By Rodney Barnes
For three years, the men’s volleyball team benched an Olympic athlete.
Despite earning a place on the squad in his first year, being nominated for rookie of the year, and winning the gold medal in the 2003 Polish Olympics, Szymon Wierdak spent the next three years on the bench watching Lucas Porosa play starting libero for the team.
Instead of dwelling on it, Wierdak tried to make the best of it by substituting in games to serve or set whenever he could. “I tried to do whatever I could, if I could get on for one or two games,” he said. “We’re on a varsity team. We’re all competitive and we all want to play. Obviously you want to play as much as you can, but it’s part of the game.”
Now the team’s starting libero, Wierdak is tearing up the court. He leads the Rams with a team high 1.65 digs per game and is second in assists per game at 0.77.
Coach Mirek Porosa is happy Wierdak is making the most of his opportunity. “He brings great energy. Very emotional, very passionate. I really value people like that.”
At only 5’7” — at least a half-foot shorter than the rest of the team — Wierdak’s height has made it difficult for him to play in a game where tall stature gives the player a definite edge.
Because of his height, Wierdak plays the position of libero, a defensive back-row player specializing in ball control.
It’s Wierdak’s job to turn a high-speed serve or spike from the opposing team into a calculated counter-attack. During the Rams game against RMC Sunday afternoon, RMC spiked the ball into a gap in the Ram’s formation.
Wierdak dove from the far right to the front left of the court, extended his arm and sent the ball back towards his teammates.
A set and spike later, and the Rams were up another point. “For this position I’ve never seen my height as a disadvantage,” said Wierdak, who has successfully performed at least 43 of these “digs” this year.
“I was always short, but I never regretted my height.”
Having grown up in Poland, Wierdak immigrated to Canada to finish high school and found it difficult at first to fit in on the volleyball team because his English wasn’t strong.
“The beginning was tough,” he said. “It took me a while to learn the language well.” Assistant captain Mark Spehr said the volleyball team had to be creative when speaking with Wierdak.
“He didn’t know any English, so we had to use sign language.”
Wierdak found a lot of support from the Ryerson team, specifically Roger Marszalek, a left-side hitter for the men’s volleyball team who first met Wierdak at a Polish recreational volleyball tournament the summer before both of them came to Ryerson.
“He has the accent,” said Marszalek. “He gets words backwards, but he got better over the years.”
The transition to a new country and university was also helped by Porosa.
Having come from Poland himself, Porosa was able to relate to the trials of immigrating to a new country.
“He came [to Ryerson] very insecure,” said Porosa, who came up with “Orange” as Wierdack’s nickname upon finding out the player’s email was the Polish word for the fruit.
“There were new customs, a new language he had to learn. But that’s helped me a lot with communicating with him.”
Regardless of the years Wierdak spent on the bench, he has no regrets about playing for Porosa and the Rams.
“It’s been a great journey,” he said. “Volleyball is my passion.”