From playing for the Brazilian National Team to coaching the FAU Owls, volleyball is Fernanda Nelson’s lifestyle and livelihood
Fernanda Nelson has been playing and coaching volleyball for nearly her entire life, and she won’t let anything—whether it’s an international move, the dissolution of a program or even the COVID-19 pandemic—slow her down.
Born in Brazil, Nelson began playing volleyball when she was 6, and quickly established herself as a prodigal talent. Within a few years, she was playing for both the Brazilian National Team and a prestigious state program in São Paulo. In 1997, Nelson was named the best setter in the country. Despite success in her native country, Nelson was enticed to move to the United States in search of a livelihood that would allow her to pursue academics without abandoning her passion for the game.
“If you play volleyball in Brazil, you practice nine hours a day,” she says. “My mom did a great job supporting me with being able to do homeschool and finish high school, but I did not have the opportunity to go to college and play volleyball.”
Nelson’s move to the States in 2000 brought her to North Dakota’s National American University, where she enjoyed eight years of monumental success as both a player and a coach before her life was uprooted when NAU unexpectedly discontinued its program. Undeterred, she relocated yet again for a coaching position at then-burgeoning Florida Gulf Coast University.
After four successful years as an assistant coach at the Fort Myers school, she got the call from Florida Atlantic University offering her first head-coaching opportunity. In her first season as the program’s head coach, Nelson more than doubled the Owls’ win total from the previous year.
“It was definitely a big transition,” she says. “I came in with wonderful support, thinking that I would be able to turn the program around very quickly. And it took a lot of work, a lot of recruiting, and I had to … implement everything I learned from every coach I had … You have to grow and make yourself better every year.”
Perhaps emboldened by her own story, Nelson places a particular emphasis on international recruiting. “We like having other accents on our team,” she says. “The reality is that the international players bring lots of tools to our team in terms of work ethic, and they appreciate the opportunity so much.”
Coming into the 2020 season, which was canceled entirely due to COVID-19, Nelson had coached the Owls Women’s Volleyball team to six consecutive winning seasons, a first for the program. Nelson firmly believed that the team would return to its winning ways as the conference resumed play.
Off the court, one of Nelson’s challenges has been to bolster awareness and support within the community for a sport that doesn’t traditionally get much attention in the U.S. One of the ways she’s doing this is by reaching out directly to the young players participating in high school and club-level volleyball.
“We want to grow the volleyball community,” she says. “We take time to go meet local coaches, or give them a call and say, ‘Hey, can you bring Boca High over, or Addison Mizner, or Henderson, you name it… Hopefully next fall, we’ll be able to start bringing everybody back to our arena.”