On a trip to Slovenia in 2011, Malina Terrell decided she would someday be a professional volleyball player.
Then, about to start her sophomore season at the University of San Francisco, Terrell, a middle blocker from Richmond, Calif., had traveled to Europe on a trip organized by Bring It Promotions, a volleyball agency that also hosts annual excursions for college players.
On that trip, Terrell encountered a world she hadn’t even known existed: the world of overseas professional volleyball.
“Wait, you mean I can come out here to the other side of the world and play volleyball and actually make money doing it?” Terrell recalled asking her hosts. “And like have a place to live, like they take care of it?”
The answer was “yes,” and Terrell was in. It didn’t matter that she was a 5-foot-10 middle (i.e., really short by international standards) or that she didn’t play at a top-ranked college. She was going to make it happen.
After graduating in 2014, Terrell reached out to Ryan Jay Owens, owner of the agency Elite Volley.
“I wrote [Ryan] a novel,” Terrell recalled. “I was just like, ‘Look, you probably have no clue who I am because I don't go to a big-time university. I don’t have a big name. I’m a 5-foot-10 middle. I want to play pro ball.”
Owens signed her, but with a caveat. He wanted to market her as an receiver (outside hitter). During Terrell’s senior year at USF, she had rotated in as a middle, but hit one rotation on the left, one in the middle and one on the right, and at 5-10 and athletic, she had a lot better chance of finding a pro team as a receiver than as a middle.
So Owens went off to find a professional team willing to hire an undersized and inexperienced outside hitter. And find one he did. In Denmark.
Odense, Denmark (2014-15)
Although not known for the strength of its professional volleyball league, Denmark did have some things to offer. For one, the head coach of Terrell’s new team Fortuna Odense Volley, Kristen Karlik, was an American and a former libero for the University of Colorado and Colorado State. Not only did she emphasize defense and passing for the team as a whole, she was willing to put in the extra hours with Terrell to improve the parts of her game she hadn’t needed as a middle blocker.
Terrell played and practiced every day with one important goal in mind. Move up and out of Denmark.
Owens had told her, “Dominate that league and you’ll get out. If you don’t, it’s going to be difficult. I don't care if it is a new position. You’ve got to be the best attacker, the best scorer, the best server. Be the best player of that league. Be the MVP of that league and you’ll get out.”
“I was like really into the journaling. I got into meditation. I got into everything that I felt was going to help me make sure I did what I needed to do to move to the next level,” Terrell said.
By the end of the season, she had racked up a league-best 512 points and was named MVP.
So just as promised, she got out. Next stop: Germany.
Straubing, Germany (2015-16)
“Denmark to Germany is more than just one step,” Terrell explained. “That’s like maybe two steps forward. Maybe three. Huge leap.”
Even though Terrell felt good about her fitness and skill when she arrived in Straubing, Germany, a few weeks in something happened. She started playing fearfully, thinking about making errors, putting pressure on herself.
“When you play with that mentality, you don't play free. You thinking about not making an error, you make errors. You don't pass well. You don't go really fully for it with the attack,” Terrell said. “Everything just kind of went downhill.”
Midway through the season, the Straubing coach, who was also the head coach of the Romanian national team, pulled her aside before practice and told her she would never see the court that season.
“I had to go to the bathroom and excuse myself because it was just devastating to hear that,” Terrell said. “I had never experienced anything like that. I had never been a bench player. I had never been told I was never going to play, regardless of anything.”
But instead of taking her coach up on his offer to release her from her (two-year) contract, Terrell stayed. She stayed and she practiced, and only saw the court a couple of times the entire season. She was miserable.
The last regular season match of the year, Straubing was playing a pretty terrible team and if they won, they would finish top eight and advance to pre-playoffs. Since they were confident in a victory, some of the girls even brought little mini bottles of vodka to toast with after the match.
But instead of a jubilant celebration following the win which secured their spot in the postseason, the team management revealed that they were bankrupt. There would be no playoffs.
“I felt bad, but I was like, you know what, too bad, get me the hell out of here. I was so ready to be gone,” Terrell said.
While slogging through that season in Germany, Terrell started questioning her professional volleyball career all together. But she had hardly made it back to the States following that disastrous season before Owens called with another opportunity. This one in Puerto Rico.
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico (2016)
“In my mind I was like, you’re not ready to go play in Puerto Rico,” Terrell said. “Puerto Rico’s got high-level athletes. Kim Willoughby, former Team USA, she was on the team that I was going to. Like, I’m playing alongside an Olympian after a full season of not playing at all, of shaking in my boots. I’m going to go to Puerto Rico and try to play? What?”
