Olivia Macdonald is halfway around the world making a name for herself
Arizona blocker Olivia MacDonald (5) blocks a spike during Arizona's 4-1 win against Santa Clara at Beardown Beach on Friday, March 31.
Olivia Macdonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O … and then she, somehow, ended up playing beach volleyball on the opposite side of the world.
The UA’s 6-foot junior blocker grew up in Piopio, New Zealand, a city with more sheep than people. Literally.
Piopio’s population is estimated to be around 400 people, while Macdonald’s farm alone has around 500 sheep, among other animals.
Macdonald’s childhood role was as a caretaker for her animals, bringing them milk each morning and feeding them in the evenings, but she moved out of the house at 11 years old to attend boarding school.
“It’s not a bad thing to stay [in Piopio], but I never really wanted to stay,” Macdonald said.
A few years later, at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, Macdonald became an all-around athlete, playing basketball, cricket, field hockey, volleyball and netball. That one unfamiliar sport, netball, was the one she was planning to take to a professional level.
“That was my main sport,” Macdonald said. “That’s what I thought I was going to do the rest of my life.”
Indoor volleyball was just one of Macdonald’s hobbies, but her success led her to high school nationals, then the New Zealand Under-17 Indoor Team. She competed nationally for New Zealand, but the opposition revealed that indoor wasn’t the right fit for her.
“We played in China against the women’s Japanese team and the Chinese team,” Macdonald explained. “Those girls are like 6-foot-9 and it was the scariest moment of my life. Me, playing middle against these 6-foot-9 women. It was scary, so much fun, but an experience where I was like, ‘Yeah I’m definitely not playing indoor volleyball anymore.’”
Then, a bench coach inspired Macdonald, who was a high school graduate at this point, to try out for an under-19 beach volleyball squad.
“I had no idea what I was doing with my life,” Macdonald said. “I’d already graduated high school. I was done. I hadn’t even applied to university in New Zealand; I was just chilling. I was living and working at a bar.”
Unexpectedly, the dirty blonde, bright blue-eyed Kiwi found herself recruited by Arizona’s head coach Steve Walker and previous assistant coach Claire D’Amore at a college exposure tournament in Huntington Beach, California.
Macdonald stood out among 100 teams for her outstanding athletic ability, but Macdonald misled Arizona’s recruiters.
“She was wearing a UCLA T-shirt,” Walker said. “UCLA had just received a verbal commitment from a prospective student athlete from the country of New Zealand. I thought Olivia was her. I was disappointed to find that she would be going to UCLA.”
But D’Amore, who played on the New Zealand pro tour, stepped in and spoke to Fiona Scrimshaw, Macdonald’s club director, and learned that another athlete was going to UCLA, not Macdonald.
Arizona would be where Macdonald was to spend her next four years.
After seven months of working and paying her own rent, Macdonald moved back into a dorm and lost her driving privileges because, if she got behind the wheel in America, her New Zealand license would have her driving toward oncoming traffic.
“It was the biggest culture shock of my life,” Macdonald said. “I got here and I felt like everything was pulled out from underneath me.”
Additionally, Macdonald couldn’t find comfort on the sand volleyball courts. She was a foreigner, had only been playing the sport for three months and was thrown into a program that had barely begun.
“I did not feel good enough at all,” Macdonald said. “I was so scared to be playing with who I was playing with because they had already been playing for years. When I was a freshman, we didn’t have upperclassman that really helped us out.”
After starting in the sixth seed her freshman year, Macdonald has seen tremendous growth in her game and has accomplished a 29-9 record over two seasons. However, there were even challenges for Macdonald this year, when she started off as the third seed instead of second.
“I thought we’d worked a lot harder than that,” Macdonald said of third place. “I was like, ‘No, no. I’m a No. 2. I’m going to do it. I was going to make it to that two spot.”
And she did it, with her partner Olivia Hallaran.
“She’s super, super bubbly and always super energized,” Hallaran said of Macdonald’s personality. “She’s a super positive person; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her down at all.”
Macdonald has a unique strategy for intimidating rivals: smiling.
“I get into my head a lot,” Macdonald said. “For me, smiling is the way for me letting it out. So, when I’ve shanked a few balls and they’ve scored a few points on me, I just smile at them. I’m like ‘bring it.’ This is my intimidating face right now. I don’t look scary. I’m just smiling at you; I hope you feel weird about it.”
Macdonald’s energy is also influential on younger athletes. With D’Amore, Macdonald helps coach Tucson’s beach volleyball club team, Desert Sand Volleyball.
“She’s a natural-born coach,” D’Amore said. “She’s the positive one. It always helps just listening to her talk; she never has anything negative to say. To hear her accent gets people’s attention. She’d been a positive influence on our club.”
Following her career at Arizona, Macdonald said she would like to play a fifth year of indoor at a school on the East Coast. She’s in no rush to return to New Zealand and aspires to live out her travelling pursuits as long as possible.
“I love to travel; I just want to see the world,” Macdonald said, specifically pointing to Europe as one of her dream destinations.
If Macdonald does ever find herself ready to settle down, she has plans to put her bachelor’s degree in Sports and Society into action through a startup that encourages kids to play sports and be active.
“A lot of little kids just aren’t playing sports,” Macdonald said. “I’d love to make a program which kickstarts that into the old days. When we were younger, we used to run around and play all sports 24/7.”
However, that is a long-term aspiration for Macdonald.
“I’m not ready to start the career thing yet,” she said. “I just want to work so I can travel right now.”
She has potential to play volleyball for years to come, according to Walker.
“No one burns as hot as Olivia,” Walker said. “Olivia works as hard as anyone we’ve had in the program. Olivia’s someone who could continue to get better well into her 30s. There’s no reason in a country as small as New Zealand why she can’t represent them in some shape or form internationally.”
Currently, Macdonald is living in the moment at Arizona, and while the fear of senior year’s rapid approach is creeping up on her, she’s said ready to “bring it on” and move up to the Wildcat’s No. 1 team next year.
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