Lina Taylor is a two-time beach volleyball Olympian, real estate business owner, mentor to elite athletes, co-founder of a college football award, wife of a Super Bowl champion and mother of three. She has a full life of reinvention and that did not happen by accident. She grew up in Communist Bulgaria and at seventeen came to the US to further her education. Unsatisfied with her first job she followed her passion, learned to play beach volleyball all while working three jobs and she qualified for the Olympics in two years. She is now a career coach and we’re excited to have her on the show today!
Watch her interview here:
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Alice: So, Lina, what is new with you? What is new from the last time we talked?
Lina Taylor: From the last time we talked it has been three or four more months of quarantine life. We had this glimpse of hope that things were kind of opening up. But I think I was prepared for this, knowing how — being a biology major and understanding how viruses work, I knew that this would happen in the winter. Normally, we get more sick during the winter, that is when the germ starts to spread. I expected that things will shut back down again, and I am really happy that for the kids they are able to maintain some kind of school environment. Our school put in very strict measures and I think they are doing great. They split up the kids and smaller pods. They are doing the whole social distancing. So it is giving them a little bit of taste of normal school but also families are feeling really good about the kids being protected.
Alice: That is good. Do they still get to play with kids while they are at school? I guess like in their pods?
Lina: In their little pod they play outside, they do have to wear their masks. But kids are so resilient, they just get used to it. I think some of the things would bother me more than they are bothering the kids, so I try not to say anything. A lot of times we influence our kids by what we say in all that something they hear. If I said something yesterday, I hear it from them today. I am like, “I have to be really careful about what I say.” and just kind of put a positive can-do attitude on it.
Alice: That is great. And what have you guys been up to during quarantine? So they are back at school. So that is it?
Lina: They are back at school. I am doing a lot of online presentations through the Airbnb platform, their online experiences for companies that are actually in the same situation that schools are, so everybody is working from home and it is really difficult. This is what I hear from different people. It is really difficult to maintain the team environment and your energy when you are just working from home and you are on Zoom calls all day.
What companies are doing is they are finding these experiences, I talked about the Olympics, I talked about how the different principles that I figured out how to accomplish kind of big dreams in your life. And I think they are finding it very inspirational. I have been presenting to companies like Intel, Dropbox, and Microsoft is coming up, and so I am just really excited. It has been a little fun addition for me when the kids are at school, I do my presentation. So that is it.
Alice: That is so amazing. Just wonderful. And can you remind us a little bit about your journey for our audience that has not heard your Podcast yet? Can you talk a little bit about your journey to the Olympics?
Lina: Yes. I was born in Bulgaria in 1975 while it was still a communist country. And when I was 14 years old, the Berlin wall came down and it was for the first time at that time that it was maybe possible to even think about going abroad. And so I started playing volleyball when I was really young, that was one of the ways during communism that you could have an opportunity to leave the country because otherwise you were not allowed to travel. And so volleyball became for me a way to accomplish my dreams to create a better life for myself and for my family.
And when I was 17, I got a scholarship to play volleyball at the University of Idaho that was prior to the internet, prior to everything. And the way I got it was that I had a pen pal from Cyprus and I was practicing my English, writing letters to her and I had told her in my letter, “I am looking for a way to come to the United States.” My parents could not send me because they were making something like $100 a month when you translated the money. So it was completely impossible financially for them to do it and I had to figure out if I wanted to do that how to make it happen. She was working, my pen pal friend was working at the volleyball Federation in Cyprus, and one day, she found a letter that somebody had thrown in the trash. It was a recruiting letter from the volleyball coach at the University of Idaho. So she saw that letter, pulled it out of the trash, send it to me, and that is how I got my scholarship. Right?
Alice: Oh my gosh. That is amazing.
Lina: I know, the things that happen. But I think really was the intention and me writing that letter and sharing my dream, and not thinking that it is something completely impossible. It did not seem probable that it would happen, but you cannot tell a kid not to dream. Yes, go ahead.
