Tama Miyashiro first walked into the University of Washington gym seven years ago. She was short, she was soft-spoken, she was a long way from her Hawaiian home.
The women on the UW court were bigger, older, and brimming with confidence. By the end of that 2005 season, several would be All-Americans, one would be college volleyball player of the year, and the team would win the national championship.
They barely noticed the young freshman setter, a walk-on.
“That was a pretty big learning experience for me,” Miyashiro remembers. “I’d never been on a team where you have people who are so strong—both physically and their personalities.”
She never played a minute that magical season, and was granted redshirt status, giving her four more years of eligibility. She knew she was unlikely to unseat starting setter Courtney Thompson the next season.
One fateful day in spring 2006, Washington head coach Jim McLaughlin told Miyashiro to stick around after practice.
“I served her a ball,” says McLaughlin, “and I said, now, Tama, hold your arms like this. And I served her another ball.”
“I was doing all kinds of weird things,” Miyashiro says, “‘cause I was attacking like I was still a setter or hitter at home in Hawai’i. The only actually passing or anything I had done in high school was bump setting.”
“Then,” McLaughlin continues, “I said, Tama, now put your wrist and hands together so your platform’s like this. And I served it.”
“I learned how to hold my hands,” Miyashiro remembers. “I learned straight and simple. We kind of started from the ground, and worked our way up.”
After serving dozens of balls—some hard, some soft, some deep and some short—McLaughlin ended the session. “I walked up to the office after 20 minutes. Only 20 minutes. And I said to my coaching staff, you guys, we got our libero.”
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Hawaiian kids grow up dreaming about being volleyball Olympians the way Canadian kids dream of being hockey Olympians. Volleyball rules the Islands.
Tama’s mother, Joey, played for the beloved University of Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine. But at Kalani High School, Tama played both basketball and volleyball. Although she was only 5-7, she excelled as an outside hitter and played setter when she rotated to the back row.
|Tama Miyashiro and Courtney Thompson with|
young fans in Anaheim
Her senior year, she finally quit basketball, and was named MVP at the state volleyball tournament. Although she was selected statewide Player of the Year, Miyashiro had never aggressively entered the college recruiting scene.
“My cousin, who was my club coach, made me send tapes to all the Pac-10 schools. It was already late in the game; already my senior year.
“A lot of schools wrote back. But they kinda gave the sorry, we’re done with all the scholarship positions already. So, if you apply to the school and you get in, then let us know.”
At Washington, McLaughlin was also out of scholarships. But he agreed when Miyashiro wanted to pay a visit to Seattle.
“We learned about her as a person,” McLaughlin says. “She’s a driven kid. She’s laid back, but she’ll compete. She’ll make improvements. She’ll do what you need to do.”
“I liked his [Jim’s] personality,” Miyashiro says. “He’s kind of even keel, and he’s not a yeller. I’ve played for a couple of coaches that are kinda the opposite of Jim, really emotional, pretty loud. So, right off the bat, I was drawn to that part of his coaching style.”
Washington’s out-of-state tuition is steep, but both Miyashiro and her parents were confident she could earn a scholarship after one year. She walked on to that national championship team, and immediately found an ally: Courtney Thompson.
“I felt a connection with how much she loved the game. How much she loved competing. How much she loved Jim. And I could tell right off the bat that I would want to play with someone like this.
“She kind of took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. She didn’t have to do that.”
Instead of competing with Thompson, however, she found herself trying to replace another legend: graduating All-American libero Candace Lee, a revered defender who was McLaughlin’s very first recruit at Washington.
“Candace always reminded me of the basics,” Miyashiro says. “She was always, practice your wrist and hands! That was a small gesture, but a huge message. If I keep it simple, remember the basics, all I need to do is track the ball and think about what Jim taught us. I think the more simple she kept it, the better she was. And it was a good role model for me.”
“Tama could pass frickin’ nails,” says McLaughlin. “She had a great serve; we developed that. She could dig lights out—had great eyework, got good angles on the ball. And then she could cover better than anyone in the world.”
But McLaughlin required more. Off the court, both Lee and Miyashiro were notoriously quiet. Once they stepped on the court, that had to change. Miyashiro couldn’t believe the first time she heard Lee scream during practice when a free ball headed across the net.
“At first I said, oh, my gosh. That’s coming out of that girl? And then you realize that, by her doing that, she‘s making the team better. Yes, that’s how you should call a free ball.”
McLaughlin took note.
“Tama was the coolest, nicest, gentlest kid off the court. But a fierce competitor on the court. She had perfect balance as a person. I don’t think there’s one person in the world that doesn’t like being around her.”
Miyashiro was a four-year starter, all at libero. She was repeatedly named national Defensive Player of the Year and broke Lee’s school record for career digs. McLaughlin credits her unfailing willingness to improve.
“What Tama just could do better than any kid, is learn. She was a great student of the game.”
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At the international level, defensive players are a dying breed. The rules permit limited substitutions, so most outside hitters have to play back row rather than be substituted for defensive specialists. Some teams have begun carrying just a single defender (a libero) on their 12-person roster.
Two defenders—Stacy Sykora and Nicole Davis—had been on the 2008 Silver Medal Olympic team, and both intended to return for London. But Sykora was seriously injured in a car accident, and Miyashiro earned a spot on the traveling squad for all four stages of the 2012 World Grand Prix.
“Tama’s ability to defend is, I think, pretty unique,” says USA head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “She makes great reads and she gets in good spots and just has a way of popping the ball up.”
“One of the things Hugh preached to me early is, you just gotta work hard, work hard, work hard. Every day he was telling me, work hard. For me, I know what working hard means.”
Nonetheless, Davis wore the libero jersey at the start of each World Grand Prix round, leaving Miyashiro to come in most sets as a late serve-and-dig specialist. She never considered it an insult.
“When you go into a match like that, where you’re playing a good team and you’re kind of in a rut and they’re kind of playing well: you need to score some points.”
And score she did. In match after match, Miyashiro’s serve proved effective, and her defense raised eyebrows. When Davis suffered an injury during the final round, Miyashiro was elevated to starting libero. At several crucial junctures—especially against China—her ability to see the ball and dig off the net made all the difference.
“She can have a profound influence on the momentum of a set,” says McCutcheon.
“It was really fun to see it all come together,” she says. “And at the right time, too.”
Many observers assumed McCutcheon had decided on 11 of his 12 Olympians, with the final spot a toss-up between Miyashiro or an additional hitter, like Cynthia Barboza, Kristin Richards or Heather Bown. Miyashiro got the nod.
“As was proven in the Grand Prix Finals,” says McCutcheon, “if our libero happens to get hurt, Tama can step right into that position. On top of that, she’s a great competitor, a great teammate.”
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The time difference between Hawai’i and London is eleven hours, almost as far as it can get. It means that Hawaiian volleyball fans will have to get up early—sometimes very early—to see the USA play.
All twelve volleyball Olympians will have hometown folks rooting for them, but it will be different in Hawai’i. They’ll be cheering wildly for two local kids: Miyashiro and Honolulu native Lindsey Berg.
Folks in Hawai’i don’t just play volleyball, they understand volleyball. And they understand what it takes for an undersized kid from the Islands to wear the USA jersey in the sport’s biggest spotlight.
So for a new generation of Hawaiian kids, Miyashiro will be a role model in a way she never dreamed when she was glued to the set watching previous Olympics. She wants those kids to know her journey was not a fluke.
“Honestly, I’ve put in a lot of time and a lot of work. And, in my heart, I think I’m getting the payoff that I deserve. That may sound a little selfish, but it’s actually what I really think.”
Selfish? Hardly. More like Olympian.