The best of the very best – University of Wisconsin Badgers


Varsity Magazine




MADISON, Wis.Lauren Carlini has some specific intentions for her first trip to New York City.

She’s a foodie, so when the Wisconsin volleyball standout arrived Monday to take part in the annual Sullivan Award ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club, she was on the lookout for something on the Zagat menu.

“Anywhere that I can go to get world-class food I’m more than happy to do that,” Carlini said. “I’m going to have a really great meal.”

Also on Carlini’s tourist to-do list was a visit to the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building, but her top priority is seeing the 9/11 Memorial.

Carlini just turned 22, so she was 6 when the terrorist attacks took place in 2001.

“But I remember it happening,” she said.

Carlini will be accompanied by her father, Tony, a firefighter in Aurora, Illinois. The fact 343 firefighters were among those killed when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on Sept. 11 is sure to add meaning to the visit.

“It’s always imprinted in my mind,” Carlini said of that moment nearly 16 years ago.

Carlini’s trip to the Big Apple will be memorable for another reason. She’s one of seven finalists for the AAU Sullivan Award, given annually since 1930 to the best amateur athlete in the U.S.

The rundown of previous winners is overwhelmingly iconic.

Among the women: Wilma Rudolph, Michelle Kwan, Jackie Joyner-Kersey, Bonnie Blair, Missy Franklin and Shawn Johnson.

Among the men: Peyton Manning, Michael Phelps, Bobby Jones, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Eric Heiden.

“It’s a crazy, crazy list of people,” Carlini said. “It’s definitely humbling to be among them.”

Same goes for the other finalists, a group that included Kayla Harrison, judo; Laurie Hernandez, gymnastics; Ashleigh Johnson, water polo; Kyle Snyder, wrestling; Aly Raisman, gymnastics; and Ginny Thrasher, target shooting.

“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I deserve to be on this list,'” Carlini said. “Everyone has gold medals and has been in the Olympics at least one time.

“I’m the only one on the list that’s not been an Olympian. That’s my goal in life: To become an Olympian and to win a gold medal, the first gold medal for the United States’ women’s volleyball team.”

Carlini was nominated in part by fan voting, which speaks to her popularity in the volleyball community.

“It shows how great of fan support that we have here as well as at home with my friends and family, too,” she said of Badgers followers, who routinely packed the UW Field House for matches. “I’m very grateful for that.”

Volleyball vs. Minnesota 2016 Lauren Carlini celebration with teammates

Carlini, a setter who is the first four-time All-American in Wisconsin history, looked through the list of winners long enough to note that no volleyball specialist has won the Sullivan Award.

But she’s going without a prepared acceptance speech.

“I don’t think I’m going to win, so I’ll just have something in the back of my head,” Carlini said. “I’ll just wing it.

“I know who I have to thank and I’ll be caught up in the moment, so if I do win, I’m sure it’ll work out.”

Carlini is in the stretch run of her time at UW. She’s taking 15 credits to secure her degree in retailing and consumer behavior, all with an eye toward graduation May 13.

She’s also taking part in early-morning workouts with the Badgers, in part to keep her game sharp, but also to share insights with her projected successor, true freshman setter Sydney Hilley.

Eventually Carlini will make her way to the U.S. national team training site in California and move to Europe to begin her professional career.

She plans to follow a path that leads her to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Carlini is the second UW student-athlete to be a Sullivan finalist, but the first woman.

Ron Dayne, the Heisman Trophy-winning tailback for the Wisconsin football team in 1999, was a nominated in 2000 when Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner won the award.

Dayne’s legacy at the school — he set the NCAA career rushing record while playing for the Badgers from 1996 to ’99 — is such that he might be in a class by himself.

He helped lead UW to two Big Ten Conference titles, two Rose Bowl victories and set records that still stand.

“He’s the man,” Carlini said when the subject of Wisconsin legacies is broached.

What about Carlini?

She came to Madison as the top recruit in the nation and helped guide the Badgers to four straight NCAA Sweet 16s — including the national title match in 2013 — as well as a Big Ten title in 2015 and the first No. 1 ranking in program history.

“I feel like I’ve left an imprint on the volleyball program, so I’ve kind of thought about that and my legacy here and what I brought to this team,” Carlini said.

But as far as her overall presence as a UW student-athlete, “I can’t tell what type of impact — what my legacy will be at Wisconsin,” she said. “It will be interesting to think about when I’m out in California.”

The fact Carlini is a finalist for one of the most enduring, prestigious awards in amateur sports is a testament onto itself.

“It’s astounding to see the list of athletes and how great they are and how great their careers and legacies are,” she said.

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