Alice: That is amazing. And like the Olympics, they were canceled this summer, can you talk a little bit about that? All of these athletes must have been working and training and dreaming about this day, and then it is canceled until maybe next summer? Can you talk about that?
Lina: My heart goes out to all the athletes and the organizers and everybody. It is such a huge movement and there is so many moving parts that have to happen for an athlete. The Olympics are the epitome of just what you have really motivates you on a daily basis to sacrifice — to make a ton of sacrifices. I started playing volleyball when I was 8, and in order to be on that track to where eventually I could have a chance to go to the Olympics, it is like you are not going to pool parties with your friends. From the age of 10, 11, 12, you are on a track that you end up sacrificing so much.
And so if something like this happens, I also thought about in 1980 when the Cold War was going on, and so athletes from the United States did not go to Russia to compete. That is four years for these, especially those athletes that are gymnasts, they are so dependent, there is like a time that you peak in your sport, right? And the longevity is maybe not so much where you can make the next Olympic cycle. It is so heartbreaking. I am hoping that these athletes now are just kind of hanging in there.
For me, the Olympics, once I came to the United States and started my education even though I was playing volleyball in college, I had kind of given up on my Olympic dream. I was more focused on getting my education. I was a biology degree. And once I graduated from college, I got a job at a vitamin company. And I moved to San Diego.
And I was just kind of playing beach volleyball for fun on the weekends, weekend warrior, just go out there. And in 1996, I was sitting in my living room in Mission Beach and watching the Olympics on TV. And so I would go out on the weekend and I will try to do what these amazing athletes were doing. And all my friends just kind of said, “Hey, do you think you can play in the Olympics?” I said, “No way. How would that happen?” You are just thinking that is a whole new sport. It is just so hard to imagine transferring your skills from indoor volleyball to beach volleyball. It is so humbling, right?
But little by little what started happening is I was working a year under my belt, another year in my corporate job. I was kind of started to get discouraged by the culture of, “Is it Friday yet?” People just seem so lackluster about their experience at work. And here I was, 21 years old, like, “Let’s go and change the world.” But I did not meet that enthusiasm at my work, and I really started thinking like, “Is that what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life?” And I had this thing about like, “No, I do not want to live my life like that. I want to make something with my life.” And that is when I said, “Well, what if I commit to this idea of qualifying and playing in the Olympics for beach volleyball?”
Of course, it was not so easy, but once I made that decision, I started taking little steps that eventually, against all odds, just four years after I had watched it on TV, my little sister and I, we played together, we ended up qualifying and playing in the Athens Olympics, and then made the jump to become professional and ended up playing in the Sydney Olympics first and then in Athens.
Alice: That is so incredible. And for any of you who have not heard Lina’s other Podcast for Weekly Woman, you have to listen to her journey of getting to the Olympics and how she qualified in two months and was able to get there. It is just incredible. So, Lina, that is just amazing. Can you talk a little bit about the opening ceremonies? What was that like in Athens, your first opening ceremonies there?
Lina: It is kind of out of this world experience, you walk into the stadium. First of all, the way the athletes were stage by country under the stadium where the entrance of the stadium is. And so you are with all these other athletes from all over the world. And I remember seeing Roger Federer and just pinching myself like, “Is this for real?” And so once the opening ceremonies are happening, the athlete starts walking out, and then once you walk out on that stage and you see this enormous stadium full of people, then you see all the video cameras from all over the world are pointing at you, it is just like you feel like you are walking on clouds. It was everything. And for me, just feeling almost like an outsider because here I was on my journey never thinking that I could have a chance to do that and then actually being there, I really had to pinch myself hard a couple of times.
Alice: Oh, that is amazing.
Lina: Yes, it was amazing.
Alice: Oh my gosh. And you are an Olympic athlete and you still get your period. Well, tell me a little bit about your story at the Olympics, would you mind sharing it?
