What if I told you that the most famous person graduating from Georgia Tech’s campus today could go unnoticed if they wanted while on campus, but internationally boasted a social media following nearing 125,000 people?
That has been the reality for Brazilian volleyball star Julia Bergmann in her time at Georgia Tech, a place where one can accurately joke that students can’t make it to football games because of a Monday exam, and athletes are part of the everyday struggle like everyone else.
Today, May 6, 2023, one of the most impactful Gen Z athletes at Tech in Bergmann will walk and depart with an Applied Language & Intercultural Studies degree with a minor in Physics.
Back in April, I got the chance to sit down with Julia and talk about her career through the immense success of the team while navigating one of the hardest stretches in modern history to be a college student. You can find the full audio version of our interview on Scions of the Southland.
In spring 2018, a little over a year before Julia Bergmann was due to arrive at Georgia Tech from Brazil to begin her collegiate career, she was not a Georgia Tech recruit. Arguably Tech’s best player in the rally scoring era of NCAA volleyball, and one of the nation’s best in the last couple seasons, was on the radar of one person before she came to Atlanta. Mariana (Mari) Brambilla.
“She was one of my really good friends. She was here a year before me. I was talking to her. She was explaining it to me. Then I basically got in contact with the coaches right away. Then as I started talking to them, it kind of went naturally until I visited and then I committed to Tech,” said Bergmann.
After essentially being recruited by Mari and joining a stacked youth core, Julia’s career got off to the start that every Tech student dreams of having, their first class.
“It was history of the U.S.,” said Bergmann, momentarily catching me off guard but eventually realizing that was an obvious answer because she didn’t come up through the American education system. Julia really was starting from square one on the USG required courses list when most come to Tech with credit already in various history and English classes.
Later that month in her first game as a Yellow Jacket on August 30, 2019, she recorded a double-double with 17 kills on 44 attempts and 10 digs against Long Beach State. The next day, she upped her kill total to 19 against UNC Asheville.
Of course, the Brazilian still was getting acclimated to a new country, and even a new style of play.
“It was very different, the volleyball was also different and I just had to adapt a little bit of my playing style and how to interact with people, especially with the language barrier at the beginning. I sometimes I couldn’t understand what the professor was talking about,” she said.
Just like any other Tech student, the academic side of life could not be ignored.
“There were some weekends where we were just studying all night long for the history tests, because I had to remember everything from the entire semester. It was fun. The team was really fun,” she said.
Even with the adjustment in her play style, she would hit no fewer than eight kills a game going into ACC play, where against Boston College on September 29, she broke the 20 kill mark for the first time, hitting 22 kills in a five set loss.
Tech would lose again in five sets that season to Pitt, but Julia again increased her single-game kill record, this time with 24 on a then career-high 56 attempts.
The Jackets went 14-4 in ACC play in 2019, but missed out on a NCAA Tournament bid, entering the NIVC Tournament where they only dropped two sets en route to their first national championship in school history, a 3-0 (25-23, 25-23, 25-17) win over South Dakota. Julia and Mari led the charge with 10 and 16 kills respectively.
For Georgia Tech Head Coach Michelle Collier, that win was emblematic of what a good day for them should look like.
“I remember it was a great atmosphere. Our team had a lot of synergy and just a joy for competing. Everyone played their role at a high level, and we were able to beat a solid team that had not lost a match all year,” said Collier.
By then, the standard was set for Georgia Tech teams over the rest of her career. Tech’s talent was enough that anything less than a win or a shot to win was an unsuccessful day.
“It was the first time I’ve played like on a team like that for an entire season. And we won the NIVC even though we didn’t make the [NCAA] tournament. That was a really memorable moment for me, too. Just winning that NIVC Championship and proving to everyone that we should have been into the tournament was also just a big step,” Bergmann said.
That 2019 team had some of the core of the eventual 2021 Elite Eight squad: Julia, Mari, Kayla Kaiser, Matti McKissock, and Erin Moss.
“It was just so nice to see how we grew as a team and as people during that period of time,” she said.
For Collier, winning the NIVC was a big push that got that core through the next couple years.
“I think after that season - because we had such a young group in 2019 - we were able to have some continuity to the work that we had been doing over the past 4-5 years. That championship really helped our players believe that we could play at a high level and stay motivated and committed through that next spring and summer, even through COVID,” Collier said.
Two months into Julia’s first semester at Tech without NCAA games, the pandemic hits.
