Volleyball senior Helena Elbaek discusses legacy, season ahead
Team prepares for season amid coronavirus pandemic
As American University’s women’s volleyball team prepares for a season in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one senior who has already etched her name in AU’s history book plans to make the most of this unconventional season.
Outside hitter Helena Elbaek has been a star on the team since she was a freshman in 2017, earning a spot on the All-Patriot League Second Team that year and on the All-Patriot League First Team as a sophomore in 2018 and as a junior in 2019. Elbaek also helped the team make appearances in the NCAA tournament in 2017 and again in 2019.
Now a senior facing increased challenges on and off the court from the pandemic, Elbaek credits her home country of Denmark with preparing her for this season. When the Patriot League shuttered varsity fall 2020 sports, Elbaek and the rest of the team could not practice or play the way they normally would. In order to hone her skills, Elbaek said she traveled back to Denmark, where restrictions on play were less of a factor.
“I decided last semester, when we didn’t get to practice or play here, that I wanted to go home to Denmark and play with the club team, just to stay in shape and get a few matches in,” Elbaek said.
Elbaek has played on the same club team in Denmark since she was a child, and she was on the team when AU first attempted to recruit her. She said going to AU was a decision that combined multiple interests she had as a senior in high school.
“I just thought that was a great opportunity to do everything at once,” Elbaek said. “I got to play, and at the same time, get a degree, and travel — I’d never been to the U.S. before, so for me, that was a great opportunity.”
According to Elbaek, the club team she played on helped her prepare for AU’s competitive environment. She said that, without that preparation, she likely would not be as successful as she is today.
“The club I played with was a really good club, especially for young people,” Elbaek said. “It was a very good winning environment where you have the space to have fun but also develop the skills you need to play volleyball, so that gave me a good foundation to come here.”
Elbaek said that when she joined the team, one of the best aspects of the program was the coaching staff. According to Elbaek, head coach Barry Goldberg and the rest of the coaching staff push her and the rest of the team to improve every day.
“He’s a great coach that I’ve now played for for almost four years, and he’s always pushing us to get better,” Elbaek said. “Leadership is something that is very important to him, so he always wants us to be leaders on and off the court and work hard and help each other.”
In order to win the Patriot League, it takes more than just a strong coaching staff, Elbaek said. She often looks to her teammates for encouragement and inspiration, and uses their strengths to improve her skills.
Even something as small as observing the things her teammates do during practices helps her improve, Elbaek said. Her teammates also take similar inspiration from her, and Elbaek said that everyone “continually push[es] each other to get better.”
Team chemistry is more important now than ever, according to Elbaek. Practices are restricted to weightlifting and conditioning, and she believes a return to full practices will help the team bond and get ready for another shot at the NCAA tournament.
“It’s kind of a struggle to get back at it, but slowly we plan to get there,” Elbaek said. “You need the whole team to get to the NCAA tournament — we need to get back, be together and play together in order to do that.”
Elbaek believes that the first game against Navy on Feb. 19 will help the team make concrete steps toward their NCAA tournament goal, and will help her bond with her teammates.
“It’s really exciting, and it’s such a different year,” Elbaek said. “We don't have a lot of time to play together, but at least we have a lot of time to get to know each other still, so that will be good.”