Olympian, volleyball player, filmmaker, photographer – for Savanah Leaf, the fun is in the fight to be the best...
When did you first play volleyball?
I first started playing volleyball when I was living in the US. I was in third grade and my PE teacher was showing us a variety of sports. She had a club volleyball team with some older girls, and they practised close to my house in the evenings. She invited me to watch. I was absolutely drawn to the sport and eager to play on the team. Since then, I continued to play, knowing I had a skill, whilst eager to develop my athletic career.
Was it evident you had a real talent from the moment you first hit a ball?
I’ve always been tall, slightly lanky, and weirdly good at jumping. I remember when I was younger I struggled with volleyball because I had too much strength: I would always hit the ball way out of the court when we started playing with volley lite balls. That’s when I realised I would be good at the sport. But then it wasn’t until high school, when I began to understand the game, controlling my strength, predicting opponents’ moves and commanding a presence on my own team, that I realised I could be great at playing volleyball.
What does a good volleyball player need? Or are they born with ‘it’?
It’s a difficult question. Although I would love to say that being born with a certain talent isn’t what you need, physical traits are highly important in being a good athlete. It’s the combination of your physical traits, as well as your mental state, that makes you a brilliant athlete. That’s the difference between most professional athletes and the best professional athletes in the world.
What would you say to a beginner?
Start, and if you like it, don’t stop. Sports should be fun first, then competitive. Until a certain level…
Talk us through what training involves.
How did you work your way up to the point of playing for your country?
Training is about understanding what your body and mind need to grow and develop. This involves a combination of sport practice, tactical theory, muscle development, muscle recovery, mental development, and awareness of your diet.
I think what was the most important for me was my development of my mental state. No matter what you do in life, you’re always faced with doubts: not only from your opponents, teammates and sometimes even your coaches, but also yourself. For me, it was about blocking out the noise and finding a place within myself where I could achieve what I wanted to achieve without any distractions. I’m not necessarily religious, but one prayer really resonated with me throughout life, and especially in sport: “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. That’s what life’s all about – and that’s what encouraged me to train and fight to play for my country.
And how do you feel when you play? What carries you through a match, even the dark moments?
When I play I feel nervous, frightened, excited, tough, weak, angry, happy – all of the above. What carries me through is finding calm in the madness. It’s almost a meditative state – when I breathe long deep breaths in the middle of the game, I somehow always find my feet again. And then I repeat those words – Serenity, Courage, Wisdom – and I start to gain the consistency of mind that I need to compete.
Do you still get that joyful, playful feeling of just being on a beach, whacking the ball over the net?!
I struggle to play non-competitive volleyball. If you know me, I struggle to pretty much do any thing non-competitively! That’s the fun for me – fighting to win. I know it sounds a little obnoxious, but I never find myself just whacking the ball over the net. If I’m going to play, then I will play. And I will try my best to win. And that goes for beach volleyball as well.
Best/worst things about being your sport? What (if anything) do you have to sacrifice? What motivates you? (It can be hard for a non-sporting layperson to ‘get’ the drive behind a professional sportsperson.)
I love listening to sport motivational speakers. And one in particular said something along the lines of ‘Why do you do what you do? Who are you playing for? It can never be just for you”. I try to take that same mind-set into anything and everything I do. What motivates me is beyond just my own pride, its something beyond myself as an individual.
The best part about playing sports is having young girls come up to you and tell you that they have been inspired by your mind and your competitiveness. That’s an incredible feeling. So when I play sports, or do anything really, I do it to inspire young people and show them that there is hope, there are options and they are strong. In whatever they are dealing with in their lives. I have a little sister and I can see the effect that that has on her. So yes – if someone is struggling to find that professional sportsperson drive then I would say – stop doing it for yourself, and start doing it for someone else. Whether that is your family, your friends, your teachers, your enemies, or even people you don’t know who might be inspired by you.
What’s the worse thing?
Well probably the fact that none of the above comes easily! I’m probably not the best athlete to talk about this, because I’m really not a fan of practising. I don’t love training. I don’t love working out and feeling the pain of sprinting 100 meters 10 times and then another 10 times because I didn’t run it under a certain time. I literally despise waking up at 5:30 am to do 3 hours of practice – the same move over and over again to perfect a 1 step approach that will probably only happen once every other game. But hey, that’s the art of getting better, and you’re not supposed to like it!
What’s the most valuable lesson it’s taught you?