Lina: Just starting with volleyball at such an early age and starting to play, I remember how horrified I was of getting my period. With volleyball, just being a girl having to compete and having to manage that experience, and for me, my periods were always really painful. I had cramps really really badly ever since I was a little girl. And I remember that if I was somehow physiologically, I do not know exactly what the mechanism was, but if I was outside and in the sun and kind of got overheated right before my period started, my cramps would be maybe ten times worse.
But how do you manage that if you are in a competition? You do not control all these things. If I am sitting at home, yes, of course, I can kind of feel this is starting to happen, I can lay down and just kind of stay cool. But if you are in a place, if you are somewhere in the world traveling with your team, how do you manage all these things?
And I think we did not have a lot of people talking to us about this and so I kind of felt even though my friends were there and we were all in it together supporting one another, it was not a subject that kind of felt really accepted and to share that, “I am in a lot of pain.” A lot of time we had male coaches, so we were afraid of basically saying like, “I am in a lot of pain.” because we do not want to get benched. You do not want to lose your spot because you cannot perform. You just kind of learn from a really young age to stuff it, you are a tough girl. It is almost like you ignore this part of yourself that really makes you a woman, that makes you who you are. I had gone through many many years of that obviously, and then learning how to manage that on the beach playing in a bikini, right?
Alice: Wow. I cannot even imagine. I just want to lie in bed with no light.
Lina: Right. Exactly. I mean, that is what you feel like doing, but here I was. This is the Athens Olympics, we are playing our second match. We lost our first match so miserably in our group that if we did not win this one, we had no chance of advancing. Everything is on the line, everything that you can imagine and we are playing — it is 1 pm in the middle of the day in Athens. It is something like a hundred degrees outside, it is so hot and of course, I am starting to feel cramps are coming on and it is the warm-up, we are just warming up. And I am just going, “Oh my God, this is not going to end well.” I mean, if this is starting right now and we are still in the warm-up, where is this taking me?
Well, what ended up happening is that by the time, we fought really hard, we won the first set, you play two out of three sets so you have to win two if you want to continue. So we won the first set and we ended up losing the second set. So we are in the third set and you play two 15 points, you have to win by two. So the score is 13/13 like there is two points left that everything that I have worked for in my entire life is riding on this moment, and I am dying. And I have to make a decision at that point what kind of happened to me was I had this flashback of all these times that I was a little girl and I had to stuff it and be the tough girl, do not share, no pain. And I felt like I am about to do this now, and what is going to happen in the next two points is going to determine basically the outcome of my Olympic experience. So on one hand, I had the option of taking a medical timeout. They take a medical timeout. It is not like the cramps are going to go away but at least, I can take a pill or something and kind of gather myself for these next two points to give everything that I can of myself even though I am already in a compromised situation or push through it, “Do not disturb the status quo. Do not make a noise. Do not let anybody find out you.”
So there is all these talks that are happening in my mind and at the same time, I know that I have to perform in front of the whole world in this most important moment. And at that point, I am so glad that for the first time in my life, I listened to this other voice that said, “Do not worry about inconveniencing everybody. This is your moment. You work for this your entire life and everything depends on it. Take the timeout and just try to take care of yourself as much as you can.” So I take a medical timeout, of course, I had not even told my sister what happened because I do not want her to think about me and worry about me, and I am just like I am pushing through it. And I told her, I said, “Hey, my period is coming up, my cramps. I am dying. I need to go inside for 2 minutes. I need to maybe take a pill and see what I can do when I come out so that we have at least a fair chance this last two points.”
Lina: I go in, kind of regroup myself. I remember just being in the locker room and looking at myself in the mirror and just going like, “You got this. You can do this. You can get through it. Take a deep breath.” I get a pill, of course, the cramps do not go away right away but just having that moment. And I think it was also allowing myself to be vulnerable and to acknowledge it in that situation and just honoring that in myself and not trying to just please everybody else and push through it.
And so we did, I go back out on the court. It is 13/13 and I am serving. So I serve, I have to find that clip somewhere. But what happens in the next three minutes is my sister comes with this most improbable play that just kind of defines the competitor that she really is and gets two blocks in the next two places. Game over. We win.
