Champ Suiter digging summer off
Her knees ache and she’s got shin splints. The arches of both of her feet have collapsed.”I’m injured pretty much from the ribs down,” Lizzie Suiter said over lunch recently. “But my shoulders are fine.”So Suiter, a starter on Stanford University’s 2004 National Championship volleyball team and a 2003 Aspen High School graduate, is taking a break from volleyball this summer. Instead, she’s going lobstering off the coast of Maine.In her downtime, she is relearning how to jump with the laundry list of injuries. “Pretty much what you’re doing is jumping for an hour-and-a-half,” the rising junior said of her sport.Suiter walks on her toes with a Tigger-like spring that makes her calf muscles too strong for the rest of her body. And that slight bounce in Suiter’s step seems to embody her: a stellar athlete with a goofy sense of humor and unique flair.Nowadays, Suiter is recognized everywhere she goes – which is explained in part by her stature (she’s 6-foot-1). But the former AHS standout in both volleyball and basketball is also the starting middle blocker on Stanford’s reigning champion NCAA Div. I squad, a team that is worshipped by a legion of fans on the West Coast.And while Suiter’s statistics in spikes or blocks are readily available, she quietly carries a 3.8 grade point average and deflects much of the praise directed at her. She won’t let you believe she’s talented.”It’s humbling that some people are so naturally gifted,” Suiter said. “I don’t see myself as coordinated at all. I just have big hands and I’m tall and strong.”Suiter’s height is genetic, but she works hard for her strength. The volleyball season runs into December, but the Cardinals play a spring schedule as well.”Winter is our ‘off-season’,” Suiter said. “But that’s a big fat quote, because we still have two practices a day and mandatory, ‘optional’ open gym.”Summertime – officially her break – means running, lifting weights and speed training.”We have a turbo weight coach right now, so we lift like four times a week,” Suiter said.
Suiter’s body is starting to feel the stress of constant activity. So instead of the uphill running that her teammates are doing for pre-season training, Suiter runs in the pool to take pressure off of her knees and feet. Suiter thought about trying out for the basketball team at Stanford, but then “decided to stay low key and stick with volleyball,” she said. Low-key for Suiter means three hour practices a day during the season, on top of everyday life. A dedicated student, she still finds time to study – just not when anyone might see her.”I’m an insomniac,” she said. “I work from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. and just get done what I need to get done.”Aspen startSuiter’s volleyball talent in high school was unmistakable. She ruled the court when she played, and helped AHS to a third-place finish at the state tournament in 2001, her junior season. A national scout saw her play at the championship, and afterward she was recruited by countless colleges. “How I got to Stanford was 150 percent luck,” Suiter said. “The planets aligned or something.”Stanford’s No. 1 recruit in Suiter’s position, Meredith Nelson, opted for the University of Minnesota. Then Suiter was offered her scholarship. College volleyball was a totally different game for Suiter, who was used to dominating the league.”When I was in high school I could just hit over everyone. But once I got to college, the other middle blockers are like 6-foot-5,” she said. “I had so much to catch up on. I was a project.”AHS coach Matt Bergdahl taught Suiter to block: “That’s the only thing I had a natural knack for,” Suiter said. Suiter was a strong offensive player in high school, but she now likes defense better – “by a thousand,” she said.Stanford’s national title run began after a turbulent early season.
“We were so close off the court, but we weren’t clicking on the court,” Suiter said.The turn-around point in the season came after a loss to rival Cal-Berkley.”We all just looked at each other and were like, ‘What are we doing?'” Suiter said.Stanford went 15-0 after that game and made the national tournament, which is set up with a 64-team bracket system identical to that used in NCAA Div. I basketball tournaments.Suiter’s parents, Gary and Fran Suiter, moved out to California for the volleyball season and attended every single Stanford home game last season. They were also on hand for the Final Four in Long Beach, Calif.”It was almost like a volleyball convention,” Gary Suiter said. “When they won it was almost surrealistic.”Lizzie Suiter has a different memory. A lot of Stanford fans made the drive to Long Beach, and the crowd support was fantastic.”We just had this huge crowd of screaming, shirtless boys,” she said.The championship game between Minnesota and Stanford was especially poignant for Suiter, who faced off against Gopher middle blocker Meredith Nelson – the same player who turned down Suiter’s scholarship.”It was pretty amazing,” Suiter said.Suiter showed that she is one of the top collegiate volleyball players in the country, but she is more concerned about the team and winning, her dad said.Meanwhile, Suiter has been moving up in Stanford’s record books. She took over the No. 2 spot for most blocks in a season, trailing only two-time Olympian Kim Oden.
“She doesn’t really care much about stats,” Gary Suiter said. “Whenever she broke a record or anything, we had to tell her about it.”Despite her success in volleyball, Lizzie Suiter has her priorities straight – academics, then volleyball, then social life, and sometimes social life over academics. But volleyball and social life are often one and the same because the team is so close, she said.”When we walk into a party, it’s like the 6-foot-and-over club,” Suiter laughed. “We just take over the place.”Suiter will head back to Stanford in August to coach kids volleyball camps and start training for a new season.Coaching 5- to 16-year-olds brings new challenges for Suiter, particularly in the patience department.”I’m like their human jungle gym,” she said. But it seems Suiter does have a talent working with kids, and her fan base keeps growing because of it.”They start to worship you,” she said. “I went to Arizona and there were all these little kids with signs that said ‘Lizzie’.”Suiter and the rest of the Cardinals will report to school two months before all other students to practice two or three times a day – “My personal hell,” she said.But before that reality sets in, Suiter is taking it easy, reading everything she can get her hands on (“I’m trying to make it through the classics”) and preparing to catch lobsters.”I’ll count it as lifting weights,” she said. “Those cages are heavy.”