“I was actually living at the dorms at that time. And we were practicing normal like 6 a.m. spring practice. And out of nowhere, everyone was gone. Campus was empty. We were supposed to fly home. There were no flights. They were trying to close the borders. We just didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Eventually, Julia and Mari made it back to Brazil for the summer of 2020 for the lockdown portion of the year before returning to campus in August for the fall semester. To get back, they went through a very lengthy process because the United States was not allowing people to come into the country directly from Brazil with the safety measures President Jair Bolsonaro had in place.
“I had stayed in Brazil for like three to four months and then I had to fly to Mexico to quarantine there for two weeks because it was not allowed to go from Brazil to the U.S. directly. So basically we had to quarantine in Mexico for two weeks and then fly in to the U.S. and quarantine again for two weeks in a hotel. So I was in quarantine for a month straight,” she said.
With 28 combined days of required quarantining, she did make the best of it in Mexico.
“We went to Cancun we got like an Airbnb close to the beach. So were allowed to go to the beach,” she said.
At this point, going into her second year at Tech, Julia had played through a championship winning season, had two months of normal off-season, had to spend an extended amount of time at home, and then do a double quarantine before starting the 2020 fall semester.
For students that semester (which included me), every single day was like walking a tightrope. Weekly testing was heavily encouraged by Tech administration. Classes were online. The only place people didn’t wear masks was in their living spaces. By the winter, double masking was becoming the norm. Greek life all but disappeared after a quick inflation of cases in September 2020. No one knew if we were going to make it past October.
As an athlete, Julia like everyone else had new habits to adapt to.
“We were staying in separate beds, in separate rooms in the hotels. And usually you like play music and the room and you like, talk to each other before the games. And you couldn’t do that. And you weren’t allowed to high five. That was the weirdest thing, because we go around high fiving everyone. It was so weird, because I’m so used to it. It’s just like muscle memory. But that was definitely a big change. And in the locker room, of course, we weren’t allowed to sit so close to each other,” she said.
On top of that, O’Keefe is the smallest venue on campus to watch a game and has minimal air ventilation, plus can’t run big fans because it will affect the flight of the ball. From a COVID perspective, the volleyball team drew a very short straw. The attendance restrictions did make an impact.
“If you have a crowd, that’s definitely different than when you don’t have one, sometimes you just need that momentum coming from everyone else. Like, that excitement, it really helps you during the games. And if you don’t have that, if you don’t have people watching it like cheering, sometimes it’s really hard to get that energy from someone,” she said.
Games themselves were in constant jeopardy. As the world saw the night the NBA started cancelling games, a game could be minutes from starting before getting cancelled.
“It was scary. Sometimes just you’re scared to go to the supermarket, because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I have a really important game this weekend. What if I get COVID?’ Yeah. It was just living with that fear the entire time. It was it was really different,” she said.
One of the hardest hurdles to jump on the academic side of things was ensuring the safety for labs to take place. Thankfully for Julia, as a physics major, she was able to complete her lab sections online and avoid another possible location to catch COVID.
Tech played a conference only schedule that season which ran in both the fall and spring semesters before qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 under Tonya Johnson. Only one game of their 20 scheduled games overall was postponed. Their only losses came to Pitt, Louisville, Miami, and Notre Dame.
In the tournament, the Jackets took care of Lipscomb in the first round before getting swept by the #3 team in the country, Minnesota. Julia recorded season highs in kills, assists and points against Lipscomb with 31, 2, and 33 respectively.
Coming out of qualifying for the tournament, it was clear to Julia they were ready to make a big leap in 2021.
“We just felt that at the beginning of the season our team was so in tune, like everyone was just playing with such energy. And we would look into each other eyes and just feel ‘oh, she’s with me, no matter what happens,’” she said.
In their first 15 games of 2021, the core of Julia, Mari, Kaiser, Moss, McKissock, Paola Pimentel, Breland Morrissete, and new addition Bianca Bertolino won 12 games, including at 3-1 win over #12 Penn State, the highest ranked team Tech had beat since 2003.
Two of the three losses in this stretch came to ranked teams, #17 UCLA and #3 Louisville, with the other coming to Notre Dame. In the seven matches between losing to UCLA and Notre Dame, Tech lost only two sets.
Julia herself was in fantastic form, reaching 20+ kills twice, and hitting 30 in the loss to Notre Dame.
Then came one of Tech’s usual nemeses, Pitt. Their October 10, 2021 matchup was of the highest anticipated matches Tech had ever played, at the time ranked 18th while Pitt was 2nd. Tech came back from a set down to narrowly win sets two and three 25-23 both times. After losing the fourth set 25-18, Tech went on a perfectly timed run at 9-9, winning the fifth set 15-9 and giving the program their highest ranked win in its history. Bergmann had a stellar game, hitting 24 kills with at .386 hitting % and two aces.
