New Bedford’s Janice Leao: Lessons on the volleyball court, lessons in life

This is an important time for women’s sports in America as female athletes strive for greater equality and recognition. Women’s sports are becoming more popular than ever, encouraging and inspiring young female athletes like never before.

At the same time, Black Americans are also engaged in a fight for greater equality, as racism continues to divide the country.

So as a standout athlete at a Division I college, New Bedford native Janice Leao has witnessed the trajectory of attention that is being accrued by female athletes in America, as well as experiencing the social justice struggles that affect her and inspire her as a Black citizen.

Leao is hopeful for the future, both for her and the communities she represents. As a member of the University of Miami volleyball team, Leao achieved respected status as a First-Team ACC All-Star in her senior year with a team that qualified for the national playoffs. In December 2022 she graduated with a degree in business management and a minor in sports administration, and has the desire to pursue her next degree with the goal of returning to the Northeast to work in a sports-related career, possibly broadcasting.

But in the meantime, Leao’s focus is also on future accomplishments on the volleyball court as she targets her dream of playing for the U.S. Olympic team.

“Janice is super bright, she’s a leader,” says Miami volleyball coach Jose Gandara. “She’s really driven to learn, and absorbs information well. Her work ethic has helped her transform into a team leader. Her accomplishments on the volleyball court could be international.”

The youngest of six children born to Cape Verdean immigrants, Leao lauds the lessons she has learned from being an athlete, and looks forward to successes that a Black woman could not have had in America only a few generations ago — a career for the sports pages as well as the history books.

New Bedford Light: You have spent a lot of time in a major American city and you’ve seen a lot of the country playing volleyball. How have these experiences affected your perspective on New Bedford?

Janice Leao: I’m thankful that I’ve had these experiences to play volleyball. It’s a really big deal. It’s been amazing to have these experiences, but I’m not going to forget that New Bedford is my hometown. That’s where I grew up. It will always have a special place in my heart. There is the saying that you should never forget where you came from, and that’s one thing that I hold deeply within myself because it has shaped who I am today and I am so appreciative of that. It might be a small city, but the people I’ve met there, obviously my family is there, so I’m always going to remember where I came from.

Being in Miami has shown me what is out there, rather than New Bedford. In Miami there are a lot of distractions, but I’ve stayed focused on being a good student athlete.


NBL: How important is your Cape Verdean heritage to you? Do you see yourself as a representative or an ambassador of Cape Verdean Americans?

JL: It’s very important to me. I’m a first generation. My parents immigrated here, so that has special meaning to me. I would like to be seen as a representative for Cape Verdean Americans who are playing sports. I want to make it seem like there is an opportunity out there that can be utilized in sports. I hope Cape Verdean athletes can look up to me and see the experiences I’ve gone through and it gives them confidence to achieve things that I have. I feel like New Bedford Cape Verdeans who have immigrated here will feel like they can achieve something.

NBL: Have you ever encountered racism in sports or does ethnicity become a non-factor when athletes are on the court?

JL: Fortunately, I have not experienced any racism since I’ve been here in Miami. I know that there have been a few incidents that have happened in the volleyball world. My friend Rachel on the Duke University volleyball team had someone call her a racial slur during a match in Utah, which is obviously very unfortunate and should not have happened in our time. It was very sad to hear that that happened to someone who is in my community as a Black female. There was another incident that happened in Maryland where she was kneeling during the National Anthem and she was getting booed at, and that just broke my heart.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go through these things, but they do happen. Especially during the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a very touchy subject here. Different programs dealt with it differently, but I have had teammates and coaches who supported me throughout that entire movement. I made the decision to kneel with some of my teammates during the national anthem and they were really super supportive throughout the season.

NBL: What inspired you to begin taking a knee?

JL: We’re against police brutality. We’ve been doing it since the 2020 incident with George Floyd.  

