Yet even for Madison Lilley, playing on the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team in China was a bit of an overwhelming experience at times last summer.
“I definitely think the culture in China was a complete 180 from anything that I had experienced. I have been to South America and Central America (playing volleyball) and there are certain aspects that are kind of similar, but you go to China and it is a complete 180,” said Lilley. “We were there 11 days and kind of had time to see everything and get used to it, but I mean it was a culture shock but a cool experience.”
She learned that “personal space” is not a part of the Chinese culture if you are not Chinese.
“Anyone that is not Chinese is absolutely cherished. They will follow you and take pictures of you like you are just like the coolest thing ever,” Lilley said. “We went to an elementary school and that was the coolest thing for those kids to see us play volleyball in front of them. You definitely come back here and don’t take anything for granted. I will always remember those things.”
What about the food?
Lilley called it “tricky” and said she ate at McDonald’s a lot.
“It forces you to get out of your comfort zone. I tried jellyfish, some eel. I was not the one that was the first to dive into things. I kind of let other people do that and then would wait to see how they liked it. It definitely expands your palate I would say,” Lilley said.
She said “adventurous” is not a word to describe her normal eating habits. That made me wonder how she managed to eat jellyfish.
“Jellyfish, the texture was just exactly probably what you would think. I don’t know exactly how they fixed it. Almost everything comes out … like a bird will come out with everything, and all the bones,” Lilley said. “They don’t do anything other than cook it and then you are in charge of separating what you can and can’t it.
“But it’s get to a point where you really don’t have a choice except to eat. In China it is a culture thing, so if you are at a table with a bunch of Chinese people and they are serving jellyfish and eel, then you are just expected to eat it. That comes into play, too, and you just have to find a way to eat it.”
The trip did have volleyball benefits. She played five matches against professional teams and to had adjust to various styles of play that were different from what she faces in the United States.
“I think it expanded all of our volleyball IQs. We are all from different teams and it gave us an opportunity to mesh with people we have not played with before and make our games better,” Lilley said. “I have a long list of things I want to get better at. They might be small things but I am nit-picky. I definitely have things I want to improve in my game. I make the team better. We make the team better. Setters are the quarterbacks of the team, so there is plenty I learned to help make me better.”
Now she has to try and figure out how to make Kentucky overcome a surprising 0-3 start last weekend. Kentucky lost to three teams that all figure to be in the NCAA Tournament, but that was still not expected from a team ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll and also picked to win the SEC.
Before Kentucky started the season, I asked Lilley if there was a chance the high ranking might put too much pressure on the team. I’ve not talked to her since UK’s three losses, but her preseason insights still seem appropriate.
“I think we earned that (the No. 5 ranking) from last year and have that in the back of our heads, but this is also a new year. As much as you want to think about that and how awesome it is, you have to put that aside and put your head down and go to work,” Lilley said. “You can kind of let the media get to you as much as you want but the best thing for us is to respect that and say now we have to prove that in November and December that we are deserving of that ranking.
“I don’t think it is unrealistic at all to think we can have that type of team. I think we still have a lot of work to do but we are very ambitious and there is a lot of fire under us after what happened last year (when UK lost in the Elite Eight). We are very driven and we will get there. We might have some rough spots, but we can get there when the year ends.”