By Chris Jung
PART 1 IN A 3-PART ARC
LOUISVILLE – These days, when Katie George’s smart phone lights up, one of two scenarios is likely to occur.
The first involves the University of Louisville junior volleyball star receiving a text, Snapchat or Twitter mention, from a friend or a fan, alerting George that a picture of her face – typically one that clearly involves an open-mouthed, on-court scream during a Cardinals match – has shown up on a nearby billboard, on-campus flyer, internet meme, or even a refrigerator magnet.
Scenario No. 2 occurs even more frequently. It’s a phone call from U of L’s athletic marketing department scheduling George to make another appearance: a student organization asking her to represent them as a Homecoming Queen nominee, Team USA Volleyball wanting the 5-foot-10 All-Atlantic Coast Conference setter to represent her country on the U.S. National Collegiate Team, a CBS Sports executive producer setting up an interview for a New York City internship, or parents from around the community asking if the former Assumption Rocket and Holy Spirit Falcon would mind sending some t-shirts so their daughter can dress up as “Katie George” for Halloween.
To the typical person, or even student-athlete, this list of telephone requests is chock-full of daydreams and fantasies. For George, who just turned 21 years old on Dec. 3, it’s just a regular Tuesday. It’s become the norm.
Since her rise through the ranks of the Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Academy (KIVA), to being the Gatorade National Player of the Year in Kentucky at Louisville Assumption High School, and now ushering in a new era of U of L sports with the transition to the ACC, George has become the Derby darling, the belle of the (volley)ball, the face of Louisville athletics in every way imaginable.
The summer of 2014 seemed to elevate George into untapped territory and heights not yet seen as she stepped into a demanding spotlight and continued pursuing a specific set of aspirations. But for a hometown girl whose dream is to become the next Erin Andrews, Samantha Ponder, or Pam Oliver, the face you’ve seen strewn throughout Cardinal Country wasn’t always held in such high regard.
In fact, you might say it all started on a carpet.
Two Against One
The youngest of three children, and the only girl, George had to develop thick skin at an early age. Her two older brothers – Timmy (26) and Charlie (24) – were relentless. There was even a time George got her braces, and herself, stuck on the basement carpet, where her brothers left her for two hours until George’s Mom got home from work that evening to free her.
Outside the house was no better. Simply wanting to keep up and be a part of the action, George would often attempt to join the fray as an array of games and sporting endeavors took place in the backyard.
“It was super challenging. My brothers were involved with so many different kinds of sports, so from the age of three I always wanted to be in the backyard with them, and my dad, while they played baseball and basketball or football, or whatever the sport may be,” George said. “And my brothers would get so upset whenever my dad would try to involve me in the game because I wasn’t any good. They’d say, ‘Well she’s a girl and she’s too little,’ yadda, yadda, yadda, so I started practicing all these sports as I got older. I wanted to be good enough to play.”
Even George’s television-viewing habits were dictated by her older brothers; and since they had the 24/7 voting advantage, the tube was always set to sports.
“I grew up watching ESPN because that’s all they watched. We watched sports in my house over and over again,” George recalled. “If I wanted to watch a girly show or the Disney Channel, I was overruled because there were two of them and only one of me.”
By the time George was 13 years old, ESPN was a part of her existence by default. And since baby sister decided to make the most of it, she became invested in the production aspect and interested in the on-air personalities – in particular a female who had burst onto the scene as a sideline reporter.
“That’s when I started recognizing Erin Andrews and that there was a female presence in sports broadcasting. And as I saw these females start to get bigger and better at their jobs, I thought this is the path I want to go down,” George said. “So I credit what I want to do in my career to my brothers, because if it wouldn’t have been for them, I probably would have grown up watching That’s So Raven and not football on TV.”
Looking back now, George indeed credits her brothers with helping to mold her character and providing frequent bouts of inspiration and motivation, especially when it comes to unintentionally exposing her to an increase in gender equality within an industry that, for so long, has been one-sided.
“I was always told by my brothers that girls aren’t as athletic as guys, girls aren’t as smart, girls don’t know as much about football – a boys’ sport,” George said. “I was always told that girls weren’t good enough to be well-known in sports, but I didn’t think that was true. I wanted to be better, and more knowledgeable, and an equal in the male-dominated world of sports. I want females to get a voice in sports.
“So when I see these females who are making strides, I think it’s huge that they’re making such movements to incorporate more women into sports, and I want to be a part of that movement.”
Once through childhood and into young adulthood, George’s older brothers entered the corporate world, while baby sister ironically earned a scholarship to continue playing sports, specifically volleyball, at the University of Louisville.
