UK Women's Basketball

Two sports not too much for U of L's Rucker

Gwen Rucker is only a sophomore, but she already has more rings than most college athletes get in a career.

As a two-sport athlete at Louisville, Rucker has now started in an NCAA Tournament basketball championship game and, in volleyball, has won two Big East titles and played in two NCAA Tournaments.

"The other girls on the teams are always commenting on all of my hardware," Rucker said this week, laughing.

She keeps her first Big East championship ring with her at all times. Her NCAA Final Four ring comes out on special occasions "when I want to show it off and stuff," she said.

Rucker, who also starred at Henry Clay in volleyball and basketball, will return to her Lexington hometown Sunday to play against Kentucky. She knows most people doubted whether she could excel at two sports while at Louisville.

She knows that if she focused on just one, she might be a star, but she loves being able to be a part of two teams, "two families," at Louisville.

Playing two sports at a high Division I level isn't always easy, Rucker admits, especially now that her core classes for her chemistry major are getting more difficult.

But Rucker likes a challenge.

She lists her favorite course as calculus, and said she's planning to go to medical school and become an anesthesiologist one day.

It's that intellect that makes Rucker's transition from volleyball to basketball so easy, basketball coach Jeff Walz said. (She was back in the starting lineup just a week after taking the floor for the first time.)

On the first Friday of December, Rucker was playing in the NCAA volleyball tournament with Louisville.

Two days later, the 6-foot-1 forward was on the Freedom Hall court playing basketball for the Cardinals.

The first time she'd set foot on a basketball court this season was in the shootaround.

"She's a good athlete, and then, on top of that, she's very intelligent," Walz said. "Gwen is able to go from playing volleyball an entire season to switching to play basketball while still understanding the game.

"It literally takes her a day or two to understand what we're trying offensively. She's very instinctual. ...

"That's why it's been so easy for her to go from one sport to the next."

The transition isn't always flawless, Rucker said.

"It's really hard to go from crying your eyes out one night because you just lost the NCAA Tournament ... to being pumped and ready to practice and being happy to see the new teammates you have the next day," she said.

It's the mental part that's the most difficult, she said.

"It's harder than I thought," Rucker said of playing two sports. "I really don't think I knew what I was getting into.

"Staying fully into each sport every day, it's hard to do it for one sport; it's extra hard when you're doing it for two sports."

She said her coaches, Walz in basketball and Leonid Yelin in volleyball, have made the transition smooth.

Sometimes, when she doesn't grasp a concept in volleyball practice, Yelin will try to relate it to basketball.

"I'll get the reference immediately," she said. "Coach Walz does the exact same thing. Say, if I don't dive on the floor in practice or something, he'll say, 'You dive on the floor in volleyball all the time? Dive after the ball!' "

Rucker, who is averaging 4.8 points and three rebounds in four games for the Cardinals this season, said sometimes the sports overlap in fun ways, too.

During a lull in practice this week, Rucker and teammate Chauntise Wright, who had just completed a volleyball class, passed the basketball around like a volleyball.

Sometimes, at quiet times in volleyball practice, she shoots a volleyball into the basketball goals overhead when the coaches aren't watching.

Rucker is just glad she hasn't been forced to choose between the two teams and sports she adores.

"It's like having two different families, two totally different families," she said. "I love each family equally, and they allow me to show the different parts of myself. ... It allows me to express all aspects of myself."