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Heartaches & Revelations By Cynthia Barboza

cynthia barboza usa volleyball player

Let it go, Let it go…

It took Cynthia Barboza almost 2 years to finally air her side after she was cut from the 2012 Olympic Team. This is by far the most personal and the most honest piece we’ve ever read and shared written by an athlete we’ve admired since she played for Stanford in her college years.

February 21st, 2014

Hey Guys!

Sorry about that little 1-year hiatus on the blogging front. As you might imagine, my life has turned into a series of abrupt 180’s since my last post.

The short version sounds like this – I quit volleyball, did a self help workshop, got a job, moved to San Francisco, got a different job, went to 10 weddings, and I’m just now coming up for air.

I’ve got severe writers block trying to figure out where to start and I’m rusty when it comes to writing these.. be patient with me.

It’s a really bizarre thing to go for an Olympics. It’s also a bizarre thing to fall short thrice. Truth be told, I came a little unhinged for a second there in the summer of 2012. Little known fact, my french boyfriend dumped me the day after the roster got announced. Pretty nice one-two punch. Probably for the best, definitely for the best. It still hurt.

Whatever, as far as most of you are concerned he was imaginary (he wasn’t imaginary and I loved the shit out of him).

So here’s how I decided to deal with disappointment – work out a lot, go out a lot, travel a lot. Basically what I do to avoid uncomfortable feelings is to make myself very very busy so that I don’t have time to be sad, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, etc.

When I feel shitty I get pissed at myself for feeling shitty so I tell myself I’m a piece of shit for calling myself a piece of shit and I should be more evolved and nicer to myself which where I am today is disappointed in myself which feels shitty. Did you follow? Super healthy & productive.

Self-Love. I’m working on it.

Unfortunately for me, unconditional self-love means I need to start getting comfortable with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the little goblin starting at me in the mirror. So let’s dig into some of the ugly for a second and I’ll walk you through just how toxic my head was in the summer of 2012.

At this point I’ve gone for the Olympic roster and been the last one cut twice. Each time I had a convenient excuse for failing – I was still young with a lot of potential. Potential is something we’ll come back to – I’m afraid of mine, or at least I used to be. The excuse wasn’t actually comforting, but I had a nice talking point whenever I needed to address it publicly. That will be a recurring theme – I’m pretty good at verbally spinning a silver lining on anything that happens to me so that you think I have super-human optimism and resiliency. I digress..

The 2009 – 2012 quad I decided to commit. I said and did everything in my power for 4 years and I intentionally put every other part of my life in the backseat. Long distance relationships & contracts in Siberia were decisions I made. If I failed this time it wasn’t going to be because I was young or tried to juggle the Olympics + school, it was going to be a straightforward failure.

Let’s throw some context in here. In my eyes, anything shy of Gold Medal = failure. Yes, I perceive a 10 year career on the National Team and 3 Final Fours to be failure. Winning = Succeeding. Not Winning = Failing. And if you tell me not to be so hard on myself, I’ll get offended that you think I set unrealistic expectations. The expectations were realistic. I failed.

Cathartic or masochistic? Tomato tom-AH-to.

Oh man, I keep digressing cause I think I’m scared to see the words that come out if I go straight into real talk. So in 2012 I felt like a villain. Sucks. Kristin’s mom passed away to cancer in 2012, and the perfect fairy tale is to have her take on the strength of her mother and make the team. The perfect fairy tail. How do you compete with that? I felt so ugly. I didn’t want to win, but I desperately wanted to win. And when that icy cold realization that it wasn’t going to be me on that roster set in (1 month before they announced the team) I think I might have been clinically depressed. I look in the mirror and see a three-peat failure and monstrous villain obstructing Kristin’s heroic battle in honor of her late mother.

It hurt the friendship. I hurt the friendship. I love Kristin to the core and I let competition make me ugly.

Please don’t tell me I’m competitive. I don’t want to be. One of the things that makes me happiest about being done with sports is that in my new world you don’t have to compete if you don’t want to. In business and life there is ALWAYS a way to collaborate. You can create a world where there are no competitors. Thank God.

Here are a few words that mean a lot to me: Love, Health, Community, Authenticity, and Joy. That was a random.