“My brothers are my two biggest fans now. And it’s funny because all of their friends and all of our family friends will say, ‘Gosh, you guys gave Katie such a hard time and now she’s the most athletic one of all of you’,” George said. “So I like to give them a hard time and ask what they did with their (athletic) careers. The roles have reversed and now I can give them a hard time, but they take it in stride.”
I Love New York….and Venice, and Croatia
George, who had a breakthrough season in 2013 as a sophomore, realized her U of L volleyball role would be even more significant as a junior when she was named team co-captain. The off-court leadership responsibilities alone would result in lengthy hours of dedication and setting the tone through example.
Realizing, however, that while volleyball was the reason she was at Louisville, George was also smart enough to comprehend how quickly her college days were flying by and that her time at the university needed to be fully maximized as she continued chasing her dream.
As a result, in February of this year, George began seeking opportunities to expand her network and her horizons by traveling to Colorado Springs to tryout, with nearly 350 other college volleyball players from around the country, for the U.S. Collegiate National Team.
Shortly after, with the blessing and assistance of Louisville volleyball head coach Anne Kordes, George also began pursuing the possibility of a summer internship working with the CBS Sports talent department in New York.
Kordes used her connection with volleyball enthusiast, and CBS Sports executive, Billy Stone to get George set up with an interview. She found out the talent internship was filled, so George switched gears to a production internship that would begin in June, instead. She eventually nailed the phone interview process and was one of five finalists to be considered, and the only final candidate who was not a senior in college.
But for the first time in her young adult life, George would deal with rejection.
“I got a call from (Stone) in April and he said, ‘They really liked you, but they also would really like someone who is going to be a senior because (CBS Sports) would be more likely to hire them.’ And that was one of the first times I’ve really felt rejection in my life,” George recalled. “I had put all my eggs in one basket with that internship and was pretty upset.”
Despite the disappointment, George was still elated that, as a result of her two-day Colorado Springs tryout, she was one of 12 players who had been selected to compete for Team USA in the European Global Challenge – an 11-day tour that would wind through Venice, Italy and Maribor, Slovenia, and end up in Pula, Croatia for the actual completion.
George began planning her post-Europe summer schedule with trips to Florida, team workouts and other fun trips and events that would quickly fill the internship void. She was remaining positive and looking forward to preparing for her international volleyball adventure, which would be George’s first-ever trip abroad.
But on May 27, George’s phone rang – as it often does – and a CBS Sports representative was on the other end of the line.
“They said, ‘Hey Katie, would you still be interested in the internship you applied for? The position has opened back up.’ I told them that I absolutely was and they asked, ‘How soon can you be here? We need you (in New York) in three days’,” George said. “Since I hadn’t accounted for or arranged housing, I asked if they get could give me a week and I’d be there. They agreed so I called anybody and everybody I could think of in New York to ask if I could sleep on their couch for a week while I got my housing figured out.”
George’s first cousin Kathleen Cogan, who works at Goldman Sachs, was quick to open her home to the new CBS Sports intern. Upon her NYC arrival, George also had to let her summer employer know that she would have to leave for a couple weeks in order to fulfill her USA Volleyball commitment in Europe.
With a month under her belt in the Big Apple, George followed through and had to temporarily depart NYC in order to join her American teammates for the trip to Europe.
During the competition overseas, George proved her versatility and flexibility by abandoning her usual position as setter and playing mostly as libero. Her efforts eventually led to her being named to the All-Tournament Team and the U.S. Collegiate squad winning a silver medal in Croatia.
“It was a huge honor getting to represent the University of Louisville over there and full of so many life experiences,” George said. “You train with 12 girls you have never met, and don’t know their playing styles, but team chemistry is huge in volleyball, and that’s what that trip taught me the most. I don’t value the team chemistry we have (at Louisville) enough.”
George, who had left New York City on the 4th of July for the volleyball trip, was in Louisville for 24 hours, and then was off to Venice. She flew home to Louisville following the European tour and was back in NYC 16 hours later to resume and complete her summer internship.
“It was just my second time in New York, there’s people everywhere, it’s a little overwhelming, and I’m learning how to live on my own for the first time. But I made it work,” George said. “It was a huge growing experience for me. I tell people that I didn’t necessarily learn a ton about production because it was summertime and it was their slow time, but from a networking standpoint it was so beneficial.”
“I got to have lunch or coffee with so many people and just learn about the industry. And it all started with (coach Kordes) just encouraging me to have a phone conversation with someone. It was just so huge for me.”
PART 2 CONTINUES TOMORROW