One of the veterans in the Dominican squad, the captain expects the team to keep up the high level of 2023

The Dominican Republic’s presence among the first six women’s national teams guaranteed at the Paris 2024 Games was probably one of the biggest surprises of the last international season, but their performance at the Volleyball Olympic Qualifier Tournament was absolutely in line with what the ‘Reinas del Caribe’ (Queens of the Caribbean, in Spanish) did for the most part of the 2023 season.

Before topping higher-ranked Serbia and China in Ningbo when two Olympic spots were on the line, the Dominicans had done the exact same thing at the end of the Preliminary Phase of the Volleyball Nations League 2023, showing that they had what it took to battle the top teams in the world.

Securing a spot in Paris for what’s going to be their fourth Olympic appearance was the icing on the cake in a memorable season for the Dominicans. Their 11th-place finish at the VNL was no reason for celebration, but the Caribbeans showed strength to recover from a very difficult start and conclude their campaign with three consecutive victories, including the ones against the Serbians and the Chinese.

At the Olympic Qualifier, in Ningbo, they ranked first in a pool that also had reigning world champions Serbia and VNL 2023 silver medalists China, who counted on the support of their home fans. The Dominicans also had great success at the continental level, winning the NORCECA Championship for a fourth-straight time, successfully defending the title they had won at the Pan American Games in 2019 and prevailing at the Central American and Caribbean Games for a sixth consecutive occasion.

The leader and one of the key pieces in the team, setter Niverka Marte is set to make her third appearance at the Olympics in a few months. After seeing the team finish fifth in her debut, at London 2012, and rank eighth in Tokyo three years ago, the 33-year-old playmaker believes the Dominicans are ready to fight for something bigger in Paris this summer, especially after the successful 2023 season they just had.

A few weeks before the Dominican debut in the VNL 2024, we caught up with Marte in an exclusive Volleyball World interview.

Volleyball World: How special was the 2023 season for the Dominican national team, as you not only managed to qualify for Paris, but also successfully defended your titles at the Pan American Games, where you were awarded as the MVP, and the NORCECA Championship?

Marte: Last season was extremely important for us. It wasn’t just about winning tournaments, but keeping a consistent high level of play against great opponents. Winning the NORCECA Championship was a goal as we wanted to keep our supremacy in the region and that gave us great confidence for the Olympic Qualifier, where we finished first, ahead of some excellent teams. After that, we wanted very much to win the Pan American Games to conclude the season on a high. And, of course, I was very proud to be selected as the MVP.

VW: How important was it to have such a strong and successful season, which also included victories over really tough opponents such as Serbia and China, in the year before the Olympics?

Marte: Having so much success in a season with several tournaments as 2023 was of great importance. Having defeated teams like Serbia, China and USA was great but we also had success against other teams that also play at a very high level and we don’t take any of these victories for granted. We played with basically the same players in every tournament and that shows how much we’ve improved mentally and physically, which has contributed to our results.

VW: In Paris, you’re going to play at the Olympics for the third time in your career. What memories do you have from your previous appearances and how do you expect them to help you and the team this time?

Marte: Paris is going to be my third Olympics, but it feels like the first. Not every athlete has the privilege of competing at the Olympics and I certainly value it very much. In London, I was still very young, just 20, and didn’t get on the court a lot. In Tokyo, unfortunately we weren’t in our best moment, with some key players injured and very little time to prepare. For Paris, I’m confident we’re going to have great results. But more than thinking about it, we’re working hard to make sure we get there with everyone healthy and as a solid and experienced team.

VW: You have been with the national team for several years, having first been called up back in 2008. How do you see the progress of the program over these 15 years and what do you think were key steps for the Dominican Republic to get where it is right now?

Marte: I first started with the national team in 2008, when I was 17 and had just moved from hitter to setter. And looking back, I think the team has never stopped improving and developing. It’s hard to compare Dominican volleyball with other countries where players get to compete in high-level professional leagues from a very young age and have the resources to continue developing. But I think that step by step we managed to reach the top international level, which shows that the process has been positive and efficient. I felt that when I started with the national team, for a lot of different reasons, some players would take more responsibility on the court than others. Now I think that everyone in the team has the ability to keep the level of play elevated. We also improved a lot physically and that helped us avoid injuries, which has been very helpful.

VW: The Dominican national team has a very solid core, formed by players with tremendous experience, such as you, Bethania De La Cruz and Brenda Castillo. However, in the last few years, younger players have joined the team. How do you see the future of the team?

Marte: We now have a very experienced roster. People look at me, Bethania (De La Cruz), Brenda (Castillo), Lisvel (Eve) and Candida (Arias) as the veterans, but I think that the next generation, with Brayelin (Martínez), Jineiry (Martínez), Yonkaira (Peña) and Gaila (González), also has tremendous experience in some of the best leagues in the world and also at the international level. They can certainly keep the national team very competitive when we’re gone. And I see the younger players, such as Geraldine (González) and Vielka (Peralta), developing very well too. They’ve been getting more playing time and are very committed, so I’m confident that the Dominican Republic will have a bright future with them.

VW: Bethania, Brenda and you have been playing together for a very long time now. What’s your relationship with them like and what are some of the best memories you have together?

Marte: They’re both amazing players and fantastic people. They give the team a lot of confidence on the court and, with so many years together, we don’t need many words to communicate. With Bety, I love it when she hits a shorter set and I find it so funny the way she calls for that play during rallies. Brenda makes me very calm on and off the court. We have some little chats during matches that make us both laugh and that helps us release the stress. I’m very fortunate to get to share the court with them.

VW: You haven’t played for any club teams this season. Did you make this decision to better prepare for the Olympics? Is it the first time you miss the club season?

Marte: I didn’t play this season because I had to have surgery to deal with a severe case of sinusitis. I kept postponing it because of my commitments with the national team, but last year I had to leave a flight during a trip because of so much pain I had. I had a contract agreed for the season, but my doctor didn’t allow me to get on a plane so I could have a better recovery. I could still have played in the second half of the season somewhere, but I decided to take care of my health and prepare physically in a way I’ve never done before.

VW: The Dominican national team is one of just a few to have a year-long program. How important you think this is, considering not every player manages to play in elite national leagues around the world? In which ways does the team benefit from it?

Marte: I think it’s a shame that not every Dominican player gets to show their potential in a league overseas. I believe that having this opportunity is very important and helps players develop from a very young age. But with the national team program, the ones that stay in the country get to practice every day, improving physically and technically, so no one needs to stop working. Because of that, when we have the entire roster together, everyone is ready to go.

VW: What are your plans following Paris? Do you still have any major dreams?

Marte: My plan is to continue with the national team after Paris. I dream all the time with a lot of things and I don’t stop dreaming until they come true with God’s help.