Before the team was announced I remember sitting in the hotel in the locker room in China, knowing with certainty that it would be the last time I had USA on my back and I remember hoping I didn’t get subbed in to the game. That’s ass backwards. We’ll circle back to this once I’m in touch with a therapist, right now I don’t have a tightly packaged explanation for you. I didn’t want to play. I was happy on the bench, coordinating choreography for the non-starters. I felt like myself there, when I was on the court I felt like I was pretending. I just felt phony and gross.

Now that I think about it, I never really liked the games. I remember as a kid my teammates were always more excited for the games than the practices. Publicly I agreed with them, but privately I always liked practice better. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like games… There are a few key games that stick out in my mind where I felt el fuego and LOVED to compete, but on the whole I felt happier in practice. Weird, right?

You know what I liked even better than practice – weights & conditioning. Super weird. But I loved it. Throw on some filthy beats and let me hang clean to the rhythm. That’s my sweet spot. Acting like a clown to make people laugh their way through beast mode training.

Anyways, if I’m honest with you it still hurts a little bit. The Winter Olympics being on right now makes me feel weird. I go out of my way to try to not care which makes be feel guilty and un-American. That feels ugly to me, so I yell at myself and trying to McGyver an attitude adjustment.

This post is tough to write because I feel like I’m in a time machine. I don’t spend my days thinking about volleyball anymore. I’m so God damn happy that I don’t play.

I caught up with Stacy last week and she said something that other people have told me, but I finally heard for the first time:

“Cynthia, when you stropped playing I was so happy for you. I knew that what you go on to do after volleyball is going to be the incredible part of your story.”

That’s a line I’ve been saying to myself, but haven’t believed. Now I know she’s right. I’ll explain why later…

February 24th, 2014

Wow, I just dumped some real talk on you guys. Don’t feel bad for me, that’s not where my head lives today. It’s been an evolution, but I’m in a space where I finally feel alive and connected to who I actually am not things I’ve done. Two quick stories that happened in the last week that have helped me navigate through the fog of self-discovery that evidently happens in your twenties.

Last week I was in Las Vegas for a marketing conference on behalf of my current company. If you take a look at your calendars, that’s coincidentally (or maybe it was serendipity) the same weekend as the giant Las Vegas club tournament. When I look at all the scars – in my case dents – in my knees, I can’t believe I used to play six matches a day on a half centimeter of sport court on top of straight concrete. I was invincible.

There were so many familiar faces that were in Vegas that weekend, but I had this weird anti-volley impulse. Walking into that gym sounded like the worst idea ever, so I went ghost and revealed to very few volley people that I was actually in town. I felt like I was shedding my old skin – like those volley people don’t get me, they get a version of me, and I feel guilty that I’m not as die hard as some of the people that would have killed to have been in my shoes (do you hear me beating myself up again?). I was 100% anti-volley, well… more like 99%. I love hotels, and every fiber in my being wanted to spend the entire weekend taking bubble baths and wearing a hotel robe. I didn’t want to leave the hotel, and if I did leave the hotel it sure as shit wasn’t going to be to go watch some volleyball and answer “why’d you stop playing?” and “so what do you do now?” 500 times.

Despite my frighteningly strong desire to be a hermit, for God knows what reason, I was hell bent on seeing Stacy Sykora. Our schedules were totally out of sync and it was going to be a nearly insurmountable effort (ie: I would need to exit the bathtub and put on clothes), I just had this gut feeling like I needed to see her.

Stacy is someone very near and dear to my heart. I mean, she’s known me since my very first year on the National Team when I was 16. Knowing someone from ages 16-27 means you see some serious metamorphosis, or at least that’s what I assumed. I don’t feel like the same person I was when I was a teenager, or at least I like to think I’ve evolved a little bit. When I first joined the team I didn’t have a clue why Stacy took me under her wing. She’s got this incredibly dynamic and magnetic personality and I was a weird kid with a bad haircut and so mountains of insecurity about having being invited to train and feeling like I didn’t deserve to be there.

There’s something to be said for making people “earn it.” When you hand out free-passes based on “potential” you could end up with a train wreck like me. Joke. I don’t actually think I’m a train wreck. Self deprecating jokes are just my default when I get all vulnerable and honest for more than two sentences at a time.

