Katrien De Decker was a great influence to Gopher Volleyball during her four-year tenure. Playing from 1993-96, she was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year when she broke onto the collegiate volleyball scene in 1993. At the time, she became one of only five Golden Gophers in school history to claim first team All-America honors, in 1996, and one of six Minnesota players named first team All-Big Ten in three different seasons (1993, 1995, 1996). To cap it off, in 1997 De Decker received the Big Ten Medal of Honor, given for outstanding academic and athletic proficiency. To this day, she still ranks first in the Minnesota record books in kill attempts (5,708) and second in kills (2,300). She was later inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame in 2005. De Decker was also a member of the Belgium National Team from 1990 to 1999, when she led her team to a Spring Cup Championship, one of Europe’s most prestigious volleyball tournaments. Gophersports.com recently caught up with one of our legendary Gophers and what she’s doing now.
GopherSports: As an international student, what led you to Minnesota?
Katrien De Decker: With my club team, I played against an American high school all-star selection, who traveled Europe. My dad, who had been an AFS exchange student in the United States, asked the coaches what we had to do to have me play in college. We sent a letter to the top 25 college teams at the time. Some schools responded, and asked me to send a tape. Eventually a couple of coaches, including Vivian Langley, former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, came over to see me play. Vivian offered me a scholarship and I committed right away. The way she talked about the school and the program made it an easy decision. It felt comfortable and my parents had a good feeling about leaving me in Vivian’s hands.
GS: What you've been up to since you've graduated from the University of Minnesota?
KD: I graduated in 1997 and returned home to Belgium so I could keep playing volleyball. In the U.S., there was no professional volleyball league yet. I played professionally in Herentals and Charleroi. Both teams played in the top division in Belgium. With the team of Herentals I won a National Championship and qualified for the Final 4 of the European Cup. Meanwhile, I also went back to school to get my teaching certificate. From 2003 until 2011 I combined teaching and playing volleyball at the top division 1 in Belgium. Since we had practice at night, I could work during the year. First, I played four seasons in Gent and the last four years I played for my hometown team in Oostende.
I teach PE to juniors and seniors in high school. In March 2011 I retired from volleyball and in December 2011 my son Ryan was born. I haven’t played volleyball since, except with my students at school.
We live in Oostende, close to the beach. During the off season, I also played beach volleyball and for two seasons I played the European leg of the FIVB beach volleyball world tour. I retired from beach volleyball in 2011 also. I was a four-time National Champion, one time Belgian Cup winner and twice Queen of the beach.
My partner Kurt and I have been living together for 20 years. We have a son Ryan who is now six years old.
GS: Have you been able to stay in touch with your fellow teammates or coaches? If so, how?
KD: Social media is a great way to stay in touch with my former teammates, coaches and friends. I stay in touch through Facebook and Instagram. I was back at the U in 2005 when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I got to see a couple of my teammates then. I stayed with Vivian Langley for a week. I was sad to hear she passed away last week, after a long battle with cancer.
I also returned winter 2011 for Mike Hebert’s retirement, where I was reunited with a lot of teammates. It was a surprise for Mike and Sherry (his wife) seeing me there. They didn’t expect me to make the trip over from Europe.
The person I have seen and talked to most since I graduated from college has been Quincy Lewis (former Gopher basketball player and interim M Club president). I had close contact with him when he played basketball in Europe. Almost every year we tried to pay him a visit. Even now he’s back at the U we still stay in touch.
GS: Are you still connected with the sport of volleyball?
KD: I teach volleyball four hours a week at school. That’s about the only connection I still have with the sport. Once in a while I go see a match of the local team or one of the club teams. My son plays basketball and soccer, so no volleyball yet.
GS: What were some of your best memories as a Golden Gopher, both on and off the court?
KD: We used to have quarter system at the U, so we didn’t start classes and conference play until the end of September. We could go on preseason trips for weeks and actually be able to visit the places we played at. I probably got to see more of the United States than some citizens. We traveled to New Orleans, Houston, Boston, Hawaii, Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon, went fishing in Colorado, just to name a few.
For spring break I would go home with my roommate Tera Schneider (Fiamengo) who lived in Long Beach, Calif. Thanksgiving we would celebrate with all the out of state kids at Sarah Shanks' (Pearman) house. Her mom would make the best snicker bar salad.
During my four year career at the U, the volleyball program went through a lot of changes. After my sophomore year, our head coach Steph Schleuder was let go. Vivian Langley took a job with the AVCA, so second assistant coach Pam Miller-Dombeck took over my junior year. My senior year Mike Hebert became the new head coach. This is not typically what you expect to happen in college having three different coaches in four years.
But despite the coaching changes I can reflect on a pretty good career at the U. I was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and selected a First-Team all American my senior year. We made it to two NCAA tournaments. I will never forget playing the NCAA regionals against Notre Dame at a packed Williams Arena my freshman year. My sophomore year we moved to the Sports Pavilion. I can say that I never played for such a crowd and great fans ever again throughout my career.
GS: If you could go back to when you were playing, what would the current self, say to that volleyball player?
KD: That’s a hard one, because I just finished playing seven years ago. I was lucky to stay healthy and play at the highest level for almost 18 years. So my career lasted longer than some of my teammates. I have no regrets of the choices I made and would do it all over. The reason why I could play that long was probably because I took care of my body. Whenever I had an injury, I had it taken care of right away. So I wouldn’t be out too long. I took time to rest in between workouts and did a lot of shoulder and prevention excercises to stay in shape. Take care of your body!
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