Berg paved way for Gophers, U.S.

Former Gophers setter Lindsey Berg helped begin winning eras on both the collegiate and national level.

The M Club Hall of Fame recognized recent inductee Lindsey Berg during a football game against Syracuse on Sept. 22 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

The M Club Hall of Fame recognized recent inductee Lindsey Berg during a football game against Syracuse on Sept. 22 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Megan Ryan

Former Gophers volleyball setter Lindsey Berg has spent most of her volleyball career blazing trails.

She was one of the first Gophers players from outside the Midwest. She set the stage for Minnesota to reach the final of the NCAA tournament in 2004. She was the captain of the U.S. national team that won back-to-back silver medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

While she doesn’t have an NCAA title or Olympic gold medal to her name, Berg said she has no regrets about a career filled with almosts.

“Everyone wants a gold, but not many people have a silver either,” Berg said.

Now nearing the end of her volleyball career, which she almost quit twice, Berg is taking time off from the sport to pursue a life in fashion.

Islands to icicles

Berg said she started playing volleyball at about age 6, but was practically born with a ball in her hand.

Her father, Dennis Berg, was a player and coach. He helped organize a men’s volleyball team at the University of California-Santa Barbara along with former Gophers head coach Mike Hebert.

Dennis Berg said both Lindsey and her sister played volleyball as kids on the beach in their native Honolulu.

“It’s been a volleyball family, absolutely,” Dennis Berg said.

“Even though mom tried to get them into a little tennis, they had way too much fun playing volleyball. [They] decided it was going to be that sport.”

Lindsey Berg said she became serious about the sport at about age 8.

Volleyball is a popular sport in Hawaii — Berg equated volleyball players on the islands to “NBA superstars.” But she still decided to travel to the mainland for her collegiate career.

“I felt like I needed to grow as a person,” Berg said.

The Hawaiian said she’d probably only ever been to California in her childhood. Her move to Minnesota was due in part to her father’s friendship with Hebert.

“I didn’t know where Minnesota was, as ignorant and horrible [and] sheltered as that sounds,” Berg said. “I knew it was cold.”

Hebert said he recruited the parents as much as the athlete herself because he wanted Berg on his team.

“I had 10 setters on my list that year, and Lindsey was No. 1,” Hebert said. “She was No. 1 because she has a feel for the game that not many young players have. … She had all the intangibles and a great pair of hands to set the ball.”

The 5-foot-8-inch Berg said she used to play every position in Hawaii. But when she had to specialize in a position in college, setter was her choice.

“I was actually taller in Hawaii compared to other players,” Berg said. “Coming to college, I’m smaller in general, and setting is what I was naturally born to do I think.”

Berg said she got over the idea of living in cold weather because she wanted to be a part of a building program.

Former teammate Nicole Branagh said she came to Minnesota for the same reason a few years earlier and was glad Berg joined the team.

“It was nice for me to have another person from warm weather,” said Branagh, a California native.

The furthest Berg’s Gophers ever made it in the NCAA tournament was the Sweet 16.

But when Minnesota made it to the Final Four in 2003 and the national championship game in 2004, Berg said she felt proud.

“Mike [Hebert], Nicole Branagh, Stephanie Hagen and I feel like we built the team and got them to be visible,” Berg said. “Yeah, I don’t have a Final Four, but I feel like I can be a part of what they have accomplished.”

Hebert said Berg was “the key player in laying the foundation for the success of the Gopher volleyball program.”

“Prior to her arrival, we were a young program in search of a style of play,” Hebert said. “Lindsey got here and provided that.”

Hebert said leaders have to be extraordinary players first, and Berg fit that mold. While at Minnesota, Berg made the All-Big Ten team three times, and she still ranks second in the Big Ten record books in service aces.

Branagh said the team looked to Berg as an example.

“The setter is a big communicator and kind of a quarterback of the team,” Branagh said. “And she does that very well and was a great leader.”

Tough training

Berg’s first professional team was the Minnesota Chill in Rochester, Minn. She joined the team in 2002 after she graduated from the Gophers.

“It was easy to go to the Minnesota team,” Berg said. “It was the first year that they ever had a [U.S.] league, and why not play in a professional league and make money in Minnesota where I had so many friends?”

Branagh also played for the Minnesota Chill, which made the transition even easier.

But Berg didn’t stay with the Minnesota Chill for long before she earned an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team.

Berg said she spent two years in Colorado Springs, Colo., training to make the Olympic roster under then-head coach Toshi Yoshida.