Lina: 15/13. We were not together during that time out but I knew — I asked her later like, “What did you do?” She was still sitting out on the court waiting for me to come out and she said, “I thought about you, I thought about just summoned everything that I could do.”, and she really came through. It was amazing. To have two blocks in a row in that situation was quite a performance. So we ended up winning, the feeling that you are European Champions in that game, and that allowed us to — we had to win our next game and then go into the round of sixteen. But what an experience, I am still kind of trying to process that, and I have not shared it with too many people.
Alice: Yes, that is amazing. And there is such a taboo. It is a taboo subject still which is so frustrating because it is a part of our experience as women. But I think that is amazing that you are able to decide to take that self-care that you needed and were able to take that medical timeout.
Lina: You learn a lot of things along the way. You learn how to be tough. You learn how to manage under any circumstance. You learn how to not disturb other people. At that moment, I had to unlearn a lot of things and to honor something else inside of myself to give myself a full chance because I could have gone through it. And let us say with lost the game, it is not the end of the world.
Of course, I do not get to play in another Olympics and I will have that memory. In that moment, I could not live with that thought, it was just like deciding like, “Is that what you want to have for the rest of your life?” The moment where you could have done something to honor yourself and give yourself a fair chance or continue to please everybody else and continue to stuff it and not say anything. I truly hope that we open up this dialogue and I hope that girls are not alone in that, and I hope that they know that it is okay and that it is a part of us. It is what makes us women that we have to honor.
Alice: And I think that is really interesting how you brought up you had mostly male coaches too because it is just not a part of their experience. And also there is this idea as men to keep going, to push forward which you shattered then and realized you had to take care of this womanly experience. I was curious too about that, do you find it more challenging to be a female athlete? Your dad was a professional athlete, your husband is an NFL Super Bowl champion. Do you find that you have to push through more barriers, not just menstruation but what are your thoughts on that?
Lina: Absolutely. I was lucky because our dad raised my sister and I to not think of ourselves any different or any less capable. The gender barrier in Bulgaria did not exist as much as it does, believe it or not, here in the United States.
Alice: Wow. That is amazing.
Lina: And I think from that perspective, I felt like I can do anything that I set my mind to. However, you do, I mean, like these monthly occurrences, that is just one thing, but also hormones, managing my body weight. That was another big thing for me is that I always had problems to manage my weight and I do not know if that was because of hormones or because of my body structure or because of everything else that us as women we have to deal with.
But that was really difficult too, body image. I had a coach — this is an interesting story, I had a coach when I was 16 years old in Bulgaria he said, “We are all going to be in better shape. We are going to win the national championship.” And we were all for that. He said, “Okay, now everybody get on the scale.” He weighed all of us and he gave us these arbitrary numbers. So it is like, “You have to lose three kilos. You have to lose this.” I think I had to lose 2 kilos which is something like 5 pounds, does not seem like a lot and you have a week to do it.
Alice: Oh my God.
Lina: So I go through the week and I am literally starving myself and eating apples and still trying to practice twice a day and go to school at that time, and I could not lose the weight. I do not know if it was just the fear or my metabolism shut down, but I could not lose the weight. And I am sitting there — so the consequence was that you are kicked off the team until you lose the weight.
Alice: What? That is crazy.
Lina: I know. But that was the times. This is how you did things, you either conform or you are out. And so I am sitting there crying, Sunday morning because I know the next day Monday is we have our weigh-in. And my mom, she just looks at me and she is feeling so sorry for me, and I said, “Mom, I do not know how I am going to do it but I cannot lose my spot on this team. My whole identity, everything that I wanted to do is wrapped up in this thing that I spent so much of my life building.” And she felt really sorry for me, and she had — like this is something that she would never do if it was a normal circumstance but seeing how depressed I was and how broken I would be not losing those five pounds with the kind of effect that it would have on me. She asked a friend of hers who was a nurse for a water pill. So she was like, “Just take a water pill, see if you can just lose the water weight.”
