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Olympics: Kayla Banwarth's Road to Rio

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By Brenden West | brenden.west@thmedia.com

Foluke Akinradewo can hit a volleyball as hard as any woman on the planet. Just ask her Team USA teammate, Kayla Banwarth.

With weeks to go before the deadline to announce the final Olympic women’s indoor volleyball roster, Team USA held a practice scrimmage in Hong Kong ahead of the World Grand Prix. Banwarth — USA’s starting libero for much of the past three years — and Akinradewo — the team’s two-time Olympic middle — were on opposite teams.

Akinradewo’s specialty is the slide — a wrap-around set that allows her to torque her body and put more force into a powerful swing. Her victim this day was a fellow teammate trying to make her first Olympic roster.

“Foluke Akinradewo, of all people,” Banwarth said. “She kind of floated it. It didn’t have true spin on it. Right at my face. And there was nothing I could have done.”

Immediately after the blow, Banwarth knew: Akinradewo’s hit had given her a concussion.

And as she was helped off the court, it began to sink in the possibility that everything she had trained so hard for over a lifetime could have just been unraveled.

“I just kind of looked up and I had the thought, ‘Really? Right now? Right before the Olympics?’” Banwarth said. “Perfect timing.”

BEGINNING IN DUBUQUE

More than 500,000 girls play high school volleyball in the United States; 11,000 play in Iowa, making volleyball the most popular girls sport in the state. Another 26,000 nationwide play at the collegiate level, with 5,000 playing NCAA Division I — the highest level of college competition.

After they graduate, a few dozen are invited to try out for the women’s national team. Twenty or so are invited to stay on full time to train. Fourteen are named to the Team USA roster. Only 12 are chosen to play in the Olympics.

And one of them is Kayla Banwarth, 27, from Dubuque.

However, like many heading to the Rio Games, Banwarth’s journey oscillates between triumphs and setbacks. Her recent concussion illustrates that, happening days before the final roster was to be announced.

“These last few weeks have been pretty stressful,” Banwarth said.

Her mom, Anne Banwarth, likes to talk about how it all started. Ever since Kayla could walk, she was drawn to volleyball. At 2 years old, she was mimicking her volleyball-playing parents (Anne played college ball at Northern Iowa and Tom Banwarth picked up the sport recreationally in college). She’d hit the ball against walls in their tri-state home.

If she was going to play, Anne Banwarth said, she was going to do it “the right way.”

“From early on it was, ‘OK, you can play volleyball, but I’m going to show you how to do it right,’” Anne said. “I showed her how to hold her hands. Right foot forward. We always called ‘bumping’ passing. It’s the concept of it being a ‘pass’ because you’re trying to get it to someone.

“The thing I remembered was she listened and learned.”

Kayla began tailing her parents everywhere if it meant she was close to a volleyball court. She’d practice passing on the sidelines during their adult league games. When Tom and Anne got into coaching, she began peppering with players years older than her.

In fact, Kayla Banwarth said the first time she felt like she was good at the sport was when she was 9 and peppered at Clarke College — with members of the men’s college team, people more than twice her age.

“I always knew that I had this gift, but I didn’t know how far it would take me,” Kayla said. “I would go in and pepper with the guys on the team. I could keep up with these guys. And it’s stuff like that, from a really young age, I kind of knew that volleyball was my thing.”

Soon she was playing year-round club volleyball with older players. That’s where she hit her first snag. Banwarth’s parents “suspended” her for a year after they learned she’d been forging their signatures on her report card.

The family chuckles about it now. But at the time, taking away volleyball was the most devastating punishment for young Kayla Banwarth.

“We had to take something away that meant something to her,” Tom Banwarth said.

Even then, volleyball was clearly Kayla’s life passion.

GOLDEN STANDOUT

It wasn’t long before Tom Keating caught word of the volleyball prodigy working her way through the Dubuque Catholic school system.

By junior high, Kayla Banwarth was attending summer Wahlert volleyball camps and playing herself onto older teams. On the club circuit, she was playing two age groups up.

“We could see it in her. Just her easy movement. Like she was gliding on the court,” said Keating, the Golden Eagles head volleyball coach until 2003. “I don’t like to use the word effortless, because there’s always effort involved. But that’s what it looked like.”

