By Josh Beneteau
In just his first season as a Ryerson Ram, Robert Wojcik set himself apart as the go-to guy on the men’s volleyball team, becoming a league leader in major statistical categories and helping the team make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
And although Wojcik was born in Toronto, his journey to Ryerson began long before that— when his dad, Mariusz, and Ryerson’s head coach Mirek Porosa were teammates on one of the top Polish pro teams, Posnania Poznan, in the summer of 1983.
In the 1980s, volleyball players were given “special rights” that other citizens living in the communist country didn’t have— like being given nice condos all to themselves, while ordinary citizens had to share small apartments with multiple families.
“The communist country promoted themselves through sports,” Porosa says. “We were the face of the communist parties.”
While there were perks for athletes, it was a dangerous time to be in Poland, especially when the pro-union political party, the Solidarity, started challenging the communist regime for the first time.
“The other citizens were stuck in the country and didn’t have regular freedom rights. The toughest part was when the Solidarity came to power; they blew up the whole city. The army came out on the road, they blocked every intersection and there were tanks,” says Porosa. “We were still traveling to the matches during this and the stands were empty.”
With all of the political uncertainty and danger, Mariusz and his wife Barbara decided to flee Poland in 1987.
“I didn’t like the entire situation happening at the time,” Mariusz says. “I looked around and saw what was happening, we decided to go away and move to another country.”
And at that time, you couldn’t apply to emigrate to Canada — or any Western country — from Poland. So with the help of a family friend, they were able to leave for West Germany with an official letter saying they were attending a wedding.
“That was a pretty long wedding,” Mariusz says. “Because I didn’t go back to Poland for 20 years.”
Meanwhile, Porosa moved to Toronto in 1988, bringing his family shortly after so that his one-year-old daughter could get a special operation on her knee. While working at a gas station to support himself, he began coaching a local volleyball team, and was able to meet people in his new home.
After two years in Frankfurt, West Germany, Mariusz and Barbara were able to move to Toronto in 1989— with just a suitcase and without a plan.
“We didn’t have any place set up to live,” Mariusz said. “It was kind of crazy.”
Mariusz took jobs making chairs and delivering pizza while Barbara worked at a massage parlour. But after their first year in Canada, they attended a half-year full-time English school for immigrants, in hopes to eventually become schoolteachers. And like most people in new places, they looked for some familiarity.
“Mariusz came one year after me, and obviously we looked for contacts and that’s how we met [in Toronto],” Porosa says. “When my family arrived, we kept in touch and stayed together. We played some beach volleyball and spent some time together.”
When Robert was born in 1993, the Wojciks and Porosas were still good friends, so Porosa met his future star a number of times when he was very young. But once Mirek was hired as Ryerson’s head coach, and Mariusz started teaching and coaching volleyball in Whitby in 1995, the families lost touch.
“Everyone went their own ways,” Porosa says. “[We] got jobs somewhere else to pay the bills, so we didn’t touch base for a number of years.”
As a child, Wojcik’s parents knew he was going to be an athlete. When he was six, he started swimming because he was too young for volleyball.
“That was my idea,” says Barbara. “His fingers were too soft and he couldn’t bounce the ball. But he was very tall and had big feet, which were like fins.”
It wasn’t until he was 11 that Wojcik finally started playing organized volleyball. He joined the Durham Attack house league team that his dad coached and began to learn his father’s sport.
“I always wanted him to play volleyball,” says Mariusz. “I wanted him to go down the same path that I did.”
Wojcik’s first few seasons were all about learning how to move the ball, something he found challenging at first.
“I grew really fast and was really uncoordinated,” Wojcik says. “I didn’t really know what was happening [on the court]. I was awful, just God-awful.”
But he stuck to it and quickly began to enjoy the game, and by the time he was 15, he had become a player to watch.
“I started feeling confident, I knew what was happening on the court and I could move the ball wherever I wanted,” Wojcik says. “That’s when people started noticing me as a good player.”
Wojcik also made many friends while playing in Durham, including his current roommate and Rams teammate, Alex Dawson.
“He was my best friend growing up,” Dawson says. “We were all really young and having a lot of fun.”
In 2006, Mariusz and Barbara divorced. Wojcik was 13 and about to enter high school, but used volleyball to handle the situation the best he could. Even though he didn’t live with his dad anymore, he was still his coach, so they saw each other quite often.
The first time Porosa saw Wojcik play when he was 16, while scouting players to come to Ryerson.
“He was tall and [could jump] higher than most of the guys that age,” Porosa said. “He was more physical and at the same time, he [had] this killer instinct— so he really [enjoyed] hitting the ball hard.”
While at a tournament in Vancouver, Porosa asked Mariusz if Wojcik would be interested in coming to Ryerson.
“I told Mirek at [that] time that I would like Robert to play for him,” Mariusz said. “But we [had] two years to go and I didn’t know what Robert would think.”
Porosa continued to pursue Wojcik for the next two years, until he was getting ready to graduate and had to decide where to go next.
“I left this decision completely to Robert,” says Mariusz.
So Wojcik fielded offers from different volleyball programs across Canada, trying to find the right fit.
“It’s not like the states where there are big bucks. You would get a couple shirts and they would pay your tuition,” Wojcik says. “But it was always a real ego boost for me.”
He narrowed it down to Ryerson and the University of Alberta, but eventually chose the latter. Alberta is consistently one of the top volleyball schools in the country— qualifying for the CIS National Championships in 20 of the previous 21 seasons— and Wojcik wanted the instant chance to win.
“My ego kind of wanted me to go there,” he admits.
The team reached the CIS final, but lost to Queen’s. Wojcik had enjoyed himself so much that he already paid a deposit for first and last-month’s rent for a house with a friend and left some of his things out west when he went home to Whitby in the summer.
But late in the summer, Barbara became sick. Instantly, Wojcik’s decision changed— he wanted to be closer to his family and play for Ryerson.
“In August I was like, ‘I just can’t go back.’ Mostly because of my mom,” says Wojcik. “I’m a lot happier here, I feel a lot more confident here and I wanted to stay closer to home.”
When Wojcik committed to Ryerson, Porosa was overjoyed.
“It was like Christmas— it was magical,” Porosa says. “Any time you get information about a player of his calibre coming, that’s a very exciting time for the program.”
Wojcik completed the deal with Ryerson on Aug. 22 and was scheduled to miss the entire season, as CIS rules require transfer students to sit out a year. But he successfully appealed to the CIS and ended up only missing the team’s first two regular season games.
And reunited with his childhood friend, Dawson was able to help Wojcik adjust to playing with new teammates.
“The team accepted him with open arms,” Dawson says. “After all, he’s a pretty good player.”
And possibly no one welcomed him more than team leader Luka Milosevic. Considered the team’s best option at the right-side hitter position, Milosevic moved to middle blocker— where he eventually became an OUA all-star— to make room for Wojcik at his natural position.
“As a volleyball player that is really tough to take in and do, so I really respect that a lot,” says Wojcik. “He [has] given up a lot for the team.”
And with the fifth-year Milosevic graduating, Wojcik’s role will become even more prominent than before.
“We expect him to make a kill for us and help to win tight games— that is what makes him the face of the program,” says Porosa.
And Wojcik’s parents couldn’t be happier for what he is doing at Ryerson.
“I am proud of his achievements,” says Barbara. “And I get to see him play more.”[nggallery id=125]