Stacy and I sat outside and had one of the most wonderful conversations I’ve ever been a part of. Her story is absolutely incredible, someone needs to write a book, but where she is right now is such an interesting chapter. Stacy was the world’s greatest libero for years. Unlike me, she didn’t have the luxury of choosing when the volleyball chapter was going to end. Life – her accident – took it from her. In a single moment, her entire life flipped upside down and it was totally out of her hands. Athletes at her level invest so much of identity around their craft and to have such a big chunk of your identity stripped from you is a mental and emotional battle.

As athletes, particularly successful ones, we’re often put on a pedestal, but our value to you is so temporary. A career as an athlete isn’t sustainable, eventually your body breaks down and then what. You spend your life making sacrifices to pursue a goal, and then it ends. And then you rebuild, because there is no other way.

I’m rambling again… probably because I could talk about what an inspirational and influential part of my life Stacy has been for days. But I’m a chronic narcissist so let’s turn the conversation back to me.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been a little sensitive to people’s reactions to my retirement. I want people to understand why I did, but assume that they won’t. I’ve always resisted volleyball being the only thing I do. I never wanted to be a one-trick pony and put all of my eggs in one basket. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m risk averse and didn’t want the responsibility of putting all of my eggs in, going for it, and failing. So I gave it a few rounds and tweaked the amount of eggs in basket over the years and turns out I don’t have a clue which way is better cause neither worked.

I like to identify as a multi-trick pony.

In that conversation last week, Stacy told me that when I retired she was so happy. She was so happy because she knew that whatever I decided to do next was going to be incredible, and that in her mind I end up as CEO of something and all of our old teammates come work for me.

Hot damn, that’s one hell of a compliment. And that’s not the first time someone’s said that to me, but it was the first time I heard it. More importantly, it was the first time I believed it. Thank you Stacy.

The second conversation is one I had with my Dad, the infamous Bob Barboza, last Friday. I don’t know who’s reading this, so I don’t know who has heard me tell Bob stories, but I’ve basically been running around describing my Dad as this lovable, but often clueless character that is always doing ridiculous things, making zero sense, and having very little in common with me. I’ve said (and believed) that when I see green grass, he looks at the same patch and it’s hot pink with a unicorn on it. The rhetoric I’ve been sharing for the past 27 years is that my Dad is a certified crazy and he doesn’t understand me or my life. Bob thinks I’m the Michael Jordan of everything..

… and that pissed me off. As my biggest fan, my Dad was always telling people how great I was. Meanwhile I was proving to everyone that I was not great, because I kept losing or getting cut at the critical moments that separate good from great. SHUT UP DAD. All I ever wanted was to be the underdog again. I spent very little time in my career as the underdog. People are pumped when David beats Goliath, and no one really gives a shit about what Goliath might be going through.

Malcom Gladwell’s new book frustrates me. I haven’t read it, but it frustrates me. I empathize with Goliath. It’s hard to have a target on your back – it’s expected if you win, and it’s as if hell has frozen over if you lose. Awesome.

So we’ll get back to this in a little bit, but I’m working on a project that I’m really excited about. I love projects. I called my mom to tell her all about it, and as I was listening to myself talk, for the first time in my life I heard myself and I sounded EXACTLY LIKE MY DAD. Weird. So Weird. Like throws off my entire sense of self. The weirdest.

In that one moment I finally understood that my Dad had been interacting with the full potential version of me. I was sitting there terrified of what it would mean to embrace and fulfill on my potential, so I was resisting that version of me with everything I had. In that resistance I crated friction between me and my dad and playing the broken record that he doesn’t understand me, he thinks I’m something that I’m not, blah blah blah…

My Dad understood me the whole time. He understood me better than I understood myself. And he loved all of me and was inspired by all of me, while I was tangled inside of trying to fix what I perceived to be imperfections. Do you want to know why I saw so many imperfections? Because I lived in a world that was all about comparing results and being the best.

In a world of individuals, comparison is a meaningless activity. I am perfect exactly as I am simple because I am me. There’s a calm that sinks in, a release of pressure, and a smile that washes over my face.

I apologized to my Dad on Friday. I took responsibility for creating the distance between us. I thanked him for loving me and for understanding me when I couldn’t love and understand myself. After I told him I loved him, he told me it was the best conversation he’s ever had with me in his life. I cried the happiest tears. These words don’t do the feeling justice.