Even as an adolescent, there were already so many things to like about Banwarth. She was an exceptional passer, a “natural” according to Keating. She’d become a fundamentally sound hitter and setter as well. An almost professional understanding of the game.

But above all, what stood out to Keating was how Banwarth was both the most competitive girl on the court and also one of the most humble.

“It’s interesting. When you think about volleyball, you don’t think about someone competing one-on-one with someone else,” Keating said. “She took that personally. This is a competition. I’m going to win every competition …

“She was a combination of a really humble, hardworking, talented kid. In my world as a coach, that was the trifecta. She still had the desire to get better.”

Keating put Banwarth on the varsity roster her freshman year in 2003. Even though she was primarily a bench player that season, Keating had already identified Banwarth as someone who was going to go far in the sport.

“We were fortunate at Wahlert. The years that I was there, we had 31 Division I athletes,” he said. “I can tell you that when she was a freshman, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that she was going to get there too.”

After the 2003 season, Keating left Wahlert to become principal at Cedar Rapids Xavier. Julie Kieffer took over, but the Banwarths were worried about what Keating’s departure might mean for the Golden Eagles program.

Looking back, under Kieffer and with Banwarth, there was little cause for concern for Wahlert volleyball.

From 2004-06, the Golden Eagles won back-to-back Class 3A state championships with a 108-13 overall record. Banwarth was showered with accolades: three-time Iowa Player of the Year, three-time first team all-state, first team all-MVC and a national prep all-American on 1,081 kills and 359 aces as an outside hitter.

Toward the end, it was time to look toward the college level. Even though Keating had left Wahlert, he still had the ear of John Cook, the University of Nebraska coach.

“I told him that if you don’t recruit her, she’ll beat you some day,” Keating said.

Banwarth committed to Nebraska during her senior high school season. There was just one problem: at 5-foot-10, Banwarth’s height was a limitation hard work and talent weren’t going to resolve.

If she wanted to play for one of the premier college volleyball programs, her days as an outside — her main position in high school — were over.

KAYLA THE CORNHUSKER

There was never a doubt in Keating’s mind — Kayla Banwarth was going to make a big difference wherever she landed. Even while she slayed many teams as a front row offensive force in high school, Keating felt Banwarth could make a smooth transition to a back row defensive specialist — the libero slot.

“It was her ball control,” Keating said. “She had the right mindset. It takes a special mental capacity to play the position. She took such pride in her passing. And with that mindset, she was always about ‘How do I help this team win?’”

According to Cook, Banwarth’s Cornhusker career didn’t have a seamless beginning. She came to Lincoln in late summer 2007 timid and quiet. Junior teammate Rachel Schwartz won the starting libero job.

“She did more bear crawls than anyone in the history of Nebraska volleyball,” Cook said.

A “bear crawl” is the punishment for not talking on the court.

“She wouldn’t talk,” Cook said. “So her whole freshman year, she basically got really good at doing bear crawls until she figured out that she needed to talk.

“For me to see her start there, she took a risk changing positions… Now she’s gotten all the way to being one of the best liberos in the world, for a USA team that’s ranked No. 1 in the world.”

In the Huskers’ first 10 matches, Banwarth played in just two points, not even a footnote to the start of the season. But eventually, Cook said, she began to break out of her shell. With that came more playing time.

“I was pretty quiet, which is not good for a libero. You’re kind of the quarterback of the back row,” Banwarth recalled. “I had to break out of my shell, take charge and have a presence on the court. It took me a while to find that within myself.”

The big breakthrough came on Nov. 11 that freshman season when Nebraska traveled to conference rival Iowa State. With more than 40 friends and family in the stands, Banwarth made her first start at libero in her home state and recorded then-season highs with 19 digs and five assists.

“That’s where she really turned the corner and saying ‘Maybe I can play. Maybe I am pretty good,’” Cook said.

For the rest of her college career, Kayla Banwarth was a fixture of the Nebraska lineup.

The highlights were a 2008 berth to the NCAA Final Four, claiming the Husker career record for digs and being named co-captain in 2010. Banwarth earned a few awards as well, getting placed on a few all-tournament teams and collecting a couple of tournament MVPs.

