Hard-hitting and soft-hearted, Maja Gustin is the essence of a team player
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Take the points off the board and drop the attitude. If University of Hawai'i sophomore Maja Gustin ruled volleyball, no one would lose and everyone would be happy.
Advertiser library photo Dec. 7, 2000
Maja Gustin, right, sacrificed a promising career as a middle blocker to fill a void at left-side hitter for the University of Hawai'i women's volleyball team.
Advertiser library photo Dec. 7, 2000
"When you have fun and when you really, really know how to enjoy and appreciate your life you get more," she theorizes. "It's all up to you how you live your life. You can live in two ways to have fun or to be sad, but if you will be sad the things you have will be taken.
"I'm trying to grow in my life through this process to go to a higher level, to grow as a person. My goal in life is to have pure thoughts and enjoy my life and give a lot. And not to think too much because when you think too much and you are smart that's really bad. I don't want to be a smart person, like a philosopher."
Her outlook on life, defined in a language not her own, remains simple and sweet. So does she, through major upheavals in her life and that of the world around her.
Gustin is 22 and half a planet from home and her comfort zone on the volleyball court. Last year, she was one of the nation's finest middle blockers, as she had been in Slovenia the previous seven years.
"At home, you have one position and you work your whole life at this position," she says simply. "I never thought I would do something but block. Just block and hit quick balls. I never thought I'd be on the left. No, no, no."
So do Willoughby and Margaret Vakasausau, and every other Wahine who have held this 27-5 season together. But no one has taken one for the team quite like Gustin.
She learned of her position change days before the season began. UH coach Dave Shoji delivered the news while she worked his volleyball camp: All-American Lily Kahumoku was taking a year off; Jennifer Saleaumua, the country's 2001 High School Player of the Year, would not be coming; transfer Jennifer Fopma had gone back home.
Shoji needed a player with big-kill potential on the left to complement Willoughby, and Gustin was it.
"Obviously, a lot of people have second-guessed that decision," Shoji admits. "But we truly had no one else on the team who could put up numbers like Maja did.
"To me, there was no other choice. She's big and powerful and can hit the high ball."
Hit is an understatement. Gustin usually puts her whole body into the ball and tries to blow away the block. But even under trial by fire, with little time to learn technique and touch, she is burying four balls a game. No starter other than Willoughby averaging an NCAA-high seven has half as many.
It has been another all-conference season, but nothing like last year. You can see Gustin's frustration watch her tense her wrists between points but she has never verbalized it, nor complained. She's gone from playing purely on instinct to being forced to think about every move she makes, whether she's hitting or blocking.
Sometime after the first weekend, when the Wahine were in a hybrid offense and Gustin played left, middle and right in successive rotations, and after an awful match against Utah State, she promised herself not to panic and to treat every tough night as a positive learning experience.
"I realized it's on me and I'm here to be myself," Gustin said. "I was asking myself why am I here and people were saying they want to see me in the middle, but I was like, 'OK, I want to have fun no matter where I am.' I wanted to play left from then, and have fun and learn about myself."
Her frustration can still be evident, as it was last weekend against blocks she could not blow away. But there is no longer doubt as to where she belongs, at least this season.
"Maja knows how to get Maja out of it if she's in trouble," Willoughby says. "That's the thing I love best about Maja. Even if she's hitting zero, she's going to find a way to help us."
This year, there can be no other way. Shoji admits his team won't win without Gustin. He orders Vakasausau to set her through her struggles.
"If Maja's going to hit negative, we're probably not going to win the match," Shoji says. "We've got to get her out of that. And Maja takes an honest crack at the ball. She's not getting cheated, not backing down, just sometimes the choices have to be better. There's no quit in Maja."
There is no fear. She never hesitated to make the move to Hawai'i last year, even when her friends were shocked at all she left behind.
And, through the trauma of watching the second war in her lifetime unfold she lost her father to what she simply calls "The Five-Year War" at home she has been a rock of peace and kindness for those around her.
"Maja is the sweetest person alive," Nohea Tano says. "Just so genuine."
Adds Shoji: "She's got a soft heart. She's a very emotional and kind-hearted person."
In that way, she has also filled a critical role on this team, seemingly without effort.
"This team allows you to be who you are and that's the most important thing," Gustin says. "A lot of times, when I was playing before, people wanted to change you. We support each other and trust each other. We will never push anybody down. We know we are winners and it's just fun.
"Volleyball and everything in life is just learning about yourself. You have one path to follow. I don't know where I'll go next, but I'm not scared to go anywhere and be by myself. That's life and life supports you."