Editor’s note: This interview with Esma Sipahi was conducted in Turkish. Duzenli-Cetin is a native Turkish speaker and translated quotes into English.
Esma Sipahi could have been a national taekwondo athlete for Turkey, officially the Republic of Türkiye, if not for her mother. Considering taekwondo a “dangerous sport,” Sipahi’s mother led her toward volleyball, but if Sipahi could make the choice again, she would do the same as her mother.
Growing up in Istanbul, Sipahi’s volleyball career was greatly impacted by Türkiye’s sports scene. Volleyball is now a very popular sport in Türkiye and said Sipahi that when she started her training at the age of 13, the coaches she had were outstanding.
“The trainers that were available to me now coach for the national team,” Sipahi said. “[They] helped me get to where I am today.” Although she may not have chosen volleyball initially, she is now very happy with the direction her sports career has taken.
She found her love of the game in the technique of the sport. Volleyball requires players to analyze ball movements and make decisions in a timely manner. In Türkiye, soccer is very popular, but Sipahi doesn’t think she would have ever played because of the aggressive contact aspect. She wanted to play a sport where she could have less contact and more technique.
“I couldn't decide whether I wanted to continue in volleyball or education, and in Türkiye that is a choice you have to make,” Sipahi said. “I wanted to continue with both.”
Sipahi said this is part of what made her choose American University, and that her parents were supportive of her choices.
In Türkiye, Sipahi said it is normal for students to live at home while attending college. She said her choice to attend college in the U.S. was almost like a breakaway into adulthood — but she wasn’t completely alone.
“I spend so much time with [the AU volleyball team] on a daily basis that they are definitely like my family,” Sipahi said. “We talk about everything, we all learn from each other and we always teach each other new things.”
Sipahi’s transition to the United States was not always easy. She said that “at times it would be great to have the comforts of home,” and that “it took me time to get used to the slang within the language. I went to an English high school but I still had to ask people to slow down and repeat their phrases.”
While it may have taken a bit for Sipahi to get used to living life in the U.S., not much changed in volleyball. Other than some hand symbols used to communicate during the game and court rules, the basics stayed the same. Her discipline and the repetitive nature of trainings put her on the right track to be the best player she could be.
Although Sipahi said that training is much more intense in the US. compared to back at home, she gets to spend time with her team. And she mentions how the discipline she gained at a young age is what helps her succeed as a volleyball player as well as a student.
American’s head coach Ahen Kim said Sipahi’s playing really clicked with the team during an away game with Bucknell. He said there were other games where she had performed well, but this was a game where she truly helped others perform to the best of their abilities as well.
“When the offense is so clean you have to attribute that to the setter,” Kim said. “When everyone is hitting really well you have to attribute that to the setter.”
Sipahi’s high-quality playing was on display throughout the season, when she earned the title of Patriot League Setter of the Year.
“It was a great feeling. I don't even know how to explain it,” Sipahi said. “It was a hard season and we all worked really hard. I'm really happy about it, and I will continue to work hard for the coming season.”
All of Sipahi’s choices led her to where she is now. The choice to start playing volleyball, to come to American University and to pursue an education have all led her to her current success.
Both Kim and Sipahi said that the future is still unknown. This semester, they will continue training and bettering the team, but the next season’s fate is not yet decided. While Sipahi knows that she will continue playing, she has no set plans for when she completes her senior year.
Sipahi spent two years playing for the under-17 Turkish National Team, and she says that it would be a great honor to be able to play for the adult national team as well. She does not yet know whether she’ll stay in the United States or go back to Türkiye but she knows that volleyball will continue to be a part of her life.
“I can not think of a life without volleyball. At this moment there is no life without volleyball.”
This article was edited by Penelope Jennings, Delaney Hoke and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks and Isabelle Kravis.