But compared to liberos elsewhere in the country, Banwarth’s resume was relatively thin. Her top college award was an honorable mention all-Big 12 Conference nod her senior year, hardly an indicator that she was bound for a volleyball career after college.

Banwarth finished up her senior season thinking her competitive volleyball life might be over.

“After my college career ended, I was really confused about what I was going to do next,” she said.

With four runs in the NCAA tournament, there were a lot of eyes on Banwarth in college. One pair was the color commentator during Nebraska’s Final Four trip. He’s widely considered the greatest American men’s volleyball player.

Karch Kiraly saw something he liked in Kayla Banwarth. And the eventual coach of Team USA was going to see if there was more to it.

KARCH COMES CALLING 

“A libero has to be able to be a great passer, has to be able to handle tough serves from the other team across the net and get a good first touch. Get the ball in a good spot for our offense to run,” Kiraly said during a phone interview in May. “(Banwarth) did a really nice job of that at Nebraska. I didn’t think she got the proper credit for it. In the college nomination system, it didn’t account strongly enough for the work she did in that department.

“Part of our invite process is to access statistics that others don’t have access to. We try to keep tabs as closely as possible because serve receive is as critical a skill as possible. It wasn’t well known, but Kayla Banwarth was quietly very effective at that in college. That kind of performance begs an invitation to the USA gym.”

To Kiraly, Kayla Banwarth was secretly the best serve receive passer in college.

In the spring of 2011, Banwarth was invited to Anaheim, Calif. to audition for a spot with Team USA. Joining her were college all-Americans, national players of the year, former Olympians. Banwarth’s decorations seemed miniscule, by comparison.

“Everyone was an all-American. Everyone had already signed big contracts to go play overseas, and I wasn’t an all-American, I didn’t have a contract. I wasn’t even all-region,” she said. “It was really humbling. At Nebraska, we were treated like superstars. But when you go to the national team, everyone’s a superstar and you’ve got to find a way to stand out.”

Little by little, Banwarth began to clear hurdles.

Her first big step came in March that year when she made the first cut and landed on USA’s Pan American squad. She was the starting libero on the 2011 team that took Bronze in the Pan American Games. Then she helped win gold at the 2012 American Cup, the year Kiraly took over for Hugh McCutcheon as the head USA women’s coach.

After the London Olympics, Banwarth’s stock took a huge jump. She earned the 2013 USA Volleyball most improved player award while helping the national team win the Pan American Cup and NORCECA Championship. In 2014, she was rated the ninth best digger in the world and helped give Team USA a gold in the FIVB World Championships.

A year later, she helped deliver golds in NORCECA and gave the U.S. it’s first ever gold in the World Grand Prix.

Then, this year, she was the starting libero when Team USA qualified for the Olympics by winning the NORCECA qualifier.

Volleyball had become her full-time job — all with the hope that one day she would compete in Rio. In the months after qualifying, the possibility of achieving her Olympic dream started to feel like it was becoming a reality.

For Kiraly — a former Olympian himself — watching Banwarth’s progression has been to watch a journey through adversity. That’s a necessary challenge, he said, that all Olympians need to overcome.

“She continues to do nice things in terms of her growth playing defense,” Kiraly said. “Liberos are captains of the back row, captains of the defense … She’s grown and continues to make improvements in lots of those departments.”

Most international tournaments allow for 14 players on a roster. Since the London Games, Team USA has been traveling with two liberos — Banwarth and USC grad Natalie Hagglund.

But for the Rio Games, teams are chiseled down to 12 players. Because of this, Kiraly said he planned to select one libero for the Olympic roster.

In May, Kiraly called Banwarth “the” favorite to make the cut. But there were no guarantees.

And when Akinradewo’s hit sent Banwarth’s head spinning, it threw Banwarth’s Olympic dream into jeopardy.

A SETBACK SCARE

By early July, USA Volleyball had announced the men’s indoor roster, its men’s and women’s beach volleyball teams, its Paralympic sitting volleyball teams and even its Pan American rosters.

Each day passed without an announcement for the women’s team. Meanwhile, during the World Grand Prix, Hagglund had assumed starting libero duties.

Back home in Dubuque, the Banwarth family was getting anxious. Every day, friends and family members were asking about Kayla — if she was making the roster and when the announcement was coming.

The Banwarths had no answers.

