. After a four-hour car ride from Manila and a short hike uphill in scorching heat, we arrive in Kanawan. In this remote community, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, volleyball is a source of hope and empowerment. The children, with their bare feet and radiant smiles, welcome us with open arms. Despite the language barrier, we feel a deep connection, a shared language of passion and joy of play.
With over 50 children, we hold a volleyball clinic here. Some of them play quite well, while others struggle. But the most important thing is the fun. After an hour of drills, we play a game. 20 against 20? Sure, why not? Some of the kids are so enthusiastic that they have prepared dances for every point they score. It’s a big party.
We end the day with a game of volleyball, a birthday snack, and a bonfire with performances. I’m exhausted by now because working in 40 degrees Celsius and 95% humidity are not the ideal conditions.
Meeting with the Volleyball Community of Boracay
After Manila, it’s time for island volleyball. We arrive on the enchanting island of Boracay, a small but renowned destination for tourists from around the world. Here, we meet Coach Clod, who is originally a soccer and basketball coach but has also dedicated himself to coaching volleyball. In a world where soccer and basketball are predominantly played by boys, Coach Clod decided to create something special for the girls of the island. He started with volleyball, and the enthusiasm among the girls is immense. They play both indoor and beach volleyball, and there are six teams totaling around forty girls who train and play every Saturday.
In addition to enjoying the soft white sand between our toes and occasionally taking a refreshing dip in the crystal-clear turquoise water, we also visit the various volleyball courts on the island. Previously, these courts were all designated for basketball, but now volleyball is being played as well. Since volleyball is relatively new on the island—only two months old—there are still few materials available. The girls are thrilled when we arrive with VNL Mikasa balls and jerseys from the Canadian team. Although the clothing may be a bit oversized, it’s better to have something than nothing, right?
And with an exciting beach volleyball tournament during a magical sunset, our unforgettable volleyball adventure in Asia comes to an end.
As we bid farewell to the Philippines and our journey draws to a close, I realize that volleyball is more than just a sport. It is a force that brings people together, transcends boundaries, and connects hearts. It shows that regardless of our backgrounds, we can become one on the volleyball court. It is an experience that I will cherish forever.