Iwona Lodzik, a volleyball star and Polish immigrant who at first struggled in this country, still finds it hard to believe she’s at Northwestern.
But few recruiters visit junior colleges, and the young Polish immigrant had no one to guide her through the process. Triton head coach Sue Novak suggested she play in a club league. So Lodzik joined Chicago’s USA Volleyball adult group, where she met three women who knew Northwestern head coach Keylor Chan. They convinced him to stop by and check out her playing skills.
“The day Coach came, he didn’t stay long,” Lodzik says. “I was devastated.”
Chan remembers it somewhat differently.
“I walked into the gym and in about two minutes realized how good she was,” he says. “I thought this girl could be one of the best Division I volleyball players in the nation.”
Today Lodzik takes the court in purple as a powerful outside hitter for the Wildcats. While all 6 feet of her make the journey look effortless, it has been anything but that.
Lodzik was a lanky 11-year-old in Tarnobrzeg, in southeast Poland, when she spiked her first volleyball. Recruited “along with all the other tall girls who didn’t like running,” she took to the sport, eventually helping the elite Siarka squad capture the Polish national title in 1995.
While Lodzik was jetting off to tournaments in Eastern Europe, her mother, Renata, moved to the United States.
Following a stint at the Polish National Training Center in 1997 and practice time with a professional team in 1998, Lodzik joined her mother in Chicago, where the older woman had been struggling to learn English and hold down several jobs. After learning English herself, the younger Lodzik passed the General Educational Development exam and enrolled at Triton. “At that point I had forgotten entirely about volleyball,” she recalls. “I was working at a medical clinic as a secretary, taking several classes and just trying to get by.”
A powerful reminder came in the form of a flier for volleyball tryouts during her second semester at Triton. “You have to understand how big that was for me,” she says, beaming. “I was so excited but so nervous, too.”
It turned out her worries were unnecessary — she easily made the squad and quickly rose to the top of the heap. Even with six classes and her job at the clinic (followed by work at a shoe store, a nursing home and a vegetable market), Lodzik tore up the court.
By her second year at Triton, she had mastered U.S.-style volleyball, which emphasizes strength over speed — the opposite of Polish play. It was then that Novak encouraged Lodzik to seriously consider transferring to a four-year institution. And that’s when Chan stopped by Triton.
On the day after his visit, an e-mail message appeared in her inbox. “The subject line said, ‘Hi from Northwestern,’” she recalls. “I clicked on it and started jumping up and down, reading that he wanted me here. I called my mom; she started crying at work.”
“We laugh about that today,” Chan says, “but she actually thought she wasn’t good enough. That is the kind of person she is — humble, bright and, above all, truly genuine.”
Lodzik started for the Wildcats last fall, winning Big Ten Player of the Week bragging rights after the season’s first weekend. She played a critical role in the squad’s fifth-place conference finish and its NCAA tournament berth, the first since 1984. “We were the surprise team of the season,” she says proudly.
Off the court Lodzik is majoring in communication studies, an impressive feat considering she was first exposed to English less than five years ago. While she has no immediate plans for the future, she may return to Poland after graduation to play for a professional team there. Her father, Tadeusz, remains in Poland but tracks his daughter and the Wildcats on the Internet.
“My whole family logs on to the Northwestern athletics Web site,” she says, laughing. “I get tons of e-mails after a win.”
It’s at times like those that tiny Tarnobrzeg doesn’t feel so far away. “When I first arrived in Chicago, my mom drove me around to show me how beautifully people can live in America,” she recalls. “We used to go by Northwestern, and I would watch all the young people in the street. Five years later, I have to pinch myself because I’m here — living that dream.”
— Molly Browne (J04)