Lina: And I was like, “This is genius. Thank you.” Just anything to make the way in so that I am not cut off from the team. So I take the water pill and then I remember the next day I am going to practice. I get off the bus and all of a sudden everything in front of my eyes goes black eye. I feel myself standing. I did not pass out, I feel myself standing. I hear the people but I cannot see a thing. I keep blinking my eyes and everything is black. And I got really scared. And I heard people around me, I said, “I cannot see. I cannot see.” And then there was somebody that said, “Just lay down, lay down.” And so the moment I lay down on the ground, my blood pressure stabilized and I was able to see again and I walked to practice.
I made my weight, and I was so furious with our coach, with the system, with the position that I had put myself in, put my mom in but also the whole system kind of defined. I think that was one of the things that helped me decide to take the step of quitting the track that I was on in Bulgaria which would lead me eventually to the national team and to choose education. So I decided that was the moment — one of the moments that I gave up on that Olympic dream saying like, “If that is what it is going to take, I cannot do that with my body, with my life.” And I am not the only one that had that experience, there were — sadly many other girls —
Lina: — that were going through it.
Alice: So tough. That is so unhealthy for you.
Lina: Tell me about it.
Alice: Wow. Oh my gosh. But then you did make it, so that is amazing.
Lina: But I did make it. Then I did make it on my terms. I have this next experience like I was telling you, it is 13/13 like, “Am I going to push through and be the tough girl and blackout and then not take this chance that I have to give myself the best chance possible? Choose the time out. Take care of yourself. Dare to inconvenience others.”
Alice: Yes, as you should.
Lina: As you should, to honor yourself. But it was a big lesson that I had to learn.
Alice: Yes, that is amazing. Thank you so much for talking about this. It is like it is a taboo subject still. It has a stigma for some reason even though it is something that we all go through.
Lina: But I think it is getting better now. I think definitely people are more open about it. And I think male coaches are more sensitive, especially, when they are training female athletes. I do not think things are as bad as they used to be. I hope they are not. I am certainly more aware of it and with my boys who are 10 and 12, we had hired a professional who would present this whole information in a way for them understanding what puberty is and the changes that happen in their own bodies. But what I was really pleased is that the person that came in to talk to the boys, there were a group with their peers, also explain what happens in the girl’s bodies at the same time, if not even prior to what happens to the boys. And so that they would have an appreciation and an understanding and be a little bit more sensitive and know what is happening. That did not happen when I was growing up, right?
Alice: Yes, but I did not know about boys. That was like 20 years ago.
Lina: Right. And of course, my boys have not said a word to me about it. They are like, “No, we are not talking about your lah lah lah.” But at least they heard it, they know what is happening, they are aware of it and I am hoping that they themselves would be more sensitive to their classmates if something like that was to happen and they would know what it is. And I think it is so important to be open.
Alice: Oh good. Yes, that is awesome. And, Lina, just to end things off. Do you have anything else you would like to share with our listeners today?
Lina: What else would I like to share? I am really hopeful about how things are shaping out to be. I think this is one of the things that I have seen, great changes happen with gender equality with the opportunities that are coming to girls and women. I think having an open dialogue like we are right now, even though it seems scary and embarrassing and all these others. I hope that this gives permission to other girls and women to step into that and not feel alone because we are in it together.
Alice: We are in it together. Every woman is in it together. Thank you so much, Lina. And is there a way that people can find out about your coaching and your Airbnb experiences?
Lina: Of course, it is on my website, linataylor.com, Lina, L-I-N-A, Taylor dot com. And also if anybody wants to send me an e-mail, I am always open for dialogues on how to navigate these sensitive subjects. And my email is very simple, [email protected]
Alice: Awesome. It was so wonderful to have you on today again.
Lina: Great talking to you, Alice. Thank you so much for the opportunity and keep up the good work.
Alice: Thank you.