“We were in the gym eight to nine hours a day. I hated life. Multiple times I packed my bags and wanted to leave,” Berg said. “[It was] the hardest training I’ve ever gone through.”

Branagh was on the national team from 2001-03 and said she talked to Berg a lot about her struggles.

“I played in Japan, and so I [came to] realize that we trained all day long,” Branagh said. “So it was kind of like that in Colorado Springs.”

Branagh said it was a big difference from college — much more of a grind.

Dennis Berg said Yoshida’s philosophy didn’t suit his daughter.

“[It was] incredibly hard training … and not a whole lot of pats on the back,” Dennis Berg said. “It took a little bit of the fun out of the volleyball that she had experienced all the way through to the end of college.”

Dennis Berg said Lindsey Berg was spoiled with a coach like Hebert who had confidence in her and allowed her to set the ball and play how she needed to.

Berg made it through Yoshida’s training and earned her spot on the Athens roster as a reserve. But her experience at the Olympics wasn’t what she expected.

“Athens wasn’t what I felt an Olympics experience should be like,” Berg said. “When we went to Athens, [the war in the Middle East] had just started. So we couldn’t wear USA gear. We had Secret Service with us, FBI following us. They told us not to tell anybody we’re Americans. It was intense.

“Going to the Olympics and not having USA spirit, it takes a lot away,” Berg said.

The U.S. finished in a tie for fifth place in the Olympics.

The hard training leading up to the Games and the disappointing result led Berg to consider quitting volleyball again.

But then she received an offer to play professional club volleyball in Italy.

Berg said she knew the coach and the allure of playing in the best league in the world for a nice salary was too good to pass up.

She ended up staying in the country for the next eight years playing for three different clubs.

“I completely gained my love for volleyball back,” Berg said. “I again knew why I loved volleyball, why I played for so long.”

Yoshida left the national team after the Olympics, and Dennis Berg said it gave his daughter another opportunity at the national team.

“Once they made a coaching change and we felt that maybe she could get a fresh look at competing for a starting position … that gave her a little more incentive to continue on,” Dennis Berg said.

The real Olympic experience

Berg said her time in Italy not only renewed her love for volleyball but also encouraged her to give the Olympics another go.

In Beijing, Berg was a co-captain and substitute for the U.S.’s surprise silver-medal team.

“We weren’t expected to medal at all,” 2008 teammate Kim Glass said. “Going in there and kind of throwing the shocker on everyone was pretty awesome.”

The 2012 London Games were different, though. Instead of coming in as underdogs, the Americans were ranked No. 1 in the world.

“It was the best team I’ve ever played on in my life,” Berg said. “[We went from] being really crappy our first year together to seeing us being the best in the world in our fourth year.”

Berg said she played the best volleyball of her life in London, despite bad knees that had inhibited her for about three years — including surgery after the 2008 Games.

Former national team head coach and current Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said Berg, the captain of the 2012 squad, was always a part of the plan. He only questioned the health of her knees.

“She works hard. She competes. She battles,” McCutcheon said. “It was easy for her and I to work together.”

Glass said Berg’s health wouldn’t keep her from playing her best.

“I feel like her at her 50 percent with her knee is better than most players at 100 percent,” Glass said.

Fashion forward

Berg graduated from Minnesota with a business marketing degree from the Carlson School of Management. Now, she may finally have a chance to put it to good use.

She said she is taking a year or two off from volleyball with plans to open a fashion boutique in Los Angeles in July 2013.

Berg said she is “obsessed” with fashion.

“Fashion and volleyball about right now are my same type of passion,” Berg said.

Glass said Berg helped her expand her wardrobe. She also said Berg’s style was simple but regal and that Berg’s business sense will only help her future boutique.

“I’m going to be shopping there,” Glass said.

While Berg is taking time to focus on her new business endeavor and enjoy life without volleyball, she said her playing career may not be over yet.

She said because of her knee pain, she can’t see herself playing four more years, but she hasn’t officially retired yet.

McCutcheon said he doesn’t think Berg will abandon the sport altogether.

“I’ll be surprised if she’s not involved in the game in some capacity,” McCutcheon said. “I’m just not sure that she’s going to play. Physically, she needed a break.”

“I know she has a lot of other strings to her bow,” he added. “There’s a lot of other things that she wants to do with life.”

McCutcheon said if Berg wanted to play again, there would be a professional team that would take her.

Glass said Berg can still contribute to the volleyball community — and fashion.

“She has a lot to offer to other players and to the game,” Glass said. “But she has a lot to offer to the fashion world, too. I think she could do both.”