Prove those that doubt you wrong, and more than anything, prove yourself wrong. I now am starting a career that a few years ago I knew nothing about. But along the way I’m constantly telling myself that all my doubts are merely in my head – and the only that makes me different from any one ahead of me is experience and time.
How did you come to be selected for the Olympics in 2012?
I started trying out for the team about three months before the Olympics. I didn’t know much about British volleyball, as I had been playing in the States for a long time. It was a very competitive process, and each week there was a selection process in which they chose the people they wanted to continue competing to be on the team. It was very mentally and physically draining, but because I had a tough year already playing for a new team in the US, I felt I was more prepared than ever. I took it one day at a time. Focusing on myself without really realising what was happening until I stepped out onto the court the first time in the Olympics. I was very young, 18 in fact. I still don’t think I really understood what a great big deal it was until now. But it was a dream, and afterwards, I was on a massive come down. Playing volleyball afterwards in the States didn’t really compare to the Olympics playing for Team GB.
We assume there are certain things that apply to all sportspeople, bar the exceedingly famous (e.g. funding), but it would be interesting to know – particularly in the current climate – if you think there are any particular issues facing women?
For me, what really threw me off in the Olympics were some of the comments I received. What surprised me most was that lots of the social media comments in my inbox were about how I looked in my volleyball uniform and what men wanted to do to me, sexually-speaking. That really put me off of playing sports all together, because I wanted to be viewed for my game, not my looks. I wanted people to notice my energy as an athlete, not what I looked like when I bent down in spandex. I guess that’s one major thing that women have to face in sport, other than funding and the financial aspect. So for me, that was a big deal – and is still a big deal. Thankfully, things are changing. And will continue to change. But lets not forget – sport is ultimately entertainment. And women are, and probably will be for a very long time, sexualised in entertainment.
You’re a genuine Renaissance woman. You write, shoot, direct – can you tell us how this came about? How did you discover and develop these passions? And, err, how did you find the time?
I’ve always been into the arts. Every teammate of mine will tell you that. Whether it was drawing, photographing, or singing, I’ve always dabbled with something other than sports to keep my mind active and creative. When I got injured, I wanted to explore this, so I put the money I made playing international volleyball into my film career. There have been lots of ups and downs, but I think I have found my feet now. I just dove into the deep end and started asking people to help me make films. It’s been incredible so far, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
How do you divide your time now (between sport and arts/work/life etc)?
To be honest, it’s very difficult. I’m one of those people who takes work and life all too seriously, and I don’t balance things that well. I basically have been spending all my time, energy, and money into the arts - and hopefully it will pay off.
In terms of sport now, I have been working out, but not in competition. I am hoping to find a better work/life balance in the future as I make more of a name for myself as a filmmaker. But – who knows, I may never find that perfect balance.
And what’s next for you in terms of this work – and your sport?
I want to continue making films. Hopefully within the next 5 years I want to make a feature. In that time, I’d love to get back into competing in a few beach volleyball competitions per year. I would also love to do a sports doc series, and potentially some sport commercials. It would be incredible to find a balance between the two, where both can compliment the other.
Three words that describe you would be…
Determined, mindful, and courageous.
When are you happiest?
When my sister is proud.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My grandma says something along the lines of ‘Life’s a battle, so fight’.
We think female friendships are to be celebrated and treasured – what one quality do your friends share?
Female friendships should definitely be celebrated. I wish I had more, to be honest. But the ones I have are the best, and probably some of the most consistent parts of my life. What I admire most is how driven they are – I think that’s what we share. We try not to let things get in the way of our dreams, and if something or someone does, we quickly learn from it, and get back onto the path.
You can pick six women – dead or alive/famous or not – to spend the evening with. Who? And where do you go?
Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, Patti Smith, and Cheryl Strayed. A bit random I know, but they all seem like brilliant minds for a dinner. We’d definitely camp on top a mountain or something and drink rum, and share stories.
Book you wish you’d written?
Still in development.
Your favourite holiday destination?
Fluid. Wherever you feel.
Over or under dressed?
Lark or owl?
Sunrise or sunset?
Spring or winter?
Spring – are you kidding?
Word you over-use?
Last time you laughed out loud?
2 seconds ago - when I thought of the answer I didn’t provide for my ‘guilty pleasure’ question.
One thing you can’t live without?
Motto for life?
Serenity, Courage, Wisdom.
The one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I love to sing and rap.
Follow Savanah on instagram @savanahleaf and check out her website here!