Thompson Rivers University

Into the unknown: A coach’s journey from Istanbul to Kamloops

February 28, 2023

TRU alum Behlul Yavasgel played five year's on the WolfPack men's volleyball team. He is now interim head coach of the women's team.

Nearly 18 years ago, a young man sat outside of McGill Residence on a predawn September morning — exhausted and bewildered, but unafraid. He’d learned of a place called Kamloops less than two weeks before, leaving a secure spot on the Turkish national volleyball team to leap into the unknown with the newly formed WolfPack.

“It hit me — this is me against the world now,” said Behlul Yavasgel, who came to TRU in 2005 to play in the WolfPack’s inaugural season as its first international player.

“I’ve always been adventurous and I had ambition, but the problem was leaving everything behind. I’d built a great volleyball career at the time and it almost looked like a foolish thing to do. I understood that playing volleyball — or any sport — there is nothing to fall back on, so I wanted to have a degree from university. There was no online education available at the time in Turkey. With tough practice and game schedules, you could never physically make it to school.”

Now interim head coach of the WolfPack women’s volleyball team, Yavasgel’s journey to TRU began in a small town on the Mediterranean side of Turkey. Recruiters were visiting rural schools looking for potential athletes when they spotted a tall 10-year-old named Behlul and invited him to train with them in Istanbul, a 10-hour drive away. At the time, Yavasgel says he didn’t think of his family as poor — everyone was poor — but his struggling parents saw a chance for their only child to explore opportunities they couldn’t provide for him. They encouraged him to go and Yavasgel didn’t hesitate, anxious for new adventures. He moved to Istanbul, where he lived with family members and began participating in more and more training.

Man playing volleyball

Yavasgel playing with the ‘Pack in 2005, his first year on campus.

“When I was going to school in Istanbul, it was in a rough part of town, so training got me out of there,” he said. When he was 11, he was invited to officially join the volleyball club, where he was offered coaching, food and accommodations. By that point, his parents had moved to Istanbul, so Yavasgel split his time between home and the club. His life became increasingly immersed in volleyball.

“By the time I was 13, I got selected for the junior national team, which was an anomaly because kids from the junior national team were 15 to 17,” he said. “I think I was the youngest to play.”

The next several years were a blur of training, championships and most valuable player awards. Life was all about volleyball, with not much room for anything else. At 17, Yavasgel was the captain of the junior national team and transitioned from an amateur to a professional contract. But he was beginning to feel burnt out. He wanted his life to be about more than just volleyball — a feat not possible in Turkey, where competitive post-secondary sports do not exist (he could be an athlete or a scholar, but not both).

“We trained two or three times a day and had maybe a few days off each year. Training was heavy and I was playing in three different categories: national team, club and high school. I was getting burnt out and had a shoulder injury, which made it even more clear why I should be focusing on school as well as volleyball,” said Yavasgel.

Life-changing opportunity

Yavasgel attended a festival of universities at the suggestion of his father — not knowing it would change his life. There, he spoke with a representative from TRU World through a translator and handed him a CD of game highlights. The CD made its way back to Kamloops into the hands of Ken Olynyk, TRU’s then-director of athletics. Olynyk passed it on to men’s volleyball head coach Pat Hennelly. An invitation soon followed and the 18-year-old had a decision to make.

“I went home that night to talk to my parents. They wanted me to go,” he said. “I always wonder, when my kids are 18, could I do what my parents did? In my first year here, there were days and weeks when I couldn’t call. Looking back, it was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do and also the hardest thing my parents ever had to do. . . . They blindly trusted me and because they gave me the rope, I made good decisions. I was in charge.”

Volleyball coach standing in front of a group of players.

Yavasgel is interim head coach of the ‘Pack’s women’s volleyball team.

Yavasgel’s bravery got him to Kamloops, but didn’t prevent him from having to navigate several bumps along the way. Between Yavasgel’s lack of English and his arrival a week after classes had started, it was a chaotic beginning. Luckily, he had help, describing the TRU staff who assisted him as “kind and helpful.”

Registered in English as a second language courses, Yavasgel was determined to succeed. After years of being told he was just a volleyball player, he was driven to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I showed up every day. I never missed. In class, I talked to my teachers every day to make sure I understood what I had to do,” he said, adding the relatively small size of TRU allowed him to develop personal relationships with his instructors, fueling his success. “I would not have made it at a big university.”

By his second semester, his English had improved but he was still apprehensive about choosing academic courses. When he had to decide what program to pursue, he looked for the one with the least amount of reading, writing or researching. Yavasgel graduated from the Computer Systems/Operations Management program and went on to complete his Bachelor of Computing Science degree.

Outside of classes, Yavasgel quickly became a crowd favourite on the volleyball court and the team of underdogs began to find success. Hennelly was one of the first to meet Yavasgel when he arrived in Kamloops and the two continue to have a close relationship. Hennelly described the alum’s impact as positive and enduring.

“I can always measure the impact a player has on the program by the number of stories that endure over time, and there are a lot of great Behlul stories on and off the court! Behlul was a memorable player, a great teammate and was a major reason our team went from last place to third in the country during his five years,” said Hennelly.

“Behlul was also the only athlete across all the TRU court sports, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, who started in 2005 and graduated five years later. This is remarkable for a guy who did not speak any English and was new to TRU, Kamloops and Canada. It is a testament to his drive and passion, and I knew when Behlul graduated he would be successful in life.”

Yavasgel graduated as captain of the team and subsequently was hired at TRU as a computer programmer. While he was grateful his academic pursuits had paid off, choosing employment at TRU meant closing the door on a potential professional volleyball career.

Choosing Canada again

“I felt challenged right after graduation. I had identified as a volleyball player for a long time. When that part of my life was over as a player, I wasn’t sure which direction I needed to go,” he said. “I had a few opportunities from Turkey, but I also wanted to create a life in Canada, so I chose to stay and focus on my career here.”

Luckily, Yavasgel soon found other opportunities on the court, providing his expertise as an assistant coach on the men’s team working alongside Hennelly, who he describes as a great leader that builds tough teams.

A husband and wife with their two young children.

Behlul Yavasgel with his wife, Michelle, and their children Taylan, four, and Atlas, one.

As time went on, Yavasgel’s IT career continued to evolve as well. In 2013, he was hired at BC Lottery Corp. (BCLC), where he stayed for nearly 10 years, moving his way up to a senior database administrator position. The same year he began his career at BCLC, he married a Kamloops woman, Michelle Coster (now Yavasgel); the couple now has two children, Taylan, four, and Atlas, one. Yavasgel took a break from coaching and playing volleyball to focus on other parts of life, but when head coach of the ‘Pack’s women’s volleyball team Chad Grimm asked if he wanted to help at practices occasionally, Yavasgel agreed. He continued to get more and more involved each year. Last year, when Grimm arranged a leave of absence to spend a year in Denmark with his family, Yavasgel was asked to take the helm.

“I have been part of the WolfPack family for a long time. When Chad mentioned the opportunity to me, I felt really flattered. Chad has been coaching this program for a long time — the amount of effort and energy he puts into his team is tremendous. A head coaching opportunity at the USPORTS level doesn’t come often, I wanted to do it from the second he asked,” said Yavasgel.

“This has been a big change to our family routine, it is a completely different job than what I was doing in IT. Coaching involves travelling and time away from family — with young kids at home, this certainly was a family decision. I give full credit to Michelle for being on board with this change of direction in my career as it was a massive change in our day-to-day family life. It has been a great experience for us — Taylan and Atlas were at each home game and often at practices.”

The season recently ended with the team narrowly missing playoffs. Though disappointed, Yavasgel considers the season a success, winning seven games and seeing young players make huge improvements along the way. Yavasgel’s role now switches to recruitment and player development until Grimm’s return. After that, he says anything is possible.

Next steps unknown

While Yavasgel says he doesn’t know exactly what’s next for him and his family, he isn’t worried. After all, he’s been leaping into the unknown since he was a child.

“Some risks are worth taking and for me to leave everything else behind and tackle my dreams here in Canada was worth the risk. I came here with one piece of luggage and absolutely zero English. It is humbling to be able to look back and celebrate all the little goals I pursued on the way,” he said.

“The TRU community has been the best part of my journey. Without the great people I met, my journey wouldn’t be the same. It’s a bit crazy to think I’ve lived here as long as I lived in Turkey (18 years). I never thought this far ahead — to be honest I was always taking it day by day. I still do that.”

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