Following the Call For Something Bigger Than Volleyball
It’s around 9 p.m. on a cold and rainy Northern California night. Lindsey Knudsen, surrounded by a semi-circle of St. Mary’s teammates, is staring at her computer. The air, for the moment, has been vacuumed out of the room.
You can tell she wants to be excited. To be thrilled. To jumpstart an adventure that will take her somewhere for the next year and a half, to serve a purpose bigger than herself, bigger than the teammates in her dorm room, bigger than the school she represents, bigger than her family that drove six hours to watch her open an email before driving six hours back.
Instead, “there was,” her older sister, Delaney, recalled, “this lull.”
Seconds prior, she had read the contents of an email aloud. It informed her that, beginning on June 19, she was “going to serve in the Adriatic North mission” for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
And then the excitement, the thrill, the potential joy disappears for a moment, replaced, for an instant, by a bit of a blindsided exasperation.
“Where,” she wonders aloud, “is that?”
In that small space of time, Lindsey Knudsen had no idea where she would be spending the next 18 months of her life.
Lindsey Knudsen is not like other college athletes. She will not be entertaining offers to play indoor volleyball overseas, though it’s not because she’s incapable of doing so. She will not be hunting for job offers, though not because she doesn’t have the grades or marketability to draw numerous options. She will not be grinding it out in AVP qualifiers in an attempt to make it as a beach volleyball player, though she’s already proven she is capable of making main draws. She will not be moving home, to Valencia, California.
Instead, Lindsey Knudsen will be spending the next 18 months of her life in Croatia, a portion of the aforementioned Adriatic North mission, which also contains Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. She will be doing this as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which most know simply as Mormon. She is doing this not because she has to, but because she wants to. Because sometimes – all of the time, when it comes to Knudsen, as well as her family – there are things bigger than volleyball, more important than scoring 21 points faster than someone else, higher in priority, even, than being able to communicate regularly with her family for a year and a half.
“I’m just really happy for her, to have that kind of big picture perspective on her life,” said her father, Mark, who served his mission in France, though he didn’t talk about his mission much. Stories here and there. An occasional reference. Little more. Lindsey isn’t sure why, exactly. But when she alas had a quiet moment to herself after receiving her mission, she gave him a call.
“That night, he started telling me all these stories,” she said. “He’s like ‘This is what it’s going to be like when you go, and you’re going to love the people there. It’s crazy how fast you can love people.’”
To feel wanderlust is not an unusual symptom among post-graduates. It’s not uncommon for college grads, either between attaining their bachelor’s and master’s degrees or between graduating and working, to take what is often referred to as a “gap year.” A year to travel. To see the world. To do anything other than enter the world of 9-5s and offices and, as the newly-coined saying goes on social media, “adulting.”
But to go to a cluster of countries one has never seen, to learn one of the most difficult languages at an astonishingly expedited rate, and to speak about God, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon in that unfamiliar language, without the ability to visit home, or communicate much with friends and family, is not the typical path. Nor is it the path Lindsey had always expected to take.
The foundations of the House of Knudsen are built upon two crucial elements: Faith, and volleyball. Mark competed for UCLA during the Al Scates blue curtain era before graduating and assisting Scates for six years, winning four national titles and making the finals in the other two seasons. He and his wife, Diane, met at a volleyball tournament in New Jersey.
When they spoke of having children, Diane wondered what would happen if the kids didn’t like volleyball. Mark would joke that it was fine, he was sure there were plenty of other families they could live with.
They never did have to ship any of their four children off. They all got the bug. First came Delaney, who would go on to play beach for Pepperdine, become an All-American and a national champion. She’s currently playing on the AVP Tour while serving as an assistant at her alma mater.
It carved out the path Lindsey expected to take as well. So when she was a junior, toggling between the various options for where she would go to college, she sought additional help.
In the Latter-Day Saints church, young women and men can receive what’s called a “patriarchal blessing,” which is, in its simplest form, a personal blessing given to the individual from the patriarch overseeing the local cluster of LDS churches. What Lindsey thought she would get was a little direction on where she might go to school. What she received was a bit different.