Terrell knew the expectations for foreigners in Puerto Rico was high.
“If you not scoring 30 points a game, you’re getting fired,” she said. “As a foreigner, that’s just how it is. They need you to come and score.”
When she arrived in Mayaguez on the west coast of Puerto Rico, Willoughby took one look at her and said, “You look smaller than the video we saw.”
And she was. Terrell had lost weight from the stress and aggressive training of her season in Germany.
Puerto Rico served as a reset. Terrell started to gain back weight, strength and power. She lived on the beach and took the opportunity to meditate to the soothing sound of the ocean. Terrell spent just a month and a half in Puerto Rico, but she helped the team make it to the semis and returned to the mainland with a renewed sense of self.
“Going to Puerto Rico was a turning point from me wanting to quit and say screw volleyball to like, Malina, remember who you are. That’s not you, you don’t quit.”
But even with the footage she’d collected from short stint in Puerto Rico and from competing in USA Volleyball Open Nationals with the semi-pro team Blizzard, Terrell struggled to land a new contract in the fall of 2016.
In September, still jobless, she had all but resigned herself to rejoining “the real world” and looking for work at a local gym, when she got a call from her friend Janisa Johnson, a graduate of Long Beach State who was playing in Finland for OrPo Volley.
One of Johnson’s team’s outside hitters had just blown out her knee, and they needed someone soon. The season was just a few days away.
Terrell sent her information to the team’s management and they hired her immediately. She left for Finland just three days after the initial phone call from Johnson.
Orivesi & Kuusamo, Finland (2016-18)
With her new Finnish team, Terrell’s confidence returned. She finished that first season ranked No. 1 in the league in total aces and aces per set. She even changed positions again, this time moving to the right side, where she thrived, ranking ninth in the league in total points.
OrPo won bronze in the Finnish League that year, beating Pölkky Kuusamo in the third-place match. Impressed by her performance, Kuusamo offered Terrell a contract for the next season.
She accepted, but knew, just like that first season in Denmark, her goal was to once again dominate in order to find a home in a higher-level league.
That was 2017-18 and Kuusamo won a silver medal in the Finnish Cup, the first medal in the club’s history. Terrell finished the year once again ranked No. 1 in aces, but this time she also came in second in overall points (385), just two points away from being the top scorer in the league.
That’s when France came calling.
Beziers, France (2018-19)
“When Ryan let me know that Beziers was interested, I was like, ‘Wait, what?’” Terrell said.
The Beziers Angels compete in France’s A1 league. Krystal Rivers, an All-American from the University of Alabama, had played opposite for the Beziers the season before. It was Rivers’ rookie season and she became the No. 1 scorer in France before signing with Allianz MTV Stuttgart in the German league. In joining Beziers, Terrell had some pretty big shoes to fill.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous coming to Beziers in the beginning,” Terrell said.
And at first, that nervousness showed on the court.
“Malina,” her coach Fabien Simondet said, “I need you to have the mindset of the opposite.”
Terrell elaborated: “[As an] opposite, you score the damn ball. You take risks. Even if you make a mistake. Opposites, we’re allowed to make mistakes as long as we’re going for it.”
So she flipped the switch, refusing to play scared like she did in Germany.
“Now I feel like I’m finally getting into my groove, I’m playing well,” Terrell said.
Coming to Beziers not only marks a move to a much more competitive league for Terrell, but also a chance to play in CEV Champions League.
“I’m playing on a Champions League team, something I’ve always dreamed of,” Terrell said. “I even had it written down two years ago: Play for a Champions League team in 2018. The fact that I have a check mark next to that is just, it’s a dream come true.”
Not only are the Angels playing in Champions League, they have a win over Maritza Plovdiv of Bulgaria. Terrell is already looking forward to her team’s next Champions League road trip to Istanbul on Feb. 26 to play VakifBank, reigning champions of the FIVB Club World Championships. Featuring Chinese star Zhu Ting, Team USA outside hitter Kelsey Robinson, Dutch opposite Lonneke Sloetjes, and Serbia’s Milena Rasic, VakifBank is perhaps the top women’s professional team in the world.
“Imagine the experience of playing in VakifBank,” she said. “That’s something that you cherish.
“My testimony, what I will be able to say to my kids one day, it’s like, ‘You guys, I started my career in Denmark, the lowest level of volleyball you will ever see in Europe. That’s where I played, and then my fifth year I played against Olympians. A whole team of Olympians.’ Do you know how amazing that is?”