CHAMPAIGN — Jordyn Poulter received a crash course before leaving for Italy and the start of her professional volleyball career ... in operating a manual transmission vehicle. Stick shift simply wasn't part of the media and cinema studies major's curriculum at Illinois.
"I took a lesson a day before I went over there, so when they dropped me at the dealership it was like, 'All right, good luck!'" Poulter said with a laugh. "The hardest part for me was from stopped to getting into that first gear, but now I consider myself a pretty avid stick-shift driver. Usually I feel like I pick things up pretty quickly, so that was a big blow to the ego."
It was all part of the transition period for Poulter, who left Illinois to move across the world in pursuit of a professional volleyball career after earning first-team All-America honors and leading the Illini to the Final Four during her senior season. Poulter played the final half of the season for Chieri '76 as the team made its debut in Serie A1 — the top league in Italy.
"It was an experience, for sure," Poulter said. "An invaluable experience just being able to play in one of the best leagues in the world and get to jump in right away and be a starting setter for a team in that league. I'm very thankful for the opportunity I had, but there was definitely a big learning curve."
And it wasn't just having to learn how to drive stick. It was also Poulter's first time living alone — and in a new country. She was also competing in a much different atmosphere with the ages of her teammates and competitors running the gamut from 17- and 18-year-olds to athletes playing into their 40s.
"The physicality that some of the hitters bring," Poulter said was something she had to adjust to. "You just relish in the moment you were playing against fellow Americans or girls who are considered the best in our sport. It was incredible."
One of those Americans was another former Illinois All-American. Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was less than two hours away playing for Futura Volley Busto Arsizio in a suburb of Milan.
"Her and (her husband) Corbin were super helpful in kind of getting adjusted and getting acclimated," Poulter said. "They were very open to any questions that I had."
Poulter will be back in Italy next season. Chieri '76 went through a coaching change after the conclusion of the season, but she resigned for another year and said she was excited to work with new coach Giulio Cesare Bregoli.
"I'm excited to go back and kind of have an idea of what to expect now," Poulter said. "To dip my toe in — only go in for the second half of the season after my eligibility was done — now I know a little bit more what to expect."
Poulter made a short stop in Champaign after her season in Italy concluded. She got a chance to see the Illini play in their home spring match against Purdue on April 10.
"I got back on Saturday night, was home for one day and decided to come out here for about four days," Poulter said of her travel from Italy to Colorado and then to Illinois two-plus weeks ago. "It's hard to stay away from some of my best friends. This is kind of the last time everyone I know for sure is going to be in the same place."
Poulter was on the move again after her trip to Champaign, heading to Anaheim, Calif., to spend the offseason from her professional career training once again in the U.S. Women's National Team gym. Poulter was the only collegiate player in the gym last summer and helped Team USA win gold at the Pan American Cup in the Dominican Republic.
"I am excited I think just kind of having a new lens on everything," Poulter said about her second stint training with the national team. "Last summer, I think a part of me felt like I was missing out on stuff (at Illinois) and building and growing with the team here while I was trying to earn a roster spot out there. It was kind of a weird mentality.
"Now I'm happy that I can just be 100 percent focused on that and getting better. Having a year of experience in that gym, I'm excited to see what the summer brings."