A big exhale and a feeling of total peace. Everything is always exactly as it should be.

Cynthia, thank you for sharing your journey. Thank you for teaching us how to rise again after falling & that there’s always life after volleyball.

We <3 you! FIVB image/ Source:


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  1. To long to read all.

    But did she quit volleyball? Too bad, she was a great player.

    But if she was playing volleyball only to be in the Olympic Games, volleyball was not really for her.

    Only the best of the best of each sport makes to the Olympics.
    But if you are not the best, there`s nothing wrong with that. Only one will win, but when you loose does not mean you are a looser.

    Just for being a professional player and make a living for that is amazing and all you can ask for ( especially when in this country there`s no professional volleyball) . . . . . .

    She played at the 2010 World Championship and Pan American Games right? seams like it did not meant anything for her.

    All the best to her

    • Fabio, I think you should’ve read Cynthia’s post before you start making comments like that.

      Even though she retired and volleyball might not have exactly been for her, she is and always will be one of the best players in the game. Her impact on the volleyball world and the fans that she’s made is greater than she will ever give herself credit for. Volleyball often lacks humble players – but Cynthia is an exception. And for the record, she WAS a professional.


  2. That was a spectacular read, it’s so refreshing to see someone put sports and volleyball in its proper light and remain authentic. As someone who coached against you for a few matches and fell prey to believing the hype, I respect you now more than I ever could have if you were just a volleyball star. Thanks for sharing and being vulnerable, it’s a breath of fresh air. Good luck in your new adventures!!!

  3. Thank you, Ms. Barbosa for this blog!

    I have spent the past 39 yrs either playing, coaching, officiating, or administering anything involved with volleyball and reading this helped me realize that there is more to life than just volleyball. My dream was to get to the Olympics in one way or another. Playing was not an option due to my age and physical limitations, neither was coaching nor officiating as I started way too late, and administration was out due to all the politically connected people ahead of me. After losing two f/t jobs, a g/f, and missing out on many family events because of my devotion to volleyball, I am wondering if it was even worth it.

    Has volleyball been very, very good to me? All the injuries and sleepless nights are now affecting my quality of life. So, volleyball was very, very bad to me in that respect. OTOH, most of the people I have met who still keep in contact are ones that I consider my true friends from volleyball. We have many acquaintances, but few true friends in our lives. Even most of my childhood friends are more acquaintances than the true friends who would help me out without wanting something in return.

    At least you are able to start fresh with a new career and at a relatively young age where you can still make a difference in the world.

  4. Fabio, you should absolutely read the entire post before commenting. It’s ignorant and unconstructive to do so otherwise.

    This is an incredibly open and honest sharing of a significant portion of Cynthia’s life. She’s given so much to the sport of volleyball and although she probably never expected it, she made such a positive difference in a lot of young girls around the world.

    I love her comment about loving to train and practice! Practices and conditioning can be insanely grueling but every good team knows “how you practice is how you play in the games”. Cynthia made every member on those Olympic teams train hard because that was what she enjoyed and that enthusiasm is contagious. She’s every bit a part of EVERY National Team success over the years she was there, whether she was on the podium or not.

  5. Wow. And here I am, dreaming that someday I will get into a national team or even just playing in a pro league. Vball is my passion. I have the heart and the talent but I lack of height and thats what hindering me from reaching my dreams. She has the height everything but she doesn’t have the passion. Damn it! I just wish I had the height and the opportunities. But I still wont stop pushing myself because vball is the shit and I love this sport.

  6. I want to say Cynthia, this is one of the most important posts I have read. I have understood this now for the past five years, and I hope many parents and players will read this. The impact of a life of winners and losers, your in and your out. An identity attached to winning or a position can not be sustained. Your comment…Here are a few words that mean a lot to me: Love, Health, Community, Authenticity, and Joy. That was a random… exactly what must be provided for our children, to say we love to watch you play regardless as a parent. To say we love to watch you play with your team and improve your skills as a coach. We are losing people to loss of life, they lose their identity as young people and adults and that is unacceptable and as a community we must work to stop this movement. I am happy for you, that you understand you are more than volleyball. I remember watching you play, I will say I miss that. However I am happier that you are finding your value as a human being to be of the greatest importance. I wish you health and happiness and work you enjoy.

