Wiercigroch guides Gaels

Quirky outside hitter provides role model for rookies

Julia Wiercigroch has been a natural leader this year.
Credit: 
Robin Kasem

Three years ago, Julia Wiercigroch had a dream to take the Queen’s women’s volleyball program to new heights.

Now, she’s leading the way for Queen’s to win its first OUA championship since 2012.

“When I came in, we were OUA underdogs. We made playoffs but hardly got past the first round,” Wiercigroch said in an interview with The Journal.

After her first season, she became a dominant member of the starting lineup and developed into one of the OUA’s top rookies. Now at the end of her third year, the co-captain’s leadership and determination has made it possible for the Gaels to take down big names like the University of Toronto and Western University.

Her athletic resume boasts being the OUA East Division Rookie of the Year and an OUA Second Team All-Star in 2018, as well as being named to the U SPORTS All-Rookie team. After her first year she was in the OUA top 20 for kills per set (2.65), hitting percentage (0.204), and points per set (3.1).

“At first I wanted to work hard and be open to feedback,” says Wiercigroch. “Now I want to prove to the OUA that Queen’s is a force to be reckoned with.”

Gaels Head Coach Ryan Ratushniak knew she would make an instant impact after watching her at the 2017 Canada Games.

“A dedicated and engaged player like Julia who gives her all in every situation is going to end up a success,” says Ratushniak. “She’s competitive, pushes herself to be her best, and is a special part of our leadership team.”

As co-captain, Wiercigroch believes team goals and player needs should be at the forefront.

“I try to understand how each individual player wants to be treated and tailor my communication during games,” says Wiercigroch. “We all process information differently, so I feel we will be successful if everyone can learn in a way that works for them.”

Although Wiercigroch is aware her hustle has earned her respect, she credits Ratushniak for allowing her to grow both on and off the court.

“Ryan gave me an opportunity to earn my spot, but it’s more than that. It’s about contributing on the court and getting wins, but also setting standards for a positive team culture.”

Gaels rookie Ella Mickelberry is in full agreement.

“As a captain, she is pushing everyone to be their best and taught me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” said Mickelberry to The Journal. “She’s so welcoming and is one of the most supportive and encouraging teammates I’ve ever played with.”

This success hasn’t come without struggles. As an engineering student, it can be a challenge to balance her punishing academic schedule with the demands of being a varsity athlete. Luckily for Wiercigroch, she’s found an interesting hobby.

“I tame squirrels,” explains Wiercigroch. “It was the summer before grade 12 and I thought it might be fun to try to tame one who came to my house by giving it peanuts. It kept coming back and was super calm—it still comes to my house to this day!”

Wiercigroch continued this hobby into the summer before her second year at Queen’s. She was in Kingston working for a professor, and on lunch breaks she would improve her coding skills while feeding the local squirrels. It was then that she spotted the famous ‘Golden Squirrel.’

“It just appeared, and I tried to get it to come to me,” said Wiercigroch. “I thought it would be cool to say I befriended the Golden Squirrel, but it left pretty much right away.”

Wiercigroch is known to crack wise on the court, which relieves pressure in tense moments and refocuses the team’s energy.

“Being in a stressful situation and seeing Julia crack a joke like she would any other time of the day is reassuring,” explained Mickelberry. “Our team thrives off this fun atmosphere, and we play our best when we’re having fun.”

“She’s always smiling, and it lifts everyone’s spirits,” said Ratushniak. “There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with being a university athlete and she helps everyone by making them laugh and feel comfortable.”

Fun aside, what’s perhaps most striking about Wiercigroch is how she elegantly balances athletics, social life and academics while positively influencing others on and off the court.

She works with a professor in the School of Computing working on computer-assisted surgery to improve healthcare. Last summer, she worked on collecting data to help develop a surgical simulation for training cardio surgeons. This upcoming summer, she’ll be working on creating an ultrasound-guided nephrostomy workflow in Western Africa.

Ratushniak notes she’s an avid supporter of other varsity teams and takes part in study groups with others in her program. Wiercigroch cites effective time management and supportive friends and teammates as her keys to success.

“Julia embodies what it means to be a Gael by performing athletically, managing a grueling engineering schedule, and by always showing up to practice with a smile on her face and working hard,” says Mickelberry. “It doesn’t matter what else she has going on, she shows up and works—I definitely look up to Julia.”

After this season, Wiercigroch will have two years left with the Gaels. Although she’s unsure how those years will unfold, she’s excited to keep challenging herself academically and athletically, with the hopes of winning OUA n s.

“Next year we have some really strong recruits coming in, so I’m ready to help them transition to university life while continuing to train hard in the gym, strengthening my mental game, and being the best student and member of the community I can,” said Wiercigroch.

Ratushniak is just as excited to see Wiercigroch reach her full potential.

“She’s now accustomed to being a leader on the team and will only get more comfortable with time,” says Ratushniak. “I can’t wait to see how she will continue to inspire others, improve as a player, and drive our team to greater success.”

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