Being a good player and teammate on the court may make headlines, but it’s who an athlete is off the court that sticks with the people around them.
UB volleyball star Monika Šimkova has been hospitalized since early August with a life-threatening streptococcal bacterial infection. The Slovakia native has long served as her teammates’ “support system,” but today she is on the receiving end of their support and admiration.
Women’s soccer co-captain Gianna Yurchak says she is dedicating her season to her friend, who had to undergo a bilateral above-the-knee amputation as a result of her infection.
“It feels terrible and unfair,” Yurchak said. “No one deserves to go through something like this and I’m heartbroken it’s happened to one of our own. She is such a hard-working and dedicated individual not only on the court but in everything she does.”
Šimkova joined the Bulls in 2019 after spending her first two collegiate seasons with Long Beach State. Although she transferred to UB which can often be a hard adjustment, Šimkova had an immediate and pronounced impact on the school’s volleyball program.
Lexi Nordmann, who spent two seasons with the Bulls and joined the coaching staff as a student assistant last year after graduation, transferred to UB from SMU the same year as Šimkova and the two developed a special bond immediately.
The first thing Nordmann noticed about Šimkova, however, wasn’t her 6-foot-2 frame or her volleyball prowess.
It was her hair.
“The whole transfer process can be overwhelming at first and we immediately connected because of that and the fact that we were two of very few upperclassmen,” Nordmann said. “The first thing I noticed was her really long pretty brown hair and I was just in awe.”
Scott Smith, the women’s volleyball team’s head coach, was hired just two days before Šimkova came to UB for her official visit. Smith hadn’t even hired a staff yet, so the two spent a considerable amount of time together early on.
“We spent a lot of time together just talking and getting to know each other,” Smith said. “From talking with her for only a few hours, I knew what type of person and player she was. She seemed very mature and had a good handle on life and what she was looking for in the program.”
Šimkova, the daughter of Miroslav and Libusa Šimkova, enjoys listening to music, going out with friends, swimming and beach volleyball, according to the athletics department.
She’s a hard-worker with an effortless smile, her teammates say.
Which is what made it so surprising when she called Smith one day in early August so he could bring her to urgent care. Šimkova thought she was dealing with the flu.
But when Smith arrived at her residence, he realized something wasn’t right.
“I went over to her apartment to drive her to the hospital to make sure everything was okay, but when I got there, she wasn’t able to walk on her own,” Smith said. “I called an ambulance to get her to the hospital as quickly as we could and it was just hard to comprehend.”
Smith said he couldn’t understand why the emergency medical technicians kept using the word “critical” because she seemed fine the day before.
At the same time Smith was dealing with this unexpected news, Šimkova’s teammates were at a team dinner celebrating sophomore Milla Malik’s birthday.
Malik was Šimkova’s roommate and best friend.
“It was my birthday and we were at a restaurant as a team and she [Monika] told me she was feeling sick so we told her to stay behind,” Malik said. “My trainer called me and told me the news and I just felt scared because she didn’t seem that sick when I saw her and to see her in the ICU was a very scary experience.”
Nordmann wasn’t with the team at dinner because she was moving into her new apartment, but the Michigan native was called to come to campus to meet with the team. Unscheduled meetings aren’t common in the world of collegiate athletics, so she knew something was off.
“I remember coming to campus and hearing the news from the coach and it was just one of those things your brain can’t even internalize,” Nordmann said. “I think it took all of us a moment to let the shock subside and really grasp what we were being told, but after it set in, we were focused on what we could to support her.”
Šimkova’s sister, Lucia Michalovicova, set up a GoFundMe that met its $100,000 fundraising goal in less than 48 hours and has since increased to $250,000 to cover additional costs. The GoFundMe took off after numerous local news outlets and social media accounts shared her story to help spread awareness.
“I think it’s awesome and really shows the unity throughout this community,” Malik said. “We all play for her right now. We say #One4Mon for a reason and that’s because we’re all one for her.”
Smith, a Herndon, VA native, says he has been blown away by the support his star athlete has received in her time of need.
“I’m not from Buffalo but I’ve always heard that it is the type of city that helps in times of need,” Smith said. “We feel the support and love for her and it’s been great to see the spreading of her story and raising awareness beyond our own reach.”
The massive outpouring of support has extended beyond the Western New York community; programs and student-athletes from coast-to-coast have donated to Šimkova’s cause and found ways to support UB’s star.
The Miami (OH) women’s volleyball program wore blue ribbons during its first home match of the season in honor of Šimkova.
The Long Beach State women’s volleyball program held a bake sale fundraiser to raise money for their former player’s cause.
Prior to a game against Duquesne on Sept. 12, Yurchak was taping her cleats when the idea to write the hashtag, #One4Mon, on them came to mind.
Yurchak went on to score that game, with that very cleat.
“To think I was playing for her and scored with that cleat was just an indescribable feeling,” Yurchak said. “I just knew that game I was playing for something bigger than myself.”
Yurchak and Šimkova developed a friendship through the student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC), where they both served as representatives for their teams.
Senior redshirt forward Summer Hemphill rounded up the women’s basketball program to make a meaningful donation.
“The UB Athletics’ teams, staff & administration are all one big family. When our UB Women’s Basketball Team heard the story of Monika and how hard she is fighting, we felt motivated to come together and show that our team is fighting with her,” the team said in a statement. “We wanted to let Monika, her family and her teammates know that their fellow Bulls’ sisters are there for them and supporting them through this tough time as we know they would do the same for us.”
Šimkova’s parents say it is impossible for them to express all their gratitude in words.
“We would also like to wholeheartedly thank all the people from all over the world, known and unknown, for all the encouraging words, phone calls, wishes, prayers and support, as well as the financial support we have received and are still receiving,” they wrote in an update to GoFundMe. “It helps us a lot to feel like we’re not alone in this.”
Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @HunterSkoczylas
Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, jamming to Fleetwood Mac and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.