Janice Leao says “My role models were my siblings. Growing up in a really competitive household with five siblings, we were all really into sports. Seeing their dedication and their motivation to be successful in a sport reflected onto me.” Credit: University of Miami

NBL: You must have felt empowered.

JL: Yes. Especially with my coaches’ support and my teammates’ support. Even the crowds were supportive. I haven’t experienced any backlash about doing it. It shows that there is support for our side.

NBL: What were your inspirations for wanting to be an athlete? How did you get interested in sports and did you have any role models?

JL: My role models were my siblings. Growing up in a really competitive household with five siblings, we were all really into sports. Seeing their dedication and their motivation to be successful in a sport reflected onto me. My parents, too. My mom didn’t play sports, but her drive to get what she wanted in life shaped my dedication and motivation to get the things I want. My dad used to play soccer, and those things have paved the way for me to be who I am.

Since we were a competitive household and my siblings were involved in sports, it showed how supportive my family was. I started out playing basketball because that’s what my brothers did. I just piggy-backed onto what they were doing. But my interest in volleyball didn’t start until my freshman year in high school.

Having the support of my family has been really important. Throughout my college recruiting process my family was there, helping me out, hearing my concerns. It showed me that I can really count on my family.

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NBL: How did playing sports at New Bedford High School prepare you for the next step of college competition?

JL: There’s a lot of difference between a public school and a Division I college, but there are similarities. It definitely prepared me for what’s out there in the sports world. Sports are competitive, even in high school, so that helped to shape me. It helped me become more competitive. New Bedford High was very helpful in preparing me for college athletics. New Bedford High had amazing coaches, amazing people who worked at the school who kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone. They encouraged me to go out and try out for different teams and helped me get accepted at some schools I never thought I could get into. My high school coach (Neil Macedo) told me “You can play; you just have to push yourself and believe in yourself.” Implementing that mindset in me definitely helped me to get to where I am today at a big-time school.

NBL: How challenging is it to balance your academics with being a competitive Division I athlete?

JL: During the season it can be tough, especially during the end of a semester. It can be stressful but it helps you learn about time management. You learn how to manage your tougher classes with playing sports and it shapes you to become a well-rounded person.

NBL: How do you feel being a female athlete in America? As you watch women athletes fighting for greater recognition and equity, how does that make you feel?

JL: In society today it can be very tough, especially with what’s going on with inequality with the WNBA compared to the NBA. Women athletes are not getting sufficient pay, the money they should be getting paid. Also with women’s soccer — they were doing so much better than men’s soccer but they weren’t getting paid as much. Obviously the inequality is there and it can be very discouraging for female athletes in college. We’re finally getting recognition, so that’s very exciting. There are downsides, but I wouldn’t change where I am today. It’s a privilege to be a female athlete in America.

NBL: What is the trajectory of women’s sports in America? What is the future?

JL: I think the future is bright. There are downsides now but people are starting to pay attention to women’s sports and we’re starting to get the recognition that we deserve and the result is going to be very positive. We’re entering a new phase of recognition.

NBL: What are the lessons you’ve learned as an athlete that have prepared you for life off the court? What have you learned from playing team sports?

JL: Overall, I feel like playing sports — especially in college — has developed me into a more well-rounded person. It has helped me become a better team member and ultimately a team leader. You’re going to have certain situations to be the person who stands up for your team, and I feel like being in an environment like this has taught me that being a Black female athlete has helped me come out of my shell and speak my mind.

Also, I’ve learned time management skills. When you’re balancing school and volleyball it introduces you to dealing with real-life situations. It will definitely be beneficial in my future, with communication skills and developing a work ethic, my drive and motivation. It’s changed me for the better.

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NBL: What advice do you have for young female athletes who are thinking about playing sports in high school or college?

JL: Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Go try out for a sport and practice as much as you can, particularly on your own. These things will help you later in life. You can be successful by playing through adversity.

For me to get where I am today, I had to get out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to reach out to all of these large schools. I wanted to stay at a small school. But getting that mindset and being uncomfortable has helped me a lot. Even four years later.

Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.


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