Sports & Recreation

Dana Rettke and Volleyball: Meant for Each Other

Would you believe the UW star once loved a different sport?

Dana Rettke on the court during a UW–Madison women's volleyball game

The UW’s First-Team All-American volleyball star originally planned to play basketball in college.

UW volleyball player Dana Rettke x’21 is six-foot-eight. It’s easy to marvel at her height, but even that doesn’t measure up to her love for and dedication to her sport.

As Rettke, a middle blocker, practices with her teammates in the UW Field House on a warm August morning, she’s in her element. Her calm and steady demeanor drives her movements. She acts swiftly, and her focus doesn’t waver. She’s also having a ton of fun, cheering on and huddling up with her teammates — even breaking into a subtle dance when a song by Usher bursts through the loudspeaker between plays.

It’s hard to believe that Rettke, named the 2017 National Freshman of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association and a two-time First-Team All-American, didn’t start playing volleyball until her freshman year of high school. At the time, she was planning to play basketball in college.

Although she declined her mother’s suggestions to give volleyball a try before entering high school, Rettke changed her mind when her best friend decided to play.

“I was like, ‘Okay, she’s playing — I kind of want to be cool, too, and play with her,’ ” Rettke says. “I just fell in love with the sport.”

Then came a fateful pickup game with the University of Illinois’s basketball team during a campus visit.

“I was that scrawny, tall kid,” Rettke says. “[I] did an open gym with them, and I got annihilated.”

This experience, in conjunction with knee issues, led her to decide that basketball was not her future. Although she’d gone on more recruiting visits for basketball than for volleyball, she knew volleyball was the sport she wanted to pursue as a career — and she didn’t waste any time pivoting to it. Early in her sophomore year of high school, Rettke committed to playing for Wisconsin. By her junior year, she’d given up basketball entirely.

“[Volleyball] was a new challenge for me. It was something that I didn’t know a lot about, and I just loved to learn about this sport. I can’t really say I loved learning about basketball as much,” she says.

Rettke, a native of Riverside, Illinois, had come to UW–Madison for her first volleyball campus visit. After that, other campuses didn’t compare. A business major, Rettke was drawn to the university’s strong academic reputation and loved its volleyball culture. She admired the way players communicated with each other on and off the court.

“[The coaches and teammates] want you to be better people more than volleyball players. So, yes, volleyball’s very important, but I know from being here I’m going to walk away with so many more skills and so many more things to be proud of,” she says.

This past summer, Rettke joined the U.S. Women’s National Team to play in the Volleyball Nations League — where the team won gold — and helped the U.S. secure its spot for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“It’s awesome just to say I helped get this team to the Olympics,” says Rettke, who plans to try out for the Olympic team next summer.

She says a piece of advice from the U.S. team’s coach — Karch Kiraly, an Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball and inductee to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame — has stuck with her.

“It’s going to sound weird. It’s having low expectations for yourself because it brings a lot more joy and you don’t expect anything to happen,” Rettke says, noting that she holds low expectations and instead sets a standard for herself. “Like, ‘I don’t expect to do this, I am going to work at this.’ It just makes you work harder.”

She was also reunited with fellow Badger Lauren Carlini ’17 during the experience.

“[Carlini] is laser-focused on everything, but she’s also very team-oriented,” Rettke says, adding that finding that balance can be difficult, but Carlini does it well.

This season, the Badger team is aiming to win the Big Ten and national championships, and Rettke is excited to be a part of a roster that has its sights set at the top.

“That’s not going to all come overnight,” she says. “We have to take that game by game, so I’m just excited to be in the battle and the grind with this team this season.”

Published in the Winter 2019 issue


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