NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Although Nashville has been her home for the past few years, and Tennessee State volleyball has been her life, Ileanushka Maldonado began her journey far away from Kean Hall.
Illea, as her friends and teammates call her, grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
“It was a small town,” Maldonado said. “It isn’t like what the movies portray Puerto Rico to be.”
Her neighborhood was a low income area, but her mother, Imelda Berrios, never let Illea get comfortable living in that setting. She sent her to a private school where Maldonado learned to love sports, in particular volleyball.
“It was a way for me to get away,” Illea said. “My house was more like a hotel room, just a place to sleep. I spent all my time at school playing sports and working on classwork. Volleyball was what I did; I wasn’t around the typical things that you associate with ‘the projects.’ My mom always made sure I had the best.”
Maldonado’s mom is a social worker. She works with families and helps them find places to live when they fall on hard times. She is a counselor for people in the community. Illea has always looked up to her.
“I was excited that she got the chance to leave Puerto Rico and play volleyball,” Berrios said. “Illea is an example to our family that if you want something, you have to work for it.”
Her mom never actually thought Maldonado would play volleyball. Her mom had her in modeling classes and taking lessons on different instruments and envisioned her doing something of that ilk.
“She has always been disciplined, humble, and applied herself to whatever she did,” Berrios said. “When the time came for her to show her abilities on the court, she showed how much she loved the game and how good she was at it. I knew, then, that she would work hard to be an athlete.”
Maldonado had a desire to leave home when she was in high school. Her love of travel and meeting new people drove her to come to the states. Her game gave her the opportunity to leave.
“Florida (Polk State) wasn’t too different from Puerto Rico,” Illea said. “It was warm, just like home. I love Nashville, though, because I always wanted to experience the cold and see snow. The places I have seen because of volleyball have been a blessing.”
Although her journey with Tennessee State has come to a close, Maldonado isn’t finished digging up attacks.
“In high school, my goal was to play volleyball in the states. I went to JUCO at Polk State. Then I wanted to play D-I, and I came here. Now my goal is to play professionally. If you see it, and you work for it, there’s no reason it can’t happen.”