“For three quarters of the year, I wasn’t nervous that she’d make the team. In the last two months, I was worried about it,” said Anne Banwarth.

“I don’t think I realized until later how much I was really pulling for her and how bad I wanted things to work out,” added Eric Banwarth, Kayla’s older brother. “The whole time I knew she had a really good shot, but still having it in the back of your head that it’s not official until its official.”

Her recent injury delayed Team USA’s announcement. Banwarth said Kiraly and medical staff wanted to make sure she could get back on the court.

“They wanted to make sure I got back to 100 percent before they could release the roster,” Kayla Banwarth said.

Banwarth assured family members that she was going to be alright, and that she was going to make the team. But with each passing day, the family grew more and more nervous for her.

“There was already plenty of stress in the first place,” Tom Banwarth said. “(The concussion) might’ve put a little more stress or pressure on. The first thing I thought about was all the time and effort she’s put into this. Don’t ruin it now.”

She was sidelined for three weeks, as USA progressed through the Grand Prix. As the family watched her games on TV, someone else wore the libero jersey.

Then, as the national team advanced to the Grand Prix medal rounds, Banwarth returned. She started the championship match against Brazil on July 10.

Team USA lost that game. But Banwarth’s ardent supporters regained something they’d briefly lost: Faith that they were on the verge of something incredible.

CLEARING THE LAST HURDLE 

On July 12, a wave of emotion swept through Dubuque.

Kiraly announced the Team USA Olympic roster, redoubling Kayla Banwarth’s athletic legacy.

Years ago she was a tri-state toddler bouncing a ball off walls in the house. Then she was the adolescent phenom Wahlert couldn’t wait to embrace. She became a prep force the likes of which Iowa hadn’t seen before. A state champion. An all-American.

She then broke records at Nebraska, one of the college landscape’s powerhouse programs. She beat out all-Americans and put herself in the conversation to be the best libero the U.S. could offer.

There were the injuries, doubts and untold pressures. Even though she’d been the national starter for years — every indication that an Olympic roster spot awaited her — Kayla Banwarth was afraid to get her hopes too high, describing the weight of such a moment and the months of anticipation as “constant butterflies in your stomach.”

“There’s a lot of anxiety with it,” she added. “Whether or not you’re going to make the roster — the stress levels are definitely high. You can tell that there’s a lot of pressure… This is the most intense these feelings have ever been for me.”

But on a Tuesday in July, Banwarth, her family and Dubuque breathed a collective sigh of relief. When Team USA takes the field during Friday’s Opening Ceremonies in Rio, she’ll be amid a throng of the world’s greatest athletes, wearing the national colors.

Kayla Banwarth, daughter of Dubuque, Wahlert grad, is an Olympian — the first from Dubuque in 88 years and the first female Olympian from this city.

When those words are said to Anne Banwarth, she cries.

“When you see it in print, and you see the picture of her with Team USA, the posters, it brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “I don’t mind crying.”

BACK WHERE IT STARTED 

Dubuque has had a few weeks to process it all. A region turns its focus to the global stage in Brazil.

Now the city is preparing to celebrate.

Restaurants are planning watch parties. Retail stores are selling jerseys. Friends are sharing stories about a girl who electrified northeast Iowa volleyball, and is taking that talent farther than anyone from here ever has.

Banwarth had idols. She was on the verge of tears when Keating handed her the No. 1 jersey her freshman year. It once belonged to Stephanie May, who took Wahlert to four straight state volleyball championships.

“The look on her face, the excitement to have that number. That’s what I’ll remember,” Keating said. “Volleyball gave her such joy. And the face I looked at that day was pure joy.”

Back home, there’s now a generation of girls watching Kayla Banwarth’s every move.

“To say that you shared the court with her, that you watched her grow up,” says Lindsey Beaves. Before she was married she was Lindsey Kane, former Wahlert teammate of Banwarth. Now, Beaves coaches the Golden Eagles. “The players are so excited. You hear former players talking about it. You hear my players in the gym talking about it.

“It shows you that it doesn’t matter what position you play, or how tall you are, or where you come from. It’s what type of work you’re willing to put in.”

There’s May’s younger cousin – Mackenzie May — now a Wahlert senior, a national all-American, who remembers watching Banