Lausanne, Switzerland, June 3, 2020 - In this first chapter of a two-part series with Maggie Kozuch, the German blocker says that if she could sum up the 2019 season in five words they would be 'honeymoon', 'hard work', 'frustration', 'struggle' and 'connection'. Kozuch enjoyed a remarkable end to last season including an unforgettable night in Rome when she and Laura Ludwig won the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour Finals together.
It was a dramatic evening in the Italian capital and one that Kozuch calls the team's ‘happy point’ in a country that feels like ‘home’ to her following her time playing indoor for Pomi Casalmaggiore, a team she won the CEV Champions League with in 2015/2016. That is a two-part accomplishment which puts Kozuch among a very select few players who have won major events in the indoor and beach disciplines of the sport.
Kozuch decided to make the switch in 2017 after having her club season in China cancelled. Now Kozuch and Olympic gold medallist and 2017 world champion Laura Ludwig are improving fast in their bid to make the Olympic Games, having won the World Tour Finals in their first season together.
"I had many goals coming into the season, but my aim was to take it step by step, game by game, tournament by tournament and even point by point, staying present and taking every situation as it is and working with it. At some point everyone struggled, but it was also a great feeling at the end of the season for us to turn potential into performance. This was the goal of the season - to find the game of Kozuch and Ludwig and also to figure out what this means and looks like - and I feel as if we did that."
The pair joined forces for the 2019 season. Ludwig returning after giving birth to her first child Teo, and her former partner Kira Walkenhorst retiring, meant that Maggie had a decision to make on whether to leave her partnership with Karla Borger, with whom she made the transition from indoor volleyball to beach volleyball. Kozuch suggests that there were multiple reasons for her decision.
"Laura made a phone call in 2018 and invited me on a trip with her. Of course I needed time to decide. Everyone within this situation needed some time to reflect and integrate and take the decision on how to move forwards. But when I heard her voice, I was smiling. When hearing her I could feel what was coming without even thinking about it. But then on the other hand there was the decision you have to take on leaving your current project and your partner that you have already started that project with. For me it was the first partnership in beach volleyball and there was a big mix up of emotions and feelings."
Laura and Maggie first met each other when they were both in their early teens whilst playing with the indoor national team - a connection that made the decision easier. They also both live in the city of Hamburg, which makes it easier to juggle personal and professional life.
From honeymoon to connection via hard work and frustration
The pair may have finished on a high, but they had ups and downs earlier in their first season together.
"Pre-season was really good and we could feel everything was going in the right direction to transform our potential into performances. But once the season started, we had our challenges. And also everyone had new situations. Laura being a mum and me being relatively new to beach volleyball with a new team and new people around me. It was a very complex situation."
The team took a 25th in Xiamen, Gstaad and Espinho, but they also had top 10 finishes in Vienna, Warsaw and Jinjiang. In hindsight Kozuch feels that personally this was all part of the process, but it took lots of hard work and support to see the team prevail in Rome.
"On a personal and professional level, things need time to grow. Maybe it was already there, but we couldn’t show it in competition because of the pressure and expectations that we put on ourselves. But also the pressure from the outside. Maybe that stopped us from flowing as we did in pre-season. So to perform the way we did at the end, we had to change the way we practice, communicate a lot, talk to each other and the team to find the way to help us get out of the struggle, and also see what was the positive in these performances. The coaches and the team helped us see these positives and the joy in the game, because sometimes it’s easy for athletes to be tough on themselves."
Maggie reflects on a ‘huge struggle for some months’ that she had never been through before ‘on all levels’, but when asked what the turning point was for her and the team, the answer comes easily. It was in Vienna that she felt a shift in her game, a shift in her feelings and mental approach. And the team finished 5th.
"The turning point was in Vienna. Even though we had more possibilities to go further, something there clicked in me and from that point on, there was a new process just starting. Even though that process had it’s ups and downs, it gave us the feeling that we could go on to fulfil our potential and led us to our happy point in Rome."
The Vienna Major last August was a key event for the Kozuch and Ludwig partnership
Kozuch suffered a partly dislocated shoulder in Moscow and was even doubting whether she could play in Rome. The team lost their opening game to Karla Borger and Julia Sude, a team they also lost to in German Championship finals the week before. And Kozuch says the team had to learn to be ‘resistant’ throughout the season to things that were happening around them and they quite easily could have lost the ‘trust in their process’. Their trust saw them through, however. Kozuch also felt flow, something she talks about regularly.
"I felt calm, loved and at home in Italy. It felt as if the crowd were hugging me and it gave me trust in the moment to believe in the potential we had. In the final two matches I had a feeling of flow, I was able to stay in control but completely let go, it was the perfect balance in one moment on so many different levels. It wasn’t linear, it is difficult to put the feeling in words. We played against experienced players, great players and to win was emotional. In this moment everything came together. I really felt the feeling of flow.”
It wasn’t just the crowd that made her feel at home, but also the players, who also recognised the battle that Kozuch and the team had gone through to reach that special performance in Rome
"I am thankful for all of the support, but it was a beautiful thing because even the other players that we have played against complimented us and it felt like it was from the heart. It gave me a feeling that beach volleyball is a family even if everyone and every team have their own struggles and their own processes."
Kozuch and Ludwig are currently in 15th place in the Olympic rankings and are training in Hamburg individually. Kozuch has said ‘they are focusing on the things that we may not have time to focus on normally’ due to pre-season having a time limit. And as they cannot predict their next tournament, it allows more time to improve on the small things that could make a difference in Tokyo.
In the second part of this interview with Maggie Kozuch we will be finding out more about her jump from being a Champions League winner to a World Tour Finals gold medallist.
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour