Athlete of the Year: Carlini solidifies legacy as all-time great in final season

Senior setter led best era in Badger volleyball history, now sets sights on 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Lauren Carlini had an incredible season, solidifying herself as one of the best to come through UW

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In early April, Lauren Carlini stepped under the bright lights of the Big Apple and took a seat atop the stage inside the storied New York Athletic Club, utterly unprepared for the historic moment she would soon experience.

Among some of the finest amatuer athletes in the world, the former Wisconsin setter felt exceedingly privileged to receive recognition as a finalist for the AAU James E. Sullivan Award, a tribute reserved for the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country. Carlini, while undoubtedly grateful for the opportunity to be considered in a 2016 class featuring six Olympic Gold Medalists, was dubious about her chances of winning—understanding that the pedigree of her fellow finalists was seemingly unequivocal.

So, when the award was presented and her name was called, Carlini rose from her seat on stage and walked toward the podium, dumbfounded and awestruck.

“I was completely shocked,” Carlini said. “I was definitely not expecting to win the award. I didn't think I even deserved to be a semifinalist, just looking at all the other athletes’ résumés and accomplishments. The people who win that award are the best of the best in their sport and in their specific time period.”

A four-time All-American at UW, Carlini is already flush with accolades, but the latest addition to her collection may be the most prestigious. In earning the 2016 Sullivan Award, Carlini became the first ever volleyball player—and the only Badger—to accomplish the feat in its 87-year history, and now joins the company of past recipients, a list that includes sports legends like Bobby Jones, Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps.

“There’s so much history that goes into the award,” Carlini said. “I’m so honored and humbled to even be mentioned with [the Sullivan Award winners].”

“What they’ve achieved in their careers gives me something to work towards. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I matchup with the people on that list yet, but I’m motivated to keep working so I can be worthy of the honor.”

Surprise or not, Carlini’s recognition was surely well-earned. During her time at UW, the Illinois native helped turn her school into a volleyball juggernaut, finishing her college career with a composite record of 114-25, advancing to the NCAA regionals four times and the national championship match in 2013. At the helm of the program for the last four seasons, Carlini asserted herself as arguably the best setter in the nation, ending her college days as the country’s active leader in assists (5,559) and Wisconsin’s all-time leader in double-doubles (74).

No one is able to evaluate the impact a particular player has had on a program quite like a coach can. And, in the words of Badgers’ head coach Kelly Sheffield, Carlini’s impact on Wisconsin volleyball has proven nothing short of “immeasurable.”

“She’s helped bring a lot of fans and a lot of energy back to Wisconsin volleyball,” Sheffield said. “She’s dramatically helped increase our win-loss record, and she plays with an intensity and drive that make her teammates want to play with her.”

Although the talent was evident immediately, Carlini's rise to stardom didn’t happen overnight. A stalwart competitor in many aspects of life, much of her greatness is rooted in a refusal to accept anything less.

“I didn’t lower the standard for myself,” Carlini said. “Whether we were winning, whether we weren’t winning, whether I was going through hard times. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, the standards stayed the same for me.”

Now, four months removed from the conclusion of her college career, the standout setter’s insatiable appetite for success has not abated by any measure. From hiring an agent to pursuing a professional contract in Italy, Carlini has been busier than ever, unwilling to let anything interfere with her longtime goal of representing her country in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

That journey will officially commence this May, when she moves to Anaheim, Calif., to begin training with the U.S. National Team. Until then, she has been practicing and training seemingly nonstop in preparation.

“Going into the USA gym, I just want to be the best possible version of myself,” Carlini said. “Playing in the Olympics has been a dream of mine since sixth and seventh grade, and I’ve been continuing to make sure I’m in the best shape possible.”

After a summer stint with the National Team, Carlini will transition over to the professional circuit this fall. She expects to join a league in Italy, where she will be forced to face the uncertain reality of adjusting not only to a new team, but to a new country and culture as well.

“It's gonna be really hard to be out of the country for most of the year,” Carlini said. “But you need to be able to stay positive even when you’re down and keep your head up during tough times. There's a good chance you’ll be the only American on the team, so it’s really important to go out and have new experiences and to not be afraid of being uncomfortable.”

Amidst all that’s going on right now, Carlini has little time to think about legacy. But she loves Wisconsin wholeheartedly and hopes that she’s made an impact on future generations of Badger volleyball players.

“For the girls I played with, and the girls I didn’t, I hope I leave a positive legacy behind that helps build a championship mentality,” Carlini said. “Even though I won’t be on the team, I hope the girls who do win a championship for Wisconsin savor every moment because they’re going to make history. I know it’ll happen.”

As for her future, Sheffield doesn't need any convincing.

“She’s ready for the next challenge,” Sheffield said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that she has an unbelievable future in front of her. I think she’s gonna light the world on fire.”

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