For Ellie Vest, a big dream is about to come true: The 15-year-old volleyball player will fly to Argentina in December to compete in the Pan American Maccabi Games.
This edition of the so-called Jewish Olympics is expected to draw 3,500 participants from more than 20 countries. Ellie, who is about to start her sophomore year at East Providence High School, played with several Rhode Island volleyball teams before being invited to compete in the Maccabi Games by the games’ U.S. volleyball coach.
During a recent interview, Ellie spoke about how much volleyball means to her and her plans for Buenos Aires.
How did you first discover volleyball?
I first got into volleyball at the end of quarantine, the summer before eighth grade. I was living on Block Island at the time, and they have a really big beach volleyball culture. I was on the beach, interacting with a ton of people there, and it seemed really interesting and fun and a great way to meet people, so I decided to start learning. My mom emailed the coach of the women’s volleyball team at the school on Block Island, and he was the first to ever teach me how to play volleyball.
What do you like about the sport?
I think volleyball is a great way to build team culture, and you just get a really unique friendship and a bond with your teammates. Because you have to communicate all the time – if you don’t communicate, it’s not going to go well – so you have to build a really strong relationship, which I think with some sports, you’re not really able to do that as much. You can make really great friends just through playing the sport.
How have you evolved as a player?
Being consistent with playing and working out at the JCC [the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center] has just really helped me improve. I think it’s also really easy to improve when you really love what you’re doing. So, usually I would play almost every day or go work out at the JCC, maybe two or three times a week during the school year. During the summer, I would be playing six days a week, doing camps and just training on my own.
What’s your training regimen?
My training specific to volleyball is kind of a balance between lifting weights and cardio and eating. During most of my workouts, I weight-lift and then I do cardio after, which is definitely a big part of being in shape to play. I would say I don’t have a very strict diet. I am pretty plant-based; I’m not a vegetarian, but I do eat a lot of grains, a lot of salad, a lot of fruits. I do have steak and other stuff, on occasion. For me, personally, I haven’t been super-focused on my diet recently – mostly just on improving my play and trying to find more opportunities to play.
Is there a character trait that’s particularly helpful for volleyball players?
It’s really important to be loud. I’m not a very loud person, but on the court, you have to be able to communicate and be loud enough for other players to hear you – especially when you’re at a tournament in a convention center and there are hundreds of teams playing, you have to make sure that everyone can hear you, even the parents on the sidelines or the courts next to you.
What positions do you play?
On my old team, South County, we had a lot of outside hitters and not a lot of right-side hitters. I would play a lot of right side and a little bit of middle. I didn’t really play a lot of back-row, because we had a lot of great back-row players. I think I’m going to try to be more of an outside, especially for my high school season coming up. I’m going to try and play more outside and right-side and maybe some back-row, if I can. I think outside is just my favorite position.
It’s sometimes challenging for young athletes to balance so many intense, unrelated demands. How do you cope?
Being able to balance school life, regular life and sports can be hard for some people. But I think it comes naturally to me, because I have time for my sport, and then I have other time that I have completely free, when I can do whatever I want.
When I have free time, I’ll either Facetime my friends or try to meet up somewhere. But I do think balancing homework and studying with sports is more difficult than sports and friendships, because you have to make a very specific schedule that can fit everything in. I think a lot of times I don’t have time for everything I want to do. But I do think athletics and academics come first.
What are you most looking forward to about the Maccabi Games?
I’m definitely really excited to be able to travel to Argentina, especially with new people. While playing the sport, I think it’ll be a great opportunity to make friends with the people on the team, and building these friendships will hopefully be lifelong. Traveling to Argentina with people I like to hang out with will be really exciting. I’m also excited to play against hard competition, against other countries. It’ll just be a great opportunity to see new places.
Friendships seem very important to you. Has that always been the case?
It hasn’t always been the case for me to want to meet new people. When I was younger, and pretty recently, I was really shy, and volleyball seemed pretty intimidating. Even just meeting new people seemed intimidating. But I think volleyball has actually helped me get over my shyness, because I realized I really have to interact if I want to be good at my sport.
Building more friendships is going to help me in the long run. The Maccabi Games are a great way to build connection through the Jewish community by bringing Jews from all over the world together. They’re able to interact over something they’re interested in.
To see a video version of this interview, go to JewishRhody.com.
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.