Volleyball ace Myriam Sylla: "I try to focus on the positives"

The best outside spiker in the last World and European Championships opens up on her friendship with Paola Egonu and explains why Italy are aiming for a medal at Tokyo 2020.

13 min By Alessandro Poggi

Myriam Sylla was 21 when the Volleyball prodigy took part in her first Olympic Games at Rio 2016.

Her debut wasn't particularly successful, with Italy winning only one game in their pool.

Four years later the Imoco Conegliano spiker is a world silver medallist and world champion with her club.

The 25-year-old was also named best outside hitter at the 2018 FIVB women's World Championships and at the 2019 CEV European Championships, where Italy clinched bronze.

Born to Ivorian parents who migrated to Italy in the early '90s, Sylla admitted that her family faced economic struggles, forcing them to move from Sicily to the North of the peninsula.

In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, the volleyball star reveals how her parents' challenging past has shaped her life and how the loss of her mother in 2018 helped her see things in perspective. She also explains why Italy are aiming for a medal at Tokyo 2020, and what makes her friendship with Paolo Egonu so special.

It’s true, I had a life more difficult than most, but there were other people who were in even worse conditions, as my dad used to remind me. So I’m just thankful for what I have. I do a sport that I love and even if it’s hard sometimes it makes me happy, so I can’t complain.

Even if the suspension of sport around the world has probably prevented her from winning more trophies this season, Sylla can see the silver lining

Olympic Channel: How hard is it for an elite athlete to be in this situation with lockdowns?

Myriam Sylla: It’s a bit sad, because I’m used to training twice a day at high intensity, but now I’m forced to stay home and I can do just some light work for one hour a day…I feel like I need to let my steam off and I’m so full of energy that sometimes I can’t sleep at night! On the other hand, I understand that these limitations are necessary to go back to our normal life as soon as possible. At the same time this situation makes me appreciate what I was doing more and I’ll promise that I’ll never complain anymore about how heavy is our training because I miss working hard and playing volleyball!

OC: How do you keep yourself busy?

MS: I have a volleyball with me and I’m practising some drills, but I’m so rusty that I’m struggling to keep my arms straight for the bump position. I also do some gym work followed by our fitness coach and every day I have a new training idea, like practising yoga or doing TikTok dancing moves for example, but I always challenge myself with difficult exercises and I get easily frustrated! I’ve also tried to learn Spanish in just one day and I realised that of course it wasn’t possible.

OC: How do you support each other with your teammates?

MS: I do video calls on our group chat. We live in the same housing complex and I can see some of them from my balcony: we joke sometimes, once we sang together the anthem of our team. We also play ‘Mario Kart’ from our rooms… But since we used to spend a lot of time together, this is a good time to learn how to spend time alone and reflect on our own.

OC: How important is friendship in your sport?

MS: I think friendship in volleyball is important, but not essential. I saw many teams win even if they were not friends with each other. What I think is essential is being ready to help your teammate: even if we don’t get along, once we are on the court we need to be 100% willing to help each other.

In my team we have a bond that goes beyond being just teammates: we are aware that we are sharing this journey together and our friendship will continue even when our career is finished. We are already picturing ourselves in 10 years time, spending a holiday together with our husbands and children at home… So this is real friendship, but it’s not easy to find it in our sport.

OC: Can you tell us about your strong friendship with Paola Egonu?

MS: She’s like my little sister, but our friendship has developed gradually. It started with: ‘I don’t like her, we are different and I don’t want to get close to her’, and she was thinking the same of me. But we found ourselves in the same situation as we made our debut for the senior national team at the same time. We needed to help each other and from there our relationship has gradually evolved.

It’s difficult to explain, probably we complement each other in many things. It’s not just smiles and jokes, we are both very proud people and we often confront each other, but we overcome our differences because there’s a strong friendship underneath. I’m the more lively one, I like to drag her along in many things, I feel like a ‘tornado’ swirling around her. She’s quieter but at the same time she likes to speak frankly, maybe too much. She’s very direct and sometimes I need to tell her to be more tactful.

OC: Sport is about resilience and adaptability: how are you coping with this situation?

MS: Sport has taught me to adapt: I don’t feel sorry for myself and I try to focus on the positives. I don’t want to feel disappointed so I avoid thinking about specific dates and I don’t give myself a deadline for when everything will be over. I just live this situation day by day. Like in a volleyball match, I try to do my best and we’ll see what to do after this long match will be over.

OC: In your book ‘With all the strength I have’ you talked about the difficult moments you had to endure in your life. How have those experiences shaped your character to face these times?

MS: My instinct is to complain about the situation, but I immediately realise that there are people in much worse conditions. I can’t really complain: I spent four years in Bergamo and I have many friends there who are losing family members due to this situation. Even when I watch the TV, I see people who are struggling economically, while I have everything that I want.

It’s true, I had a life more difficult than most, but there were other people who were in even worse conditions, as my dad used to remind me. So I’m just thankful for what I have. I do a sport that I love and even if it’s hard sometimes it makes me happy, so I can’t complain.

OC: Was there any particular episode in your past that helped you grow as a person?

MS: When I was a kid I learned about the value of things. Once at the supermarket my dad was surprised that I chose the less expensive cookies, but he was also proud of me. The most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for myself is an iPhone! I’ve always been careful about spending my money, I’ve always been content with little and this helped to be what I am now.

I learned a lot from my parents’ story. They never had anything, but they were always positive and determined to achieve their goals. When my mum passed away I also understood how pointless chasing money and wellbeing is if we don’t enjoy the present, because we don’t know how much time we have left. With this virus we are locked down and we realise that we should have enjoyed some moments more… I was about to buy a house for my mum when she suddenly passed away. So I learnt that we can keep chasing our dreams as long as we enjoy the present.