“We knew we could beat everyone at that point, or at least we were confident that we knew if we played our best volleyball were we could beat any team that came in front of us,” she said.
The Pitt win only pushed them up to 16th in the AVCA rankings, but they continued to take care of business during a 10-game win streak until a back to back November stretch against #1 Louisville and #3 Pitt resulted in their first losses since losing to Notre Dame.
Tech qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an eight seed, bringing postseason volleyball back to O’Keefe for the first time since the 2019 NIVC run. For Julia, it was one of her favorite memories while at Tech.
“That selection show where they put us at the eighth seed, that was just, I don’t know, everyone was so happy and it was so nice and we weren’t expecting the eighth seed. We knew we were going to be in the tournament, but it was that we’re gonna play the NCAA Tournament at home and everyone that supported us along the way is gonna be here and be able to watch it. That was definitely my favorite moment,” she said.
Against the Buckeyes, Julia only hit 10 kills and recorded her worst hitting % in a game she recorded double-digit kills at .054%. The Jackets though still made quick work of Ohio State sweeping them to setup round three of Georgia Tech vs. undefeated Louisville, and in a home environment for the Cardinals.
Facing an ACC rival in one of the most anticipated games in Tech history wasn’t lost on Julia. Neither was it lost on the student body.
“I know that team, I want to, I really want to beat them. They’re from the same conference. But yeah, I mean, it’s a little intimidating when you walk into that big gym and it’s full. It’s full of red...of course, it’s the worst color,” said Bergmann.
“We even had some friends that drove up to four hours and watched the game and drove back that same day. Just seeing the Tech community supporting our sport, it was great,” she said.
The Jackets managed to get a set off Louisville, but would eventually lose 3-1 in the Elite Eight matchup that Bergmann & co. had a rough time getting consistent offense going (they hit .152% as a team). Getting to this game though was important as proof this team belonged there, and was the ending of Brambilla’s phenomenal Tech career.
“Mari played really well. It was her last college game. So we had there were a lot of emotions going on before and after the game. Definitely a moment I’ll remember forever just being able to be in a position of having defeating an elite eight level squad. That game beating Ohio State was just showing that what level our program had reached, and it was just like, showing everyone what Georgia Tech volleyball really was,” she said.
By the end of the 2021 run, Bergmann and Brambilla essentially were the faces of women’s sports on Georgia Tech’s campus.
“People started stopping us on campus and wishing us good luck before we headed to Louisville. And everyone was watching. I mean, everyone that I knew who had the TV on during the game and even people from other teams like basketball,” she said.
Coming into the spring semester of 2022, Julia and everyone else from her freshman class got to experience something they never had before: a full semester with in-person classes and no scheduled games. They finally got the chance to experience Tech like 99% of the rest of the student body.
“It was weird. I mean, just having to go to classes, like every single class, in person. You couldn’t just watch it online. It was definitely different. But it was also nice because we were just seeing people, we were meeting new people. People came up and talked to me sometimes were like, ‘Oh, I watched you do volleyball. And it’s so cool that you guys are here in class now with us.’ It just felt good to be back to normal and be able to experience the full college life,” she said.
That summer, she got to play with the Brazilian national team, putting her front and center on the global stage for one of the historically best international teams. With that came more opportunities to play pro and a decision to graduate in four years from Tech and passing on a fifth season of eligibility granted to all student-athletes in 2020 by the NCAA.
“I knew before the season I after I played with the national team in the summer. I knew I wanted to play professional since the beginning. So opportunities were coming. And I was just ready to go live this life of pro volleyball after college after my bachelor’s degree,” she said.
Those that know their Georgia Tech degrees might be picking up on a possible problem here. Julia is a physics major and is going to graduate in four years while having taken USG required classes most take care of in high school? That’s an immense classload to fit in four years while playing a sport.
The solve isn’t what you think it is. She switched majors to Applied Language & Intercultural Studies after three years and is taking 21 credit hours in her final semester in order to finish with a degree in time, the maximum class load Georgia Tech will let you take.
“I’m definitely studying, so I have a lot of schoolwork to do,” she said.
With the departures of Brambilla (graduated), Kaiser (transferred to Tulane) and McKissock (transferred to UCLA), Bergmann was firmly the face of the 2022 Yellow Jacket team. Expectations were lofty regardless of how they got stifled three times by Louisville the season before. In pre-season interviews, Julia and others said winning the national championship was the goal.
Beginning the season as the #9 team in the country, Tech’s first set of the season against Ole Miss slipped away seemingly faster they realized the match had begun. Their answer? A 33 kill performance by Bergmann, her single game high.
