Lauren Gibbemeyer stands at 6 feet 2 inches and certainly looks the part as an intimidating force on the volleyball court.
Then she opens her mouth.
“I was terrified of her at first,” middle blocker Tori Dixon said, referring to her former Gophers teammate’s vocality. “She was super intimidating on the court because she was so intense out there.”
Gibbemeyer said she’s heard that a lot throughout her career, but that raw emotion stems from her passion for the game.
“I’m not trying to be scary on the court,” the middle blocker chuckled. “I’m really passionate, so sometimes, maybe I’m not as sensitive to the newbies.”
Now, Gibbemeyer hopes to carry her passion and recent success into the next three years as she vies for a spot on her country’s squad for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
She was one of the last players cut on the 2012 London Olympics team, but she said that has fueled her fire for the upcoming years.
“I’m even more ready this time around,” she said.
Gibbemeyer helped the U.S. repeat as champions at the Pan-American Cup on June 16.
A natural talent
This is a position the child version of Gibbemeyer never imagined she’d be in.
She grew up a basketball player and never considered volleyball until her freshman year at Cretin-Derham Hall High School.
“I always had people tell me that I was super tall and should try out for volleyball,” she said. “I did, and it came pretty natural to me.”
That natural talent attracted the Gophers from an early stage in her high school career.
Gibbemeyer played her first season of club volleyball as a high school sophomore and signed with the Gophers that year. She said her college choice was easy.
“I grew up 10 minutes from campus and went to University of Minnesota volleyball games,” she said. “So in my head, from a young age, I wanted to go to the University of Minnesota.”
Gibbemeyer wasn’t a stand-out with the Gophers her first couple of years on campus. She was a consistent player but didn’t always dominate at the level that she did in her final two seasons.
“She showed up with some great blocking instincts,” former Gophers head volleyball coach Mike Hebert said. “She was one of the best blockers I’ve ever coached.”
Hebert said Gibbemeyer needed help with her technique and ability to read attacks, but as she grasped those two concepts, she started to flourish.
The Gophers faced adversity in Gibbemeyer’s junior season when All-American outside hitter Brook Dieter quit the team.
Gibbemeyer said that was a pivotal moment in her career.
“It was for all of us,” she said, “but we didn’t really know whether to let it spiral out of control … or stand together and try to reach our goals without her.”
The Gophers chose the latter and surprised people with an impressive run to the Final Four, where they lost to Texas.
Gibbemeyer said that success excited her for the team’s potential in her senior season.
That sense of excitement turned to heartbreak when Gibbemeyer broke her wrist two weeks before the Big Ten season started.
It was a significant blow to the team’s morale, similar to the loss of Dieter a year earlier.
“[Gibbemeyer] was the heartbeat of our team her senior season,” Hebert said. “She missed about a month and our team played well, but it wasn’t the same.”
Dixon, a freshman at the time, said there was an initial sense of panic on the team, but Gibbemeyer was able to keep the team calm.
“She still led the team even though she wasn’t playing,” Dixon said, “and that was really surprising to me, because if it was everyone else, that wouldn’t be the case.”
Gibbemeyer missed 12 matches with the wrist injury, but said she felt 100 percent by the end of the season. She still led the team with 116 blocks but narrowly missed All-America honors because she didn’t play in enough matches.
“There’s no question Lauren would have been named an All-American, but she was short by one or two sets,” Hebert said. “It was a quirky season.”
The Gophers returned to the NCAA tournament in Gibbemeyer’s senior year but lost in the Sweet 16 to California.
That loss ended Gibbemeyer’s amateur career, but it ignited her professional one. She finished with a school-record 593 total blocks.
An Olympic battle
Soon after the loss, then-USA national team head coach Hugh McCutcheon invited her to try out for the team.
“It was a chance of a lifetime, so I had to go,” Gibbemeyer said. “I knew I could always go back and finish school, but chances to play for Team USA don’t always come around.”
Gibbemeyer made the first cut and worked out with Team USA in the summers of 2011 and 2012 in preparation for the London Olympics. McCutcheon said he was impressed with her skills, but she didn’t get as serious of a look as some of the other middle blockers since some had more Team USA experience.
“She was certainly in the mix as we cut it down to the final 25 or so,” McCutcheon said.
Gibbemeyer has played as a professional in Japan and Italy and recently signed a contract to play in Azerbaijan this upcoming season. She said playing in a different country was a culture shock at first, but she adapted over time.
“I went to school basically in my backyard … so making that transition was a challenge for me and kind of a lonely experience,” she said. “It’s made me grow as a person.”
Gibbemeyer hopes that growth will help her earn a spot on Team USA for the 2016 Olympics.
McCutcheon, who now coaches Gophers and won’t return to head the national squad in 2016, said Gibbemeyer has the raw skills to make it, but it’s tough to speculate three years down the road.
“In that Olympic realm, players have to be good at everything and great at one or two things,” McCutcheon said. “She’s good at everything right now, but it’s what she chooses to focus on and what ends up being her ultimate strength that will be the defining factor.”
McCutcheon said the team generally carries three middle blockers, and two middle blockers that started in the 2012 London Olympics — Foluke Akinradewo and Christa Harmotto — are likely to return for 2016.
“If they come back, that makes the competition very, very tough,” McCutcheon said. “It’s going to be a battle for anyone to make that team.”
Gibbemeyer said other players’ experience levels aren’t on her mind now. She said her hunger from being cut in 2012 will feed her fire until the Olympics.
“I know that if I work as hard as I can … I can make that spot,” Gibbemeyer said. “It’s a mental thing for me.
“I just have to keep working at it.”