Courtesy of Yale Athletics

After graduating in spring 2020, setter Frances Arnautou ’20 traded her number 23 Yale volleyball jersey for number 11 on AO Markopoulo, a Greek professional women’s volleyball team. 

Arnautou now lives and plays in Markopoulo, a suburb of Athens. Since August, she has been training and playing with her club team and exploring Greek culture in her free time. While at Yale, Arnautou won the 2018 Ivy League Player of the Year and was a two-time first team All-Ivy selection. 

“Frances might have been the most passionate player I’ve ever coached,” Yale volleyball head coach Erin Appleman said. “She was incredibly driven and refused to not go all out every time she was on the court.”

Arnautou grew up in San Francisco and began playing volleyball at a young age. Her mother — a former collegiate volleyball player herself — played a large role in encouraging Arnautou to learn more about the sport and keep playing. At age 14, Arnautou said she truly committed to the sport, giving up weekends and free time to training and competing in club tournaments. She credits her parents with supporting her throughout her athletic journey. 

As college approached, Arnautou was interested in a range of programs, differing in size, team dynamic and geography. After meeting Appleman and the rest of the Yale team, she said she quickly gained clarity and knew she wanted to be a Bulldog. Reflecting on her collegiate career, Arnautou emphasized that the sense of community, humor and connectivity between players defined the volleyball team and kept her engaged every day.

“All of the girls on the team were multifaceted individuals, and so much more than just athletes,” Arnautou said. “You had really brilliant, articulate women who were interested in a variety of things and pursuing very different career paths. It was just clear that they had a lot going for them outside of volleyball, which was appealing to me and was true all the way through. There’s so many ways to be a Yale volleyball player.”

Arnautou also recalled that the mindset of the team was a defining factor in her competitive success. Appleman and her athletes constantly pushed themselves to higher levels, working from Ivy League championships to NCAA championships and challenging much bigger programs with their small group. In every practice and game, Arnautou and her teammates were fighting to win. Being in that environment every day for four years makes the competitive mindset “impossible to unlearn,” according to Arnautou.

When her senior season ended in November 2019, Arnautou had to choose between taking a desk job after graduation or taking the leap to professional play. After signing with an agent, her months-long process ended with a contract with AO Markopoulo.

In August, when she arrived in Greece, Arnautou was immediately thrust into a new routine in an unfamiliar place. In the mornings, she would workout with the team, and in the evenings they would practice on the volleyball courts — a similar athletic load to her time at Yale, she said. Their one or two games each week were entirely closed to fans due to COVID-19 precautions. With her free time, Arnautou was able to explore new places in Markopoulo, cook, play guitar and record new music.

“I know that sometimes when people play overseas, they talk about how the experience can be a little isolating,” last year’s team captain Izzy Simqu ’20 said. “But Franny seems to be adapting super well and she’s always been a person who loves to be in other cultures and learn about new cultures, so she seems to be really loving it. I know that she has already had such a great experience and her team there is super awesome.”

In December, the COVID-19 situation forced the town of Markopoulo into lockdown. Practices and games were cancelled, and any outings from Arnautou’s apartment were strictly tracked. During this time, Arnautou filled her schedule by working out at home and socializing with her roommate and one other teammate. In the new year, the team was allowed to return to practice with some restrictions. They are set to play their first game since lockdown on Saturday, Feb. 6.

Like many other athletes, Arnautou has been eager to get back to competition. As the world navigates an uncertain time for athletics, Arnautou advises athletes to focus on controlling what you can and try not to stress about everything that is outside of one’s control right now. She also believes that the coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity for athletes to lean into their other passions — developing interests outside one’s sport can serve an athlete well when they eventually end their career, Arnautou says. 

Having entered professional play in such a tumultuous time, Arnautou said that she has put thoughts of her long-term career path on hold, focusing instead on returning to competition. Currently, she is open to a number of paths, but is planning to reevaluate at the end of the season. 

“I definitely think I have more in me,” Arnautou said. “Physically, emotionally and mentally, I feel like I can give a few more years to this sport and keep getting better, which is really what drives me. I’m not too tied or married to any one path. We’ll see, but I definitely feel very happy with where I am now and with this club, and I think I ended up in the best situation possible.”

Arnautou was co-recipient of the 2020 Nellie Pratt Elliot Award — the most prestigious athletic honor given to senior females at Yale.

Alessa Kim-Panero | alessa.kim-panero@yale.edu