Similarly to after 2021’s bumps in the road, Tech kept winning until it was time to face #2 Louisville and #9 Pitt. Both times the Jackets fell short 3-1, but against Pitt played in front of the largest home crowd in Tech volleyball history. Julia hit landed 25 kills in the game on 56 attempts.
In the whole of the 2022 season, when a game got tough or a big opponent was on the schedule, that usually meant Michelle Collier was turning to Bergmann to find points. In the 29 games Tech played, Bergmann averged 44.93 attempts a game. In games against ranked teams, that number vaulted to 58.55 attempts a game.
But possibly the most impressive game of her career didn’t come against one of the usual titans Tech runs into during ACC play or in the Tournament. On November 6, 2022, a couple days after a disappointing loss on the road in Miami, #10 Tech found themselves down 0-2 to Florida State and on the brink of dropping into the middle of the AVCA rankings. They played poorly in the first set losing 25-14, and didn’t fully correct themselves in the second losing 25-21.
“We were just thinking, ‘we’re not going to lose this game. We know we can beat them.’ We just huddled and we were all together and we said, ‘why are we playing like this? That’s not our team. That’s not how we play.’ And it just changed. Sometimes it happens quickly like that,” she said.
It happened in the form of a 3-2 reverse sweep where Julia on career-high 77 attempts tied the Georgia Tech single-game kill record with 38, the only record she was mad she didn’t get.
“That was the only time I was really thinking about it,” she said when asked about that game and any other records she may have paid attention to. “I was like, ‘oh dang!’ I needed one more ball to have the record,” she said.
Fast forward to December 2nd, and Tech is in the second round of the NCAA Tournament playing Marquette in their home gym, finding themselves down 2-0 again, this time with their season fully on the line. Unlike at FSU, as much as they fought, the team didn’t find the switch to play like themselves.
“We knew we could play way better than that. We all knew it. There just wasn’t that switch of just saying, ‘oh, we just have to play better than that guys.’ It was just the wrong day and the wrong moment to do that. Sometimes it falls short. It was very sad because we all knew that we could’ve done better. It happens,” she said.
Tech’s season would end in a sweep against Marquette, with Julia only hitting .195% on 13 kills in her final game as a Yellow Jacket.
Even with Julia’s final semester at Tech being loaded with 21 credit hours, she still is finding time to enjoy what Atlanta has to offer in her final days living in Midtown.
“I’ve been enjoying the time that it’s warm and going to Piedmont Park. I know of some other little parks, some secret spots here. I’ve been trying to go to a lot of symphony orchestra concerts because there’s a college pass. But I know I’ll be back, so it’s not that sad,” she said.
Her favorite restaurant she’ll miss while playing abroad?
“It’s gonna sound bad, but I love Chick-Fil-A. I’m gonna miss it so much,” she said. There really is something magical in that chicken.
What will her legacy hold? It might just be in opening a bigger pipeline from the fertile volleyball land of Brazil to Georgia Tech. Collier herself has taken multiple recruiting trips to the country in the last couple months and gotten commitments.
“I think the internet has helped international players have access to information about college volleyball and how unique and professional the system is here. Our team winning at a high level and the success and development of our players at the international stage has validated the level of work we are doing here and how much our players are growing, learning and being prepared for what’s next after college.
The presence of people in our staff who have also been at the highest levels in Brazil and across the world has helped us strengthen connections with high level coaches and athletes not only in Brazil, but around the globe. It has been great to see the international and national respect and credibility that our program has achieved,” said Collier.
“I would definitely want more people from Brazil to be able to have this opportunity that I had to just be able to come here, get a college degree because I know it’s really hard to do that in Brazil and be able to have this life changing experience. I was one of the first ones from the national team that actually game here and showed that the level is good and that you can come back and play in the highest level,” said Bergmann.
While Bergmann may have been recruited through a friend and not technically through the internet, she became possibly the best validation that what Collier and her staff are doing is worth moving to a new continent to join.
Bergmann will depart Tech with two All-American nods to her name (First Team in 2021, Second Team in 2022), 1,730 career kills (6th in program history), 164 career aces (5th in program history), 4.303 kills/set (most in program history), four All-ACC First Teams, and a leader of one of the best four-year streches a Tech volleyball player has had.
“[Julia] leaves here stronger, confident, mature and prepared for what’s next. Her evolution through the years on and off the court is what gives value to our roles as coaches and educators. We are in the business of developing people, and we are so proud of who Julia has become during her time here at GT,” said Collier.
Jack Purdy is a non-revenue sports writer and co-host of Scions of the Southland for From The Rumble Seat. He previously served as The Technique’s assistant sports editor before graduating Georgia Tech in 2022. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackNicolaus