Getting to Know ... Janice Leao

Getting to Know ... Janice Leao

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Last year, Janice Leao had the opportunity of a lifetime.

The veteran middle blocker was chosen by USA Volleyball to spend part of her summer training with the collegiate national team after excelling at a tryout that featured some of the nation’s top players.

“I was just in shock,” Leao said last year of the opportunity.

Turns out it wouldn’t be her only stint with USA Volleyball.

Leao, who helped lead the Hurricanes to a berth in the NCAA Tournament last fall and earned first-team All-ACC honors after recording a career-high 356.5 points for Miami in 2022, was invited to train with the collegiate national team again this past summer.

Though she wasn’t a wide-eyed rookie when she joined the team in Anaheim, California this time around, Leao was no less humbled by the opportunity and grateful for the experience that came with it.

“It just felt so surreal because it was my second time going and this time, they chose only 20 girls and the year prior, was 36,” said Leao, who was also an All-ACC Academic selection last year and was one of 11 student-athletes honored at this year’s Celebration of Women’s Athletics at Miami. “So, just being part of a smaller number felt more intimate with the coaches, [getting] more attention from them. That was really special. I felt like I got more insight and more knowledge and more teaching from going this past year, so, it was really fun. And the group of girls, I think this year was definitely more competitive. I just loved the experience because it showed me that I can be the volleyball player I went to be, especially getting the recognition I’ve been getting. So, it gives me more confidence going into the season. …

“It just felt super special and great. I was grateful that I was there for a second time.”

We asked Leao to take us through her summer, what the experience meant to her and what she’s looking forward to this season from Miami volleyball.

Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.

Q:  Last year, you spoke about how special it was to play for Team USA, not just for you, but for your family. What is it about that that is so meaningful for all of you?

Janice Leao: “My parents, they came from Cape Verde, so I’m first-generation here. I graduated already and having all these accolades and opportunities, especially with Team USA, kind of goes to show that the American dream for my parents is real and that they’re accomplishing things through their kids, which makes me feel super, super special because of the sacrifices they made and the obstacles they had to endure just to get me here. So, I’m just super grateful that I have all of these opportunities. It’s because of my parents.”

Q: What do you think it meant to your parents to see you in the red, white, and blue a second time?

JL: “They’re super proud, obviously. They loved talking about it with their coworkers. I would talk to my family and family friends and they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh, your family loves to talk about you and the things you’ve done and playing for Team USA.’ I go on Facebook and see my dad posting all of the posts from Team USA and Canes volleyball and it feels so special that I’m making them proud, one way or another. Whether it’s school, if it’s volleyball, those are my main priorities and it’s just special because of all the sacrifices. Cape Verde is a [developing] country. They don’t have that many resources there, so they came here for a reason.”

Q: That experience with Team USA and those volleyball players and coaches from all across the country, how do you think that’s going to benefit you on the court this season here at Miami?

JL: “So, with less girls there than in the year prior, I got more training and more coaching than the year prior. There was more attention to each individual that was there. So, having that insight from different coaches at the D-1 level gives you more insight and knowledge of the game, some things you didn’t recognize … You have a collective of information coming from different programs, so it kind of just shows you different things that you can do on the floor.

“And obviously, these are the best coaches and best players from every conference in the Power Five. So, it just grows you as a player on the court having all those people next to you. It makes you a better player and a smarter player. It was really competitive, so that was good as well.”

Q: For you, as a graduate student, knowing this is your last year at Miami, what are you looking forward to most this season, both personally and as a team?

JL: “I just want to leave with a bang, having the best season I can have while I’m still here. And I want to take everything in because, obviously, it’s my last year. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I’m just taking this as a really special year … Just taking everything in, these last moments with my coaches and teammates. It’s obviously super emotional, but I’m happy I get to do it again.”

Q: Last year, this team advanced to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season after a four-year absence. What did those back-to-back tournament berths mean to you, as one of the veterans on the roster?

JL: “It was great. From the first moment we stepped on the court at the beginning of last season, our goal was to make the NCAA Tournament and go far in it. So, I was glad we made the tournament, and we had a really good experience, going to Nebraska. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to, but that’s what this season is for. We want to go even farther than we did last year. Even for ACCs, we’re trying to be the best we can be and win it.”

