Going pro: Fullerton's Austria adventure
16th September 2019
Feature written by Ron Shillingford
Anyone in the UK aspiring to be a professional volleyball player must go abroad to pursue that ambition, which is exactly what Londoner Nathan Fullerton has done.
The son of former England players Stuart and Charmaine Fullerton, volleyball was the obvious sporting pursuit for young Nathan, twin sister Paige and older sister Stacey. All the siblings excelled in the sport which led to Nathan joining Austrian side UVC Waldviertel last year and Paige going to study in the US for a masters on a volleyball scholarship. Waldviertel is a picturesque town in the north of Austria, near the Czech Republic border.
Nathan is 2m (6ft 7ins) tall, just like his dad so looked destined growing up in Willesden, north-west London, to be an outstanding player.
Before joining UVC Waldviertel Fullerton graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Earth Science. At university, he was playing with the national league side Team Northumbria. (Paige studied there too and played for Team Northumbria.) “We had many players with professional experience who encouraged me to make the leap after studying,” Nathan said. “So after my season - with the help of an agent - I sent out highlight videos and got the offer to play here in Waldviertel.”
Last year Waldviertel finished second in the Bundesliga and fourth in MEVZA, a central European cup competition. Fullerton was the second opposite on the team so during most games he’d enter as a substitute to make an impact as a blocking or attacking threat. Or he started the games where squad rotation was needed.
From a relatively undemanding life at university to the rigours of a pro athlete was a dramatic transition, he admits. “In the morning we have either weight training or a skills-based training session,” Fullerton said. “The skills session usually consists of individual repetitions to perfect technique for a certain component of the game.
“After that we have a team lunch courtesy of one of our main sponsors and usually a quick nap to help recover from the morning session and prepare for the evening session. In the evening training the focus is more on game-based scenarios and as a result is usually more demanding, so our break has to be focused on preparing for that session.”
Waldviertel often play on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Their first league game is from September 29 and may run until late April if they make the playoffs.
How does he see their chances this season? “I think we have a good chance to make top three in the league and in MEVZA. We have a similar team as last season and have good chemistry. Also a lot of our players and support staff are very experienced with all the challenges faced with long and demanding seasons.”
English is widely spoken but in play it’s German. “My coach tries to simplify the instructions for me, so I understand the drills, tips and plays. But also my teammates are very helpful in translating anything I'm unclear on.”
Days off are usually spent socialising with his teammates, learning German, recovery and rehab and walking around the town. Visiting home is difficult during the season due to the number of games and training sessions, so it’s limited to a couple of days over Christmas and during off-season.
Fullerton has just turned 22. His ambition in the sport is “to win a medal with England and Team GB on a European and hopefully world stage.”
Long-term, he hopes to use his degree and work within a subfield of geology. “But also stay close to the sport by helping grow the game within the UK.”
He is grateful for his parents’ mentoring. "My volleyball career is mostly, if not all, down to the hard work and commitments from my parents, both of whom were high level volleyball players themselves,” he said. “Growing up they’d take my sisters and I to watch games on weekends and dad would coach us at his club in Willesden.
“He would use his experience as an ex-England player to help me understand the basics, then once I was improving, he’d send me to multiple volleyball camps, clubs and competitions to accelerate my learning. From this my career began to take off as I was able to enter the England development squad, attend a volleyball academy for sixth form and get a scholarship for volleyball at university.“
If not an athlete, Fullerton is not sure what he would be doing. “Maybe get a head start on a career within geology,” he said. “But I’d also make the most of my height in another sport if not volleyball, such as basketball or rugby.”
Star players make a fantastic living considering how niche the sport is, Fullerton said. “The top players in the world could expect to make upwards of £750,000 a year, with the record salaries surpassing £1.250,000. So a lot but nothing in comparison to a footballer.”
His advice to anyone interested in playing seriously should “begin playing socially, play as often as possible and be patient about the learning curve that comes with starting a new sport.
“Outside the UK volleyball is one of the most popular social sports with a great community, so I’d recommend joining a beginners’ class like the ones offered at Willesden. It’s also worth buying a volleyball to have a knockabout with some mates in the park, at home or at school.”
He also advises watching as much of the sport as possible. “While it doesn't get a great deal of exposure in the UK, there are national league matches you can watch live around the country and a great deal of volleyball footage on the internet of international games and from other leagues.”