Melanie Parra Brings Mexican Pride to Texas Volleyball
- Dec 15, 2022
- Alex Briseno, Alexa K. Haverlah
This is the first installment of Texas Global’s international student athlete series, which celebrates Longhorn competitors from around the world and shares the stories of their journeys to the Forty Acres.
When Texas Longhorn volleyball star Melanie Parra returns home to Mexico and enters a gym, she typically finds herself signing autographs and taking photos for 30 minutes before she even touches the court.
This is now standard procedure for the international volleyball sensation from Culiacán, México.
“You know she’s Michael Jordan in Mexico, right?” asked Jerritt Elliott, head coach of the Longhorn volleyball program. The team is a perennial powerhouse that, shortly after this interview, would go on to win the NCAA volleyball national championship.
Whether it was earning a spot on the Mexican national team as a teenager, arriving in Austin before learning to speak English, connecting with the Longhorns’ Latino community of fans or playing her part in Texas' run to its 14th Final Four appearance, Parra has embraced every step of the unique journey she’s taken with her sport.
As Parra, Elliott and the Longhorns celebrate their 2022 national championship crown, Texas Global is proud to share the story of Parra’s international climb and how it brought her to the Forty Acres.
A Meteoric Rise
As a young talent, Parra was selected to play for her state of Sinaloa in a nationwide tournament when she was just 12 years old. This launched a meteoric rise that landed her a spot on the under-18 Mexican national team, just one year later as a 13-year-old.
“Playing for the national team was like another world,” said Parra, who admitted that she’d never thought it was possible to represent her country at such a young age.
Ironically, volleyball hadn’t immediately caught Parra’s attention as a kid. It was her older sister, Estefania, who led Parra to the sport when she was just 5 years old.
“When I was little, I was into jazz [dance], and I loved it,” Parra said. “My older sister was the one who wanted to play volleyball, so my mom put both of us in a small league to learn the game.”
With volleyball still very much in a nascent stage at the time, Parra still recalls begging her mother not to take her to the practices. After a year, though, she started to find a passion for the sport, sparked by the structure and exercise it provided.
Armed with hindsight, Parra now reflects on that time and speaks with confidence in saying, “If it wasn’t for my sister, I would not be in the position I am today.”
When Parra went on to become a member of the senior Mexican national team, she helped them to a fourth-place finish at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games.
This quick ascension to the senior ranks required Parra to compete against athletes much older than her—a fact which served as motivation to dedicate herself 100 percent to the sport.
“I thought, ‘I’m so young, and look at what I can accomplish,’ ” Parra said.
It is her love for both her country and the sport that fuels her desire to continue representing Mexico on an international stage.
“I’m proud to be Mexican,” Parra said. “The culture we have in Mexico is one of the most beautiful in the world, in my opinion, because we’re affectionate with the things that perhaps are not important to others. I wouldn’t change our way of feeling and expressing ourselves for anything.”
She added, “And carrying the colors of your flag is an amazing experience that not many people get to have, but those who do hold a certain pride for their country.”
Elliott first saw Parra play on the Mexican national team when she was 16 years old.
“She’s fluid in the way she plays,” Elliott said. “You have an immediate appreciation for her athleticism. Biomechanically, she does things that 99 percent of professionals can’t do.”
Until this point, Parra had very little knowledge about universities in the United States. That’s why she initially thought it was a joke when Elliott reached out with an official scholarship offer.
During Parra’s subsequent visit to The University of Texas at Austin with her mother, the two were both blown away by the resources offered to student athletes. They also were impressed by the sheer amount of support the team receives, made evident by the number of fans who pour into Gregory Gym for every match. Ultimately, though, it was UT Austin’s offerings not only in the athletic department but also academically that brought Parra to campus.
With her commitment, Parra brought to the court the best hand-eye coordination Elliott had ever seen, according to the head coach at the tail end of his 24th season. That particular skill set eventually resulted in a devastating serve that is hard to return, let alone duplicate.
After receiving encouragement from Elliott and the staff, Parra moved away from a jump topspin serve and started experimenting with hybrid options. In making the best use of her impeccable hand-eye coordination, Parra stuck with a hybrid serve that meshes a jump floater with topspin, combining unique spin with unpredictable movements.
“You cannot duplicate it; nobody else can really do it,” Elliott said. “It’s a huge weapon that, when it’s going, it’s unique. It’s a piece of art.”
Conquering Culture Shock
While Parra made her transition to the college courts appear seamless, her move to Austin from Mexico wasn’t free of culture shock, in part, because she spoke “zero English” when she arrived.
“Starting from nothing was incredibly difficult,” Parra said. “Not only is the culture totally different from Mexico’s, but I had no idea what people were trying to say to me.”
Parra knew she couldn’t learn another language in one day but also understood that communicating one way or another, even if it was just through hand gestures, was a necessity. She credits the trainers for always being accessible, encouraging her to speak up, and being extra expressive, themselves, in explaining things on and off the court.
“At first, it was super-difficult to integrate myself within the team and understand what they were doing,” Parra said. “I think not staying quiet at first helped me to not give up … I wanted to know how to do these things to get better, so I had to ask questions and talk.”
She also received help at the English Language Center in 2021, completing two English Language Program classes and an online writing course. Her enthusiasm charmed instructors and converted many classmates into volleyball fans.
As with other elite volleyball programs, another challenge for Parra and everybody else on the roster is adjusting to different roles on the team. In the era of the transfer portal—a recently developed database for student athletes seeking to transfer and continue their academic and athletic careers at different institutions—year-over-year rosters are more fluid than they’ve ever been.
Playing for Texas is no different: Elliott welcomed 11 new players on the 2022 roster, requiring flexibility from each to fulfill roles that are constantly shifting. While this environment might have resulted in a divided locker room or tension over playing time, both Elliott and Parra credit the newcomers’ ability to bring the team even closer throughout this run to the Final Four.
“We have a lot of people that care about people,” Elliott said, calling the transfers “great connectors” who “appreciate what it means to be a part of the Texas brand” and have “great personalities that are fun to be around.”
Parra agreed, adding, “The transfers on the team have brought with them new skills, energy and another mentality that’s changed the vibe on the team. The team is more united this year because of it.”
Finding a ‘Beautiful Environment’
Another experience special to Parra lies in how boldly her Mexican roots, and pride, resonate with Texas fans. This is why Parra’s status as one of the many fan favorites, especially among the Latino community, felt inevitable.
The affection from fans is most clearly felt during games at Gregory Gym, when the sold-out crowds reach new decibel levels anytime Parra checks into a game, creating a frenzy unique to the international star and the energy she brings to the court.
“When I substitute her into the game, there’s a completely different roar for her,” Elliott said.
On the court, Parra presents a calm yet confident demeanor that starkly contrasts with both the raucous crowd and the boisterous team. Her play speaks for itself, but don’t let her composure mislead you: Parra feels and appreciates the love she found in the Longhorn community.
“The fans are honestly incredible. It’s a beautiful environment when you come out onto the court,” Parra said. “With the band and the fans who call your name and shout their support—it’s a beautiful thing.”