116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Kristen Tupac wanted to be a professional athlete.
At first, she thought it would be softball, but when softball was eliminated from the Olympics in 2008, she didn't see a future there. So, she pursued volleyball, aspiring to play at its highest level.
Now, she's Zooming in from Dallas, where she's playing professional volleyball with Athletes Unlimited, a player-led grassroots volleyball league in the United States. The league concludes its season this weekend.
Being far from home, playing professionally in Switzerland and Germany, is what made her hang up her shoes and kneepads and instead help others through coaching and recruiting.
'I still enjoyed playing but I also just missed home,' Tupac said. 'Being from Iowa, like my family is so important to me. If you asked any professional player overseas what they miss, it's the moments, the time spent with family and friends. What you would see as a normal postgraduate life.'
Tupac is a former two-time All-American at Iowa State and earned a spot on the Team USA roster in 2014. She aided Team USA's gold-medal victory in the North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation World Championship-Qualifying tournament and played five years overseas in Switzerland and Germany.
She retired from her playing career in 2019.
In February, though, that changed. She received a call about a new professional volleyball league in America from one of her friends. It was an opportunity to play with some of America's best, like Olympian Jordan Larson, and as a former Team USA member herself, she knew she had the connections.
She not only wanted to play, but also help the league succeed, becoming part of its player executive committee, plotting how to make professional volleyball work in the United States — something that hasn't worked in the past.
'If anything I wanted to just be a part of rewriting history for volleyball players in America,' Tupac said. 'For my generation, to be able to play in the U.S. is a really big deal.'
The first was Major League Volleyball, which ran its course from 1987-1989, featuring six teams of former collegiate volleyball players with 10 games airing on ESPN. Next was the United States Professional Volleyball League, a four-team league that played one season in 2002.
None had the financial backing to survive other than the Association of Volleyball Professionals, which is sand volleyball.
Athletes Unlimited volleyball is a five-week, four-team, player-driven league that airs two matches per night every Saturday, Sunday and Monday on Twitch, YouTube, CBS Sports Network and FS2.
What's unique is its points system, which Tupac helped implement. Each week, players collect points through their personal stats, MVP votes and team victories, and the top four leaders draft their teams for the next week. It's a way for people to get to know the players, rather than dedicate themselves to a team.
Kills, digs, assists and aces are awarded certain numbers of points, but errors, depending on what type, subtract points.
Team wins are the most valuable, but even the matches are scored differently. Each set still is to 25 points, with the requirement of winning by two, but the goal is to win all three sets by collecting the most points, which are played no matter what.
Fans who subscribe to Athletes Unlimited, which features varying levels of free and paid options, get to vote for the most valuable players, and points are allotted to the top three.
'We did talk about negative points at first,' Tupac said. '... we don't do negative points. But we kind of had to, because that's what happens in volleyball, but you just maybe don't see it as in your face. Honestly, there's so much weighted on, like, team wins, that if you get wrapped up in the individual portion I think you could really hurt yourself.'
Tupac's two years off from playing professional volleyball hasn't affected her performance. She's the No. 16 overall player out of 45 and is leading the league with 151 digs. It wasn't uncommon to come into the new league with time off, according to Tupac. The pandemic sidelined many professional seasons, so the worry about performance was collectively shared, given the players want to put on a product that is good enough to last.
'She had a quote a couple of weeks ago from an interview where they asked, 'Well, how are you able to read (the hits)?' and she's like, 'Well, I watched a little film,'' former Cedar Rapids Kennedy and now U.S. Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team assistant coach Michelle Goodall said. 'I laughed out loud, like spit my coffee out because I'm like, 'OK yeah she watched a little bit of film when she was a high schooler and by a little bit, I meant a lot.''
Tupac is one of two Iowa State alumni playing in the league. Setter Kaylee Manns, who graduated after the 2009 season, also is playing.
'I feel lucky and blessed they were Cyclones at one point,' Iowa State head coach Christy Johnson said. 'I won't say that we knew Kristen would be as good as she ended up. I don't think anybody knew she would be as good as she ended up being. And I think that's a testament to her work ethic and her determination.'
It helps that Tupac has something greater than herself to play for. Every player chooses her own charity to benefit. Her end-of-season bonus money will be matched by Give Lively to benefit The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to members of the LGBTQ community under 25.
She chose this because she's had friends like former Kennedy teammate, Haley Brightwell, come out to her when they didn't know who they could go to.
'Thank God I was able to tell her,' Brightwell said. 'At the time, it was really stressful, until I was able to tell at least one person in my life. That was just a huge burden taken off of me. To not have to feel like I don't have to hide everything about me.'
Tupac even introduced Brightwell to her partner, who she now lives and coaches volleyball with in Switzerland. And when Tupac was looking for a charity, Brightwell was one of the people she asked for input.
'I think she decided she would like it to be focused on youth LGBTQ kids because we've all heard the horror stories,' Brightwell said. 'I wouldn't say mine was a horror story, but I would say it's incredibly stressful. If people don't have a friend or resources or the mental health capacity to handle what that feels like, they need the Trevor Project.'
Athletes Unlimited has been a place for Tupac to make a change in her sport, by being one of its pioneers and amplifying causes close to her heart.
Goodall remembers Tupac's senior year when the team had lost in the state tournament. Everyone threw their jerseys into a messy pile on the floor of the locker room. Tupac folded hers neatly and set it on top.
'It just showed her character,' Goodall said. 'Leaving the jersey in a better spot than she found it.'
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