Myriam Sylla won silver at the 2018 FIVB women's World Championships - CREDIT: Nori Kamiyama
Myriam Sylla won silver at the 2018 FIVB women's World Championships - CREDIT: Nori Kamiyama

OC: You are a role model for many girls, what advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

MS: At that age I was very ambitious, exuberant and eager to achieve my goals. I made many mistakes, but probably I wouldn’t change anything, because I wouldn’t be where I am today.

OC: Who was your inspiration when you were growing up?

MS: Tai (Taismary) Aguero was my hero and she’s still my hero, even if she’s now playing in the lower divisions. I was looking at her like probably many girls look at me now. Something that struck me was when she played a match during the Olympics after her mum died. When I was watching her on TV, I remember I said to my parents that I wanted to become like her.

When I met her at Villa Cortese she was always very helpful and I remember how excited I was when she came to watch me during a U18 game. I couldn’t believe my eyes when she showed up with a chair and I was so nervous that I played terribly because I wanted to impress her. When I joined the first team, she took me to lunch and I remember I kept staring at her without eating anything. I almost worshipped her! She kind of took me under her wing, she gave me advice and was quite strict. Last year I met her in Modena and I took a picture with her, I was excited like when I was a kid!

OC: What does it mean to be a role model for young girls?

MS: I’m proud of that, but I haven’t changed my attitude. Perhaps they are disappointed that I don’t behave like a star, but I’m just 25 and I remember when I was their age so I’m friendly and I even tease them when they ask me for an autograph!

OC: How’s your life changed since winning silver at the World Championships in Japan?

MS: Well, it hasn’t changed much: before they didn’t know me, now they think I’m Paola Egonu! (laughs) Actually now more people recognise me and write me messages, asking me questions.

OC: What do young girls ask you?

MS: There was a girl who wanted to leave volleyball because she knew she wouldn't reach my level. I told her that the most important thing is to have fun and that it’s pointless to make comparisons, especially with someone like me who’s been playing for ten years.

Another one told me she was struggling to serve in practice sessions because there was a picture of me on the wall. I told her to remove my picture, also because serving is not my main strength!

CREDIT: Valeria Rossato - Getsportmedia
CREDIT: Valeria Rossato - Getsportmedia

OC: Rio 2016 was your first Olympics, what went wrong?

MS: My memories are quite unpleasant. I was very young and when we qualified I felt I had the whole world in my hands. Then in Rio I realised how the world was too overwhelming for us. We faced teams who had the bit between their teeth, while we were not ready at all for such an event. We were getting along well and there was a good mix in the team, but probably we weren’t organised perfectly and couldn’t cope with the strong emotions. It was a mix of factors and unfortunately we couldn’t show how competitive we really were. Now with hindsight I would know what we should have done and what we shouldn’t have.

OC: One year after Rio you reached the final at the Worlds: what did it change?

MS: We had a generational turnover and realised we were hungry for wins. I remember the messages that I exchanged with my teammate Cristina Chirichella when we were in the hotel in Rio. We could’t accept that fiasco and we were really determined to come back stronger. Two years later we did something that most thought it was impossible.

OC: What it means for you having one more year to prepare for Tokyo?

MS: This postponement can help us find more stability because some of my teammates are coming back from injuries. With one year more, all the players will be available, we will have more experience and the team will be more compact like if we were soldiers.

OC: Who will be Italy’s main rivals in Tokyo?

MS: Serbia, China, Russia, USA, Turkey... It feels like they are many, but in any case we have to beat them all because the bar is quite high.

OC: Do you consider Serbia your bete noir?

It’s true, we never beat them. But we only lost four matches, even if they were important. Every match has its own story and they used their weapons better than us in those four games, full stop. It’s not like we have lost to them for the last ten years.

MS: How do you feel compared to four years ago?

OC: Qualifying for Rio was already a dream for us. This time we earned the qualification for Tokyo at the first round and we want to achieve something important. In Rio we would have been happy with a fourth or fifth place, this time we aim higher.

Myriam Sylla won the 2019 FIVB club world championships with Imoco Conegliano CREDIT: Paolo Miccoli - Getsportmedia
Myriam Sylla won the 2019 FIVB club world championships with Imoco Conegliano CREDIT: Paolo Miccoli - Getsportmedia

OC: You play for a club, Imoco Conegliano, which seems unbeatable: you won a FIVB club World Cup, a Coppa Italia, you were leading the Italian league before the suspension…What’s the secret of this team?

MS: We are very strong players individually and we also gelled together very well, we are friends and we are always happy to help each other. That’s our secret. Our coach (Daniele Santarelli) did a great job in managing this group of talented girls because it’s not easy when everyone has his own personal ambitions. But none of us pretend to be the star and we are happy to make sacrifices, it feels like being in a family. This is something special and we are aware of that.

OC: How good are your teammates?

MS: Paola (Egonu) is a different category, her physical skills are simply incredible. Our captain and setter (Joanna Wołosz) is so good that sometimes it’s difficult to predict where the ball is going. Monica (Di Gennaro) is very demanding with herself and she gets upset if her pass is not perfect. We like challenging and teasing each other: ‘now I’m going to stop you!’, ‘It was easy to catch this ball’, and so on. The training atmosphere is very competitive and there’s a lot of comradeship.

OC: How much have you improved?

MS: In this team, a lot since the beginning. I had to work a lot to fit perfectly into the team. Now I feel my brain can think more clearly and can process all the information better. Now I feel calmer and I can control myself better.

OC: What are your personal ambitions?

MS: I want to appreciate myself more and enjoy more what I am doing. I’d like to translate this positive energy into my sport and achieve most of my targets as soon as possible. I want to win, which is every athlete’s goal.


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