  7. What a terrific, heartwarming read. To me, volleyball has always been and will always be about people. I’m glad through it all she found a strong supporter in Stacy and mended her relationship with her dad. Some people win and many people lose, but there are always lessons to be learned… A lot of times losing is a much more poignant teaching tool than winning–it’s just a bitch to swallow and slow to digest.

    Best of luck to CB in the future!

  8. You are hilarious and honest. Maybe you should be a writer. In any case, thank you for an honest, open, fascinating read. I played against you in club and remember wanting your autograph. You were and still are inspirational. I get feeling like being a hermit. I felt the same after my divorce. It sounds like you have love and support and a drive to kick ass though and that will see you through your entire life no matter what happens.

  9. I meet Cynthia at a qualifier and again at GJNC. I got to talk to her dad and for sure he was a promoter of Cynthia. I hated when I could no longer follow Cynthia’s volleyball career. One who has seen all the levels of youth volleyball, I was for sure positive she had what it took to compete on the USA National Team. It is sad that she didn’t get selected. It is good that she knows why she really didn’t get selected. If her heart wasn’t in it, then not getting selected was a wise choice.
    I for one wish Cynthia the best because in my eyes she is the best and her maturity should inspire others to understand themselves.

  10. We have known Cynthia since she was 16. She is a friend of our son who also recently retired from pro volleyball and was a member of the Olympic team but never made the final cut for the travel squad. I don’t think alot of people realize the time and commitment it takes to train with the team. You give up so much of your life for just the prospect of making the final cut. He recently retired as well. His feeling was to let go when he still loved it. He needed to move on. Many people don’t know how hard it is to let go of something that has been such an integral part of your life for so long. In the good and bad, it is like giving up something that is woven into your soul. This is so wonderful that Cynthia could put down on paper and share her thoughts. Thank you Cynthia!

  11. What a powerful entry. Cynthia is an amazing player who reached an extremely high level in volleyball – – something only a very small percentage of players ever reach. She is a beautiful, smart, educated woman who is already finding out that she has a million options in her life. It will be fun to see what she ends up deciding to do!

  12. I loved watching you play. I love that you are great friends with Dylan. I love that you visit our house in July. I know that this tough stuff will make you happy.

  13. Cynthia, you are still the best, most inspirational young woman around. Best wishes in your “new” career and maturity. Thank you for sharing your very deep thoughts and hurt. I hope your story and struggles provide inspiration to others who are struggling with similar situations.

  14. Cynthia: I am not one of those people that just passes on the approval. You clearly have an amazing talent. Don’t listen to others. Go be you. :)

  15. Wow. Just wow.

    Really, really inspirational read.

    Clearly, her article tells us that there’s more to life than competition and reaching the top. Adn sometimes – as in Cynthia’s case – we learn and see the best of it when we stop trying.

    When everything is said and done, home is where your heart really is.

    Thank you very much Cynthia (and Volleywood) for sharing this very inspiring read.

  16. C I have always admired you as a person and I always felt you were genuine with me. I’m happy for you in all your endeavors and all your hard work. I’m truly blessed to have been able to meet and train and compete with you!! You are truly a blessing to anyone that has been lucky to be in your presence!!! Good luck in what will be a very beautiful life!!!

  17. Years ago, like back in 2007, your team at Stanford finally came up to my neck of the woods to play WSU. I got a speeding ticket on the way to your match because I was so excited to watch you and Foluke play. You girls are like, two years older than I am and I was fan-girling so hard! We ended up sitting next to Foluke’s brother and he was telling us all these funny inside stories. He got her to stop the bus and I came on and had my ball signed like a little girl. It’s still one of my favorite volleyball memories! You were a serious volleyball role model for me.
    It makes me sad to read about how hard you have been on yourself, but comforting to know that someone else, especially someone I looked up to so much, had many of the same mental and emotional battles that I did (though mine were on a much less grand scale). Thank you so much for being so open in this post, I have quite a few teammates who I think could also find some healing from your words.
    You don’t owe anyone an explanation for anything, this post only makes me like ya more. Good luck on your journey and keep on loving you!

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