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Unleashed: Krista Vansantís June Was Better Than Yours
Release: 07/02/2014
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The national volleyball player of the year joined top women athletes at the Honda Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Four days earlier Vansant and 13 fellow Huskies returned from learning the culture and colonization of Tahiti. The experience – specifically the Tahitian children -- brought Vansant to tears.

By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing

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SEATTLE – Krista Vansant had a way better June than you or I did.

The reigning college volleyball player of the year went home to Southern California, to be honored as the winner of yet another national award.

Before that, the rising senior who is already among the handful of greatest players in Washington’s storied volleyball history traveled with 13 fellow Huskies to Tahiti. For two weeks on the South Pacific island Vansant was a model student and athlete studying a culture in which girls traditionally aren’t expected or encouraged to be leaders and play sports, let alone excel in them.

For someone who’s already been honored at the ESPYs and as the best college player in her sport, this past month included the latest -- and perhaps greatest – events in her remarkable string of them as a Husky.

“I am super honored do be able to do all that I have while I’ve been at Washington,” Vansant said through her cell phone Tuesday morning back at her family home in Redlands, Calif., a month before practice begins for her Final Four team from last season begins at UW.

Super honored -- and super humbled. Actually, her first three-plus years since signing in 2011 as the first national high school player of the year to join Washington volleyball’s program have blown her mind.

She’s been the Pac-12’s freshman of the year and then the conference’s player of the year. She’s been an All-American. A two-time all-conference selection. The leader of the Huskies’ run to the 2013 NCAA Final Four. She’s been honored at those ESPYs, posing with Cam Newton. And two weeks ago she was a part of an international study of French colonization in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

And to think: her final, best year hasn’t even started yet.

At Washington, student-athletes sign up for far more than their sports and prerequisite classes. They do more than practice and study on UW’s campus. And Huskies don’t exactly lounge around all summer playing video games and waiting for their fall seasons and academic terms to begin.

They immerse themselves in the world beyond, living experiences that the television networks don’t film or air on game days yet leave impacts far beyond wins and losses.

Vansant is one of UW’s latest – and one of the highest-profile -- examples. How much has what she’s done on and off the court in three years at UW exceeded the expectations she had four years ago coming out of Redlands East Valley High School as a national prep sports phenom?

“Basically, I thought it was going to be volleyball and going to classes,” Vansant said. “Who knew I would be seeing all of the country and the world through volleyball and my classes?”

In June, about the only thing Vansant didn’t do was score in a game at the World Cup in Brazil.

Give her a kit, a ball and shot and she’d likely have done that, too.

“Yeah,” she said with an almost-sheepish tone, “it’s been pretty cool.”


“RIDICULOUSLY COOL,” IN FACT

Vansant ended the month inside USC’s Galen Center, being honored as the 2013-14 national Honda Award winner for volleyball. The ultra-dominant outside hitter with a rocket return was there in Los Angeles Monday night for the 37th annual Collegiate Women’s Sports Awards ceremony. Vansant's mother, her grandparents, and her younger brother Brett attended; the 6-foot-2 big sister joked that even in three-inch heels Brett is taller than she.

Monday morning, Vansant and Honda Award winners from other women’s collegiate talked to students at El Sereno Middle School, just east of Dodger Stadium on the edge of downtown L.A. Vansant told the kids there of playing sports on her way to earning a 3.8 grade-point average at Redlands East Valley.

Vansant has been around her sport since her mom Tricia, a former college basketball player at Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s, began coaching volleyball. That was when Krista was nine months old.

“There’s no place we’d rather be than here, right now.”

"This is terrible: I have video of her when she was 2½-3 years old," Tricia told me a couple years ago, laughing. "I showed her volleyball arms, and I bought her one of those cheap balls you get at the supermarket. And she was passing it like a volleyball in our backyard."

When Krista was in third grade, she gave up basketball, which she didn't like and wasn't good at, and began practicing volleyball. With sixth graders.

"When I was 8, played on a 12-and-under team," she said. "I just went to volleyball camp one time (at Cal-State San Bernardino, at age 7), and that's all it took."

She got her first college recruiting letter when she was in seventh grade.

Vansant made some new friends in L.A. this week, in particular Abby Dahlkemper, the 2013-14 Honda Award winner for soccer from UCLA.

“It was really cool to meet everyone, learn how they prepare for their sports,” Vansant said. “And, obviously, they are all ridiculously cool people.”

It was her first time inside the Galen Center since Dec. 14, when in the NCAA tournament’s regional final she had one of her best matches ever. For how accomplished Vansant is, that’s saying something. She had career-highs of 38 kills and 30 digs, posting 14 kills in the fourth set alone, as the Huskies rallied from down two sets to beat host USC 3-2. Her unreal night fulfilled the Huskies’ goal from last year of advancing to the Final Four at Seattle’s KeyArena.

“Yeah, it was really weird to be in there. We were in the exact same locker room that we used for that tournament,” Vansant said of Monday at the Galen Center. “We had a press conference in the same room we had press conferences for our matches. It was really trippy. It was definitely a flashback.

“It was cool – but definitely weird.”

Vansant is the second Husky to win the Honda Award for volleyball, and just the third Husky to win the award in any sport. Courtney Thompson was the 2005 Honda Award winner for volleyball, the same year she led UW to the national title. Danielle Lawrie won back-to-back Honda Awards for softball, in 2009 as a national champion and again in 2010.

Vansant went aw-shucks when I referred to her and to Thompson together.

“It’s such an honor to even be in the same company with her,” Vansant said of the Olympian and three-time college All-American who has her jersey hanging with Brandon Roy’s and Bob Houbregs’ from the ceiling of Alaska Airlines Arena. “She is a great volleyball player – and even a better person.

“It’s an honor to even be named in the same sentence as her.”


TOUCHED TO TEARS IN TAHITI

And to think: the Honda Awards event wasn’t even the half of Vansant’s grand June. It was only two days of it, actually.

She spent the bulk of her month like no other in Tahiti. There on the paradise-like island nation she learned how Tahitian parents try to keep their culture alive amid the dominant French language and colonization by speaking Tahitian and performing native dances and songs at home. She, teammate Cassie Strickland, women’s basketball All-Pac-12 scorer Jazmine Davis and other Huskies gave volleyball, basketball and football clinics to Tahitian adults; at one of them Vansant delighted in spiking a return at hulking-but-flat-footed Huskies defensive tackle Danny Shelton.

“I was honored to share my knowledge on sports. Most of them had not heard that before, especially from a girl,” Vansant said. “A lot of women down there don’t play sports and never had the opportunity to. Cassie and I and Jazmine and all of us were able to show them it’s OK to play sports – and to do well in them.”

Vansant even swam with stingrays in ocean water so stunningly clear it looked fake.

She and other Huskies – including football’s Shelton, Shane Brostek, James Atoe, Andrew Hudson, Micah Hatchie, Cory Fuavai and Siosifa Tufunga, women’s basketball’s Aminah Williams and Alexus Atchley, plus crew’s Amy Fowler – were following up on an independent-study course I wrote about last summer. UW anthropology professor Holly Barker helped lead this trip, too.

The course and trip isn’t the tourist’s view of Tahiti. The Huskies were focused on colonialism and community.

“By traveling to a location in Oceania that is colonized, you will examine the multiple ways that colonialism shapes every aspect of life and culture,” the study-abroad course’s syllabus states. “Another area of exploration is community. Recognizing the ability of sports to create unity, and bolster communities, we will use sports as a way to connect with Pacific Islander communities in both locations. What role do sports play in the identity and culture of youth in Tahiti and Seattle?”

These Huskies stayed with the same host family in Tahiti that housed the 11 Huskies who were in Tahiti last summer, Andrew and Andrea Lependu in Puna’auia on the island’s west coast. The Lependus shared their beachfront home and their five children who range from nine to 15 years old.

That first trip last summer had 11 Huskies on it, including Shelton, Brostek and teammate Hau’oli Kikaha, who returned this past January into March to do even more research on what he now sees as his life’s calling.

This year’s group of 14 Dawgs spent two full days at the Punavai Plain E’cole E’le’mentarie, the same elementary school at which last year’s Huskies spent half a day and taught the kids the words and dancing to Katy Perry’s hit song “Firework.”

This time, the children there fell in love all over again with the Huskies. Before the collegians left the elementary school put on an assembly for them. During it the French-speaking school children sang “You Are My Sunshine/My Only Sunshine” to the Huskies.

“They gave their all in the volunteering projects in Tahiti. In return, Tahiti adopted them as its team. I couldn't be more proud of them. They represented their families and UW well.”

“In English,” Vansant said, still sounding wowed a week after her June 25 return to the U.S.

She cried during the song, as honored as she was touched.

“It made a couple of us tear up a little bit, seeing how deep an impact we had on those kids in only two days with them,” Vansant said. “And for them, French speakers their whole lives, sing it in English! I mean, I’m not going to lie, I was crying.

“It was a really cool thing to be a part of.”

Vansant noticed most in Tahiti the language, one spoken and one lost.

“I mean, it was these pretty big Polynesian guys speaking French, which seems like too ‘soft’ a language for them,” she said.

“Indigenous language is falling off the map there. I learned there is now an option to teach Tahitian in middle school there – then most of the kids take Spanish instead because it’s easier to learn coming from using French everyday.

“So Tahitian families dance and sing in their native language to try to keep their culture alive.”

Ink Aleaga, UW’s assistant director of campus and community engagement within the Huskies’ Student-Athlete Academic Services, led the trek to the South Pacific. For him, its highlight was clear.

“The bonding that these students have made on the trip,” he said of the Huskies from four sports and varied majors. “They didn't know much about each other when they started the trip. Now they know more about each other -- and gained new brothers and sisters.

“They gave their all in the volunteering projects in Tahiti. In return, Tahiti adopted them as its team. I couldn't be more proud of them. They represented their families and UW well.”

No surprise there.


SO ACCOMPLISHED – BUT SO NOT DONE YET

For all the places she’s been already, and for everywhere she is still to go as one of the best Husky volleyball players ever, Vansant retains one message from one location in particular.

She sees the words every workout day at Alaska Airlines Arena back at UW. It’s an ode to togetherness -- plus a reminder to the Huskies’ national-power volleyball team the need to grind through its weight lifting and the unique, trigonometry-and-physics-based drills of legendary coach Jim McLaughlin.

"We’re all in workouts working hard for that goal in the fall, which is winning a national championship.”

The message: “There’s no place we’d rather be than here, right now.”

Wednesday, that was written in blue, block letters inside the volleyball team’s empty locker room, five feet to the right of Vansant’s temporarily vacated cubicle. In the offseason, McLaughlin’s words come through strength and conditioning coach Henry Ruggiero, who uses them to drive the players through workout after workout.

There are two other words that are driving Vansant right now.

Penn State. That’s the fellow national power that ousted Washington from last December’s Final Four.

“Oh, yeah, it gets brought up a lot. It gets brought up every other day,” Vansant said. “Henry brings it up. When we are working out and we’re tired, it’s our motivation – it’s my motivation.”

So, yes, despite all she’s already accomplished and all the places she’s been in three wondrous years for the Huskies, Krista Vansant is far, far from satisfied.

That’s bad news for the Pac-12 and – if their paths cross again – Penn State.

Practice begins Aug. 10.

“I’m thinking about that now. We’re all in workouts working hard for that goal in the fall,” she says, “which is winning a national championship.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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