Q: How do you now take the lessons and experience of last year’s run and build on them moving forward?

JL: “So, we pretty much brought everyone back. We have really talented freshmen that we can use this year. We all know what we felt last year, we don’t want to feel again this year. We know the potential that we have, but kind of just building off our emotions from last year and trying to do better and play better with each other and feel that chemistry on the court.”

Q: You mentioned that tournament appearance at Nebraska. Their program has been in the headlines this season for that incredible match that drew more than 90,000 fans. What was it like to see college volleyball in the spotlight like that?

JL: “We all thought that was so insane. In my volleyball group chat, we couldn’t stop talking about it for at least three days. It was so surreal and so special to see so many people coming together for a volleyball match. Sometimes, women’s volleyball doesn’t really get as much recognition as we should, so, just seeing that and seeing how much attention it got really put into perspective that women’s volleyball is getting more popular and getting more love. It was just great to know that [our sport] broke the world record [for attendance at a women’s sporting event]. That’s honestly insane. I’m so excited for the future of volleyball and the future of women’s sports in general. It goes to show it’s the next big thing.”

Q: Getting back to your experience at Miami and knowing you still have a season to finish, how would you describe your journey here and what has it meant to you to be a Hurricane?

JL: “Oh, I think it’s been one for the books. I did not expect it to go this way, but I’m honestly super grateful because Miami volleyball kind of pushed me to where I am today … I feel like I wouldn’t be at the point that I’m at right now if it wasn’t for my growth and development throughout my whole years being here. So, definitely shoutout to them. I am so grateful for them … Having my coaches support me and all the resources they provided me, I took advantage of that. It’s just a special place and I have special feelings about Miami volleyball. I’m grateful for everything they’ve done for me, that they’re doing for me.”

Q: What have been some of your favorite moments during your time here so far?

JL: “Honestly, there’s just so many that I can’t really pinpoint my favorite moments and memories. It’s just like the little things. My teammates and I were talking about it the other day … The moments when we’re hanging out and when we’re playing. Those are my favorite times. Our little moments in the airport and when we’re traveling.

“Obviously, the games are memorable. When we beat Georgia Tech last year, that was a super fun game. Definitely when we went to Nebraska, when we have our long away trips, those are always fun. Even when we’ve gotten stuck, we’ve made the most out of it. There are so many multiple memories. This whole journey has been memorable and so many little things that are special.”

Q: When you were being recruited, what made you feel Miami was the right place for you?

JL: “When I first stepped onto campus, I just felt this welcoming vibe from the coaches, from the environment here, from the teammates that I met. I felt like this was already home for me, so that’s what persuaded me to commit here.”

Q: How would you say you’ve grown as a player and a person here at Miami?

JL: “I think I’ve grown a lot. I think I definitely have grown to be open-minded. I feel like when I first got here, I thought I was just going to play volleyball. That would be it. Even with school, I thought I would just go through the motions. But during my first year here, I knew more and more it was for me and there was more this program was willing to offer me. So, that definitely made me grow as a person. Even school helped me grow. It just made me a better all-around person and all the different experiences that I had here shaped me into who I am today.”

Q: You’ve already graduated and earned a business management degree. What are you working on now during your final season at Miami?

JL: “I’m working to complete my MBA. I’m in the accelerated MBA program now.”

Q: How are you balancing pursuing an MBA with all the demands that come with playing high-level college volleyball?

JL: “It’s pretty difficult, especially with it being an accelerated program. But I also had experience from taking my [undergraduate] business classes while being an athlete. My time management skills have definitely gotten better. And I’ve definitely made sacrifices with my social life, but I think in the end, it’s going to be worth it. I’m going to come out with a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. But yes, I’ve had to bring in the same habits I had as a student, graduating a semester early, to now completing my MBA.”

Q: Once that degree is completed and you’ve finished your career here at Miami, what would you like to do next?

JL: “I definitely want to go pro. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to stay in the States, but there’s a new federation starting called Real Pro Volleyball and they’re bringing a league here to the States. Hopefully, that is established when I graduate and that can be an option. Obviously, I can go pro playing in Europe, if a team signs me. That’s pretty much what I want to do when I get out of college. And then obviously, after that, I want to come back to the States and create a life for me and use my degree in business. That’s definitely what I want to do.”