ASU volleyball‘s middle blocker Carmen Unzue overcame cancer and left Spain to pursue her dream of playing professional volleyball.
Carmen Unzue never envisioned the opportunity to play volleyball professionally.
After being diagnosed with leukemia at age two, and dealing with the treatments for over two years, Unzue didn’t really understand the uphill battle she had faced.
“At four, five years old I couldn’t comprehend what I had gone through,” Unzue said. “I was too young to understand.”
Unzue picked up volleyball and quickly caught the eye of her high school coach, who told her if she worked hard enough, she had the talent to go pro. She excelled at the sport, and knew she wanted to put the work into pursuing a professional career.
But Belen Unzue taught her daughter that although volleyball was important, it wasn’t her whole life.
“My mom was always saying ‘Carmen, volleyball is great but it isn’t everything. It can end anytime,’” Unzue said.
“It put me in a cold mindset,” Unzue said. “I love volleyball, but there’s much more than it.”
Unzue had seen her mom go through the struggles of first losing her husband, then having her son and Carmen’s brother, Jaime, diagnosed with Marfan’s syndrome, ending his European basketball career.
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It was seeing the strength of her mom and brother that allowed Unzue to not only focus on volleyball, but to keep her mind open to other possibilities.
That ultimately factored into her decision to leave home.
For Unzue, the most important thing was to get her education, and if she stayed in Spain, she wasn’t going to have that opportunity.
Unzue decided she would move to the U.S. to play at American University and continue her studies. She had a very successful freshman season, but something still didn’t feel right.
“I felt too comfortable,” Unzue said. “The level we played at wasn’t enough. The reason I moved all the way to the U.S. was to get better.”
It was at that point she decided she would transfer to ASU, a place she felt would provide the tough competition she craved. Unzue knew she had found not only the right school, but a close-knit team.
“She keeps everyone very accountable and she brings everyone together,” freshman Avital Jaloba said.
Jabola, who is originally from Israel, plays the same position at middle blocker as Unzue. The two developed a close friendship and also part of the five internationals players on the team.
A team that is headed by Sanja Tomasevic, who herself is a native of Serbia.
“It’s relatable. I can relate to them more because I know what they are going through in a sense,” Tomasevic said. “It’s one thing when you don’t speak the language, but there’s also the culture which you have to adjust to.”
Unzue know firsthand how difficult the transition can be.
“I can see myself in the freshmen. The things that they are struggling with, I struggled with too,” Unzue said. “My first year was by far the hardest.”
It’s that connection to play away from home that has brought the team even closer this season. Even amidst an end-of-the-season skid, Unzue feels the team’s chemistry is strong and the friendships even stronger.
Now in her senior season, Unzue wants to close out the season on a high note, especially for the team’s season finale against the University of Arizona.
She certainly has a reason to show off.
“My mom is actually coming out to see my final three games, and my senior night,” Unzue said. “She’s staying for a whole week and I’m so excited for her to come.”
“We miss each other a lot, but even being apart I feel like she knows me even better than I know myself.”
After Unzue graduates this season, with a Biological Sciences degree, she plans on staying one more year at ASU. She will then pursue a professional volleyball career back in Spain.
“Right now, I’m going to the optional practice training, for foreign players. I’ll stay one more year, hopefully playing beach volleyball, then after that I’ll go back to Spain to rejoin my club team,” Unzue said.
Unzue and the Sun Devils wrap up the season this week, squaring off at home Wednesday against second-ranked Stanford and Saturday against Arizona.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.