There is more than one way to realize an Olympic dream.
Erin Virtue is proof of that.
The former St. Francis setter played briefly for the U.S. women’s volleyball national team after starring at Illinois before beginning a coaching career that has taken her to the highest ranks of the game.
Virtue is the assistant coach of the women’s national team that will attempt to win its first gold medal at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“It was a dream of mine to be in the Olympics as a player when I was a kid,” Virtue said. “I’ll be really proud to coach at the Olympic Games.”
Virtue, whose parents, Pat and Carol, still live in the St. Charles home where they raised five children, was an assistant coach at the Division I level for 12 seasons, starting at Loyola in 2006. She also had stints at Cincinnati, Michigan and Northwestern, where she was coaching when she got a phone call from U.S. head coach Karch Kiraly in 2017.
“He asked if I wanted to come on board with him,” Virtue said. “I pinch myself sometimes because it’s a dream to work with this incredible staff.
“This staff is the mountaintop in this country that you can be on but we’re trying to get better all the time. Karch is a humble leader and someone I really look up to and respect to kind of lead the way for me as someone who wants to be a lifelong learner and always wants to get better. We owe that to the coaches and athletes we work with around the country.”
In addition to her national team duties, Virtue recently became senior manager of the National Team Development Program, which identifies and develops talent in the youth ranks. The program is based in Anaheim, California, where Virtue now lives.
“My role has grown and we’re really excited about it,” Virtue said. “It’s really important for us to focus on the different ways we work through identification in those age groups, but the primary goal is we’re doing the best we can to develop athletes at young ages, so that when they go through the college ranks and into professional careers and national team, they’re prepared.
“The big goal of our whole organization is to have sustained excellence at the Olympic level.”
Nobody has had more success at the Olympic level than Kiraly, a legendary player and coach who has surrounded himself with a strong staff.
“Erin has done strong work coaching and supporting USA programs over the long haul, but she’s much more than that,” Kiraly said after Virtue was hired. “She’s dedicated to helping the people around her be the best version of themselves, and doing so with integrity and skill. Since that’s a prime aspiration here, that makes Erin a great fit, and makes us excited to see where our work together can lead.”
Virtue’s road to the top began at St. Francis, where she followed in the footsteps of her sister, Katie, who led the Spartans to the 1997 Class A state championship before starring as a setter at Ohio State.
As a senior, Virtue helped St. Francis to second place at the 2000 state finals. She also played basketball and soccer. Her brothers Pat and Dan played football for the Spartans and her oldest sister Shannon was active in athletics and acting.
“At St. Francis it was awesome to see me and my siblings really try to thrive in ways that were outside of the classroom,” Virtue said. “That was one of the best things about being in a small school. Everyone was able to celebrate the successes of those extra-curriculars.
“The pride of that was embedded in the whole school. Support from friends at games and things like that are memories that I will hold onto forever.”
Virtue learned a lot from playing for legendary St. Francis coach Peg Kopec, who won 1,248 games and 12 state titles. But she didn’t seriously think about coaching until she missed her senior year at Illinois due to injury.
“Volleyball has been such a passion of mine for so long,” Virtue said. “Growing up in an area where I had a really good club and a really good high school, I was able to fuel that flame early in my career as an athlete.
“I always wanted to play or be involved in the sport as long as possible but I didn’t really know what that meant when I was in college. Then when I was injured, that really started to make me think about how to help my team but not be on the court. It started to fuel the passion of coaching.
“I joined the national team after college and became part of the training team. I was asking a lot of questions of the coaches I was getting to work with.”
Those who have worked with Virtue sing her praises. Alex Hurlburt, a 2010 Glenbard East graduate, coached with Virtue at Northwestern and now runs his own coaching and training business.
“Not only is she an expert communicator, but she’s also able to empathize,” Hurlburt said. “I’ve seen her coach young kids; I’ve seen her coach collegiate players and then obviously with the national team. She’s able to apply the things that she knows to each of those different skill levels in a way that they can be receptive of.
“The other thing that I really appreciated about her was that of everyone I’ve ever coached with, she was one of the most prepared people before every match. At Northwestern she was the offense coordinator and that’s what she does for the national team too.
“She would do these presentations beforehand that weren’t overly complex. They were very simple and clear, but they were extremely well thought out and planned.”
“That’s what she does and that’s why I’m not surprised at all that she’s been so incredibly successful.”
Having come so far, Virtue will now try to lead the U.S. to a place it has never been.
The Tokyo Olympics, postponed last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic, is now scheduled to be held July 23 through August 8.
“When the Olympics were postponed last year, it was heart-wrenching for all of us because we had worked hard for four years to get ready for the event,” Virtue said. “I’m sure our team will be prepared and ready.
“We’ve won silver and bronze but not gold yet. I’m going to be really proud to represent the USA and give it our best shot to get a gold.”