“It was super explicit that I was going to serve a mission,” she said. “And that was confusing to me because I had always wanted to play college volleyball and I didn’t know I could do both. I went in hoping I would have direction on where to go to college. Now I didn’t even know if I was going to play volleyball. I didn’t know what to do.”
In time, she’d realize she could do both. Generally, men serve their missions from ages 18-22. Women can serve as old as 35. She didn’t understand it in that particular moment, but Lindsey could play volleyball in college, as she had always aspired to do, and then serve a mission, as she was called to do.
“Once you have something that clear from God, you’re not just going to be like ‘I don’t want to,’” she said, laughing. “So I was like ‘Ok, this is definitely something I’m going to do. How am I going to make it work?’”
She’s made it work just fine. She’s made it work because she’s a Knudsen, and the Knudsens have this uncanny ability to find the goldilocks zone in balancing sports and faith.
A cornerstone of the LDS faith is that Sunday is generally regarded as the Sabbath, a day of rest. Days of rest, for young athletes, typically mean no sports on Sundays.
“That was hard for other people to understand that we would abandon the team on Sunday,” said Delaney, who did clarify that at the college and professional levels, competing on Sundays is considered a part of their livelihood, thus excepting them from that standard. “But we approached the team with that perspective, it was never really a question.”
At times, even when everybody was understanding – most were, especially, somewhat surprisingly, college recruiters, who thought it admirable an athlete would have that type of commitment to family and faith – it could present a tricky issue. Like the time when Lindsey was 14 years old and her club volleyball team was competing for a spot at Junior Nationals.
After the final match on Saturday, in which Lindsey played a crucial role in helping her team win, the coach asked if Mark and Diane could make an exception, if Lindsey, with so much on the line for the team, could play on Sunday. So Diane called Mark and they talked it over, agreeing that, yes, Lindsey was ok to play.
“And she says ‘No, I’m not going to do it,’” Diane recalled. “She was the one who overruled it.”
She was the one who, time and time again, has put something bigger than sports first.
“It was a weird thing but I feel like part of the success me and my sisters have had has come from taking that day every week to remind ourselves that there are more important things than volleyball,” Lindsey said. “To rest our bodies and our minds, sure, but also to give a perspective that this is a cool thing we get to do, but it’s not everything.”
She said this standing in Waikiki, Hawai’i, with her perspective – not that it was needed – freshly renewed. Only a few weeks earlier, she had been completing a January term in Scampia, Italy, a city with more than 50 percent unemployment, run largely by gangs and a violent drug trade.
“The area we were in was a lot of poverty, a lot of crime,” she said. “All week we were working in a school with these kids who were really struggling, and we were getting this raw view of poverty and crime and the communities that are left behind. On the weekends, we would go travel around and see all these beautiful places. We went to Rome and it was unreal and we went to Assisi and it was so beautiful, but it was really a challenge to have Scampia and Rome and try to understand how those two things can exist in the same place.
“The biggest thing that changed me from that trip was this view of just how good we have it. Like, what the heck? I get to go to college. There’s kids who want to go to college and can’t. I get to go to college and play volleyball. What the heck? Not only that, but sometimes volleyball takes me to Hawai’i, to play with some of my best friends. I could cry I’m so grateful for this life.”
It’s this gratitude that is the core of Lindsey, why it only took a moment or two for her to gather herself again on the night she received her mission call, why the excitement, the joy, didn’t take long to return.
“I think she expected when she opened the call that she’d at least know exactly where she was going,” Diane said. “And the fact that she didn’t – that was weird. She just read ‘I am going to do something and I have no idea where it is.’”
Now she does. She knows exactly where she’s going, and exactly when it’s happening. She knows, for the first time in her life, exactly what she’s been called to do, whom she’s been called to serve.
“Croatian is going to be a hard language to learn but I’m going to learn it, and I’m going to go there and it’s going to be great,” she said. “That night, I was going to bed and saying my prayers, and I was like ‘I know now, I should start praying for them.’ So I prayed that our Heavenly Father would bless them and bless the missionaries there and I was just – tears. This is exactly where I’m supposed to go.”
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