Meet Virginia Tech Professor Stella Volpe, who plays on the U.S. women’s national field hockey team
“So often people think that, as you get older you can't do something like this. I feel blessed that I still can compete at a high level, and I'll keep doing it until I cannot,” said Volpe, who leads the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise.
During sporting events this fall, it won’t just be Virginia Tech undergraduate athletes running up the scoreboard - the Hokies will be joined by someone else from the classroom.
On top of leading the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, the largest department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Stella Volpe M.S. ’87, Ph.D. ’91 will represent Virginia Tech on the USA Masters Women’s National Field Hockey team in Cape Town, South Africa, in early October.
Volpe, 59, got her first taste of competitive athletics when she engaged in gymnastics in grade school. That experience led her to softball, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, track, and, of course, field hockey. As the youngest of four, she loved competition, whether it was out on the field or just going for a run.
Volpe began field hockey in ninth grade, played for the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate, and coached the club team during her time in graduate school at Virginia Tech. She also was a collegiate and high school referee.
That competitive spirit never left Volpe. She continued to play in local clubs, which led her to try out for the USA Women’s Masters National Field Hockey team for the first time in 2018 and again in 2022.
In between running a department and running on the field, we caught up with Volpe to ask her a few questions about field hockey, competition, and her "pump up" song.
Where did the competitive nature come from?
As the youngest of four, we messed around, played, and were always trying to be better than each other — in a good way. We would have silly little contests like to see who could eat a cantaloupe fastest. It was a bit of everything — little things that were silly and fun.
How do you balance being a department head, a professor, and an athlete?
I work long hours and sometimes very late into the night and into the morning to make sure that my work gets done. Some of my staff will notice that they get 3 a.m. emails. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, but it is a balance. All of us need to make sure that we do the things that we love to get a good balance in our lives. For me to be able to do this, to have good health and the ability to do it financially, I feel grateful.
Why did you decide to try out for the USA Women’s Masters Field Hockey team?
I kept playing field hockey after I finished all of my degrees. I found out about the World Cup, so I tried out. It was pretty rigorous, and they're very competitive no matter the age group. I was excited and humbled when I made the team for the 2018 World Cup in Barcelona. I had three ex-Olympians on my team, and our team was a wonderful group of people. It was an amazing experience.
I tried out again because you have to try out for each World Cup, similar to the Olympics. You don't make the team just because you were on it for the previous World Cup. So I tried out again and made it, which again is another honor and humbling.
What does it take to compete at the masters level?
It takes a lot of effort to keep yourself in physical shape. It takes a lot of determination. It takes a lot of self-discipline to be able to do some work on my own and practice stick work on my own. We even have some Zoom practices, which sounds silly, but it gets us together and has us do some stick work there, too. It takes a lot of discipline knowing that I don't have weekend games like I used to when I lived in Pennsylvania, and that I need to not just work out for fitness, but I have to do my skills workout as well.
I wouldn’t be able to compete without the support of my husband, Gary Snyder M.Ed. ’92, and our entire family. I am grateful to the national champions, the Virginia Tech Field Hockey Club, for allowing me to practice with them.
It takes a considerable amount of time to be able to do this and I am extremely grateful for everything they have done, especially Gary!
Can you walk me through one of your workouts?
I follow the CrossFit Workout of the Day that they have at Fitness 460. CrossFit is a mixture of weight lifting and high-intensity interval training overall, which does help me with my work on the field as far as my strength and endurance. I go five to six days a week, and when I travel, I still try to go to different CrossFit places. I was just in Brazil and worked out at my 40th CrossFit gym. The things I have to work out on my own are not only my stick work, but also lateral forward movement combined with running and sprinting. Field hockey is a lot of high-intensity short bursts on both offense and defense.
Do you have any pregame routines or superstitions?
This is going to make you laugh, but I like to listen to “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen before a game. It's a fun song. I listen to it more often before ice hockey games, but I do like to listen to it because it relaxes me and puts me in a good frame of mind. The other silly thing I do is to make sure that I eat my Honey Stingers [energy chews] before a game.
Although the start of the game changes when I eat, I usually eat about two hours before competition or practice, then have a snack an hour before. I make sure I am hydrated and have ample energy chews. We usually get to the field at least an hour prior to competition or practice so that we can get all of our equipment on, such as our shin guards, gloves, etc., and warm-up properly.
What are you looking forward to most about this experience?
While I'm still nervous and excited, now that I have competed in one World Cup I know what to expect. We are playing for USA Field Hockey and representing the United States. Someone videotapes every game, and our coach will go through the game film with us. We have meetings pretty much daily where we will meet and discuss what we did well and what we could do better. We also practice when we do not have games.
I look forward to hopefully doing well, I feel that a little more confidence this time will help since I know what to expect. I also look forward to all the pomp, like the opening and closing ceremonies. In addition, I really look forward to bonding with my teammates.
Are there any traditions for the players at the World Cup?
We give pins to one another before each game (ours says "USA Field Hockey," for example). We also trade gear with other countries — but not all of it. Somebody is wearing a Volpe jersey in England, and I'm wearing several different ones that I received from Wales, England, and Ireland. It’s a really fun tradition.
Win or lose, we take a picture of both teams together after each game. There is this great feeling of camaraderie and knowing that we are fortunate to be able to compete at a high level. There is also a great feeling with all these countries getting together to play in the World Cup — we all are representing our own countries, yet collectively, we all are representing the world!