The dictionary folks at Merriam-Webster would be wise to include Mary Lake’s mug next to the word “globetrotter.”
The BYU volleyball star continues to rack up sky miles. She recently traveled with the U.S. women’s national volleyball team to Bulgaria before flying west to Italy, boomeranging back across the Atlantic to Nebraska and then sojourning to China.
She returned home from competing in the 2019 Federation Internationale de Volleyball Nations League tournament with a growing collection of passport stamps, a shiny gold medal and plenty of remarkable memories.
Lake won’t forget competing with some of the world’s top players, representing the Red-White-and-Blue, experiencing new cultures, playing on a tournament-winning team — and also sharing her personal gospel beliefs.
As the only Latter-day Saint on the American squad that won the prestigious international tournament, she sometimes found herself chatting with teammates about her gospel beliefs.
“There were questions about why I wasn’t, say, drinking pregame coffee or why I didn’t drink at the after-parties,” she told the Church News. “But I never felt uncomfortable. I think having to explain my faith when I was younger (with youth club teammates) and taking my religion classes at BYU prepared me to answer in ways that people understood.”
Her testimony also gave her confidence in her convictions. Some of her teammates posed tough questions.
“But I never felt like the girls were disrespectful,” said the lifelong member. “I always felt they were just curious. They weren’t teasing or anything; they just had some misconceptions that I addressed.”
Her travel adventures with Team USA continues. BYU’s All-American libero will be in Louisiana this week for an Olympic qualifying tournament.
The 20-year-old Lake is just two years beyond the voting age — but her experiences on the volleyball court over the past year would likely envy far older elite players.
At BYU, she was a key cog in the 2018 season that witnessed the Cougars win over 90 percent of their games, spend several weeks atop the national polls and reach the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Stanford.
Then in May, she was named to the U.S. women’s national team roster for the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League — a tournament featuring 16 national teams and played across five weeks on several continents.
American volleyball icon Karch Kiraly coaches the Yanks.
Playing and winning international tournaments even while wearing her country’s uniform was an overwhelming, somewhat unexpected experience for the humble Palm Springs, California, native.
“Growing up, I honestly just never thought i was good enough for the national team,” she said. “I never thought it would be an option for me.”
But Lake’s a competitor. When the national team opportunity presented itself, “I chose to give it a go. And I’m so grateful that I did because it’s been a hard and a stretching experience. I’ve learned a lot of great things and developed a bit more of that self-belief that will help me this season at BYU.”
Lake’s college coach, BYU’s Heather Olmstead, has no doubt her star defensive player is an ideal fit for Team USA.
“Mary is extremely competitive and has a strong desire to win,” she wrote in an email. “She’s willing to do what it takes to win and that makes her a desirable player on any team she competes with.”
Lake’s athletic skills are products of hard work and genetics. Three of her four sisters were volleyball players — including big sister Melissa Lake Wright, who also played libero at BYU. Her parents, Robert and Madeline Lake, remain ardent supporters of their children’s athletic endeavours.
Growing up in volleyball-crazed California offered Lake opportunities to play with and against some of the country’s best youth players. When it came time to decide where she would play college ball, she explored a variety of options. But she had fallen hard for BYU after attending volleyball and Especially For Youth camps at the Provo campus.
“I just felt like I needed to be at BYU,” she said.
Obviously, the women’s volleyball program is one of the nation’s best. “But it was also a spiritual decision because I knew that it would be at a place where I could grow and be around people who understood me and my values.”
She’s quick to credit her Cougar coaches and teammates for helping her grow as a student-athlete. “Every day in practice we're expected to give it our all,” she said.
Lake’s skill set, notes Coach Olmstead, stretches far beyond digging up an opponent’s spikes and setting up her team’s attack.
“She is resilient in everything she does and is always working to be better. She serves others around her and, because of her fun-loving personality, she is able to earn the trust of others quickly.”
Training daily with her BYU teammates also prepared Lake to make the leap from college to international play.
Several Cougars have represented their country this summer. Rising junior Kennedy Eschenberg was on the USA’s World University Games squad that competed in Italy. Last year’s National Freshman of the Year, Heather Gneiting, played on an Olmstead-coached U.S. collegiate national team in Japan before competing at the U20 World Championships in Mexico. Meanwhile, recently graduated Roni Jones-Perry represented the United States at the Pan American Cup in Peru. Former Cougar star Alexa Gray played for Team Canada at the same event in Peru.
The patriotic Lake said donning her country’s uniform in Europe, Asia and in her homeland was a prized privilege.
Even while staying focused, the team dialed back the pressure to win by having fun. There were plenty of silly moments during the tournament and several impromptu team dance-offs before matches.
Winning the 2019 Volleyball Nations League made the experience even sweeter for Lake. She’s thankful for the veteran American players who accepted her and “took me under their wings.”
“I’m so grateful to have such amazing teammates who care about me,” she said.
After weeks of travel and competition, Lake and Team USA qualified for the tournament final against Brazil. In the championship game, the Americans dropped the first two sets before winning three straight sets and claiming the gold.
“It was one of those bizarre, can’t-believe-it-happened things and just awesome to experience,” Lake wrote in a BYU athlete’s journal following the victory. “After all that hard work we won and there were lots of feelings of pride because we had endured through it all and had success.”
Following this week’s Olympic qualifiers, Lake will return to Provo and start preparing for BYU’s 2019 campaign. After college, she will study her options regarding her volleyball future in the professional ranks. She’s anxious to put her accounting degree to work (she begins graduate studies this fall) and hopes to start a family one day.
“I had a great experience with Team USA. I’ve gotten more confident and I feel excited about my future.”