The Turkish Airlines EuroLeague rookie lives almost 9,000 kilometers away from his fiancée.
Nate Sestina, Fenerbahce: ‘It makes us appreciate what we have’
Adapting to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is always a tricky proposition for any player, but add in a long-term relationship and it makes things even more complicated. Well, for Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul forward Nate Sestina, he has found a way to juggle both as he looks to earn more playing time under head coach Dimitris Itoudis while keeping his fiancée happy almost 9,000 kilometers away.
The 26-year-old is in his fourth year as a professional, having suited up for Israeli side Hapoel Holon in the 2020-21 season before moving to Turkiye to play for Merkezefendi (2021-22), Turk Telekom Ankara (2022-23) and now Fenerbahce (2023-). Before that, though, Sestina made his name at Bucknell University and then transferred ahead of the 2019-20 campaign to University of Kentucky, where he met his current fiancée, Madison Lilley.
While Sestina got to play under legendary head coach John Calipari at Kentucky, Lilley herself was earning a big name on campus due to her fantastic play with the women’s volleyball team. In fact, she was named the 2020 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and also the 2020 SEC Player of the Year, as well as being named the SEC Female Athlete of the Year in 2021. It’s quite the roll of honors, but Sestina wasn’t overawed, as he revealed in an interview with EuroLeague.net.
The first few years of their relationship
“When I first got to Kentucky, she was away doing Team USA volleyball stuff, so I didn’t even know who she was,” Sestina tells EuroLeague.net. “We met during the first couple of weeks of school. She came into the training room one day and I was like, ‘Man, pretty girl,’ so I wanted to talk to her.
“I had been working with her athletic trainer in the summer because our athletic trainer was coming in from the NBA, so we ended up meeting through the athletic trainer. I went to probably 95% of the [volleyball team’s] home games and tried to see as much as I could and learn as much as I could.”
Fast-forward a couple of years and Lilley was able to join Sestina on the old continent, as she played professional volleyball for SC Potsdam in Germany during the 2021-22 season before spending the 2022-23 campaign with Beziers Volley in France. Although Sestina was playing in Turkiye during those two seasons, the possibility of meeting up from time to time suddenly became viable.
“For her, [playing professional volleyball] was something that she really wanted to do,” Sestina explains. “Getting to travel overseas and travel abroad, play in different countries, experience different cultures.
“She played for Potsdam and she was like 30 minutes outside of Berlin, so she spent a lot of time on her off days traveling around Germany, going to see different places. A lot of time in Berlin – it’s one of her favorite cities in Europe. They ended up I think losing in the finals, so as a rookie, going and playing in the finals is really impressive. She had a great first season overseas, doing her job – she’s a great setter – so I think she helped her team in a really big way.
“Then last year she was in Beziers in France and played in France’s top division. They won the midseason cup and then ended up losing I think in the semifinals of the French League, so going and doing really well in back-to-back years and winning a professional championship was awesome.”
Now, the picture is slightly different for Sestina and Lilley, as she has returned to Kentucky University as an assistant coach, despite being just 24 years of age. The 26-year-old Sestina, meanwhile, is just under 9,000 kilometers – or 5,549 miles – away in Istanbul. Nevertheless, he is incredibly happy that she had the chance to return to Kentucky.
“It’s awesome. It’s a full circle moment for her,” he states. “She’s been in contact with the Kentucky coaching staff since she was 12 years old, 13 years old. She’s 24 now and it’s crazy for her to go there after accomplishing what she did: winning a national championship, becoming an All-American... It’s great for us to be back in Lexington – that’s where we live now – so it’s awesome for both of us.”
Until now, Sestina and Lilley have been just a few hours’ flight away from one another, but even then they still had to wait for breaks in their schedules. The rest of the time, they had to turn to technology as a way of staying in touch.
“I mean, thank God for technology,” Sestina comments. “Being able to FaceTime and talk all day, we could text. I was fortunate enough to have coaches that allowed us to travel when we had breaks, so she would either come to Turkiye or I would go to wherever she was, which meant I was able to able to see different countries as well and experience those cultures.
“It’s part of the experience of being a professional athlete over here; it’s not just living where you live. But, being able to see each other helped us out a lot. It’s tough, but I think it makes us appreciate what we have and makes us appreciate the time that we do get, especially in the summer. Spending three months together in the summer is fantastic.”
A new reality
At the end of the day, quite literally in some cases, Sestina made clear that the key to a healthy long-term relationship between two athletes – or people in the world of sports – is sacrifice. Both Sestina and Lilley found time in their days for one another, and that is what has made them such a good couple.
“It was a little bit tough at first, trying to find time to carve out time to talk and, you know, have a meaningful conversation versus just texting all day,” Sestina admits. “So, we did a good job of talking for an hour or two and really break down how our day was at the end of the night before we’d go to bed.
"I think the traveling made things a little bit difficult, especially last year with the EuroCup – we were traveling all over the place, in the airport or on the plane a lot – so I think [we did a good job of] just carving out time throughout the day, whether it was in the morning or at night, to have meaningful conversation.”
Sestina is aware that this year is going to be different, however, as the time difference has a bigger impact on their relationship. Still, the first-year Fenerbahce man makes sure to go out of his way to demonstrate his commitment to Lilley.
“I think seeing each other is going to be the hardest part compared to the last two years, but she gets time off when the season ends in December,” he notes. “She’ll be able to come here for a month or two, so we can make up for all the lost time.
“But the time difference right now is pretty tough, because she usually gets up at like 2 p.m, 3 p.m. here and we’re usually getting out of practice or whatever we have. And then we have a little bit of time in the morning before she goes in and then they have practice right when I’m going to bed, so we can talk a little bit right before I go to bed. Usually when I’m eating dinner, I’ll throw on FaceTime and try not to have my mouth full when I’m talking!
“It’s going to be nice when she flies here because she wants to see some of the games as well. So we play, I think, ALBA Berlin in Berlin and she’ll be able to go that game.”
Sestina and Lilley have shown time and time again that they can overcome these challenges and, with the EuroLeague rookie having asked Madison to become his wife in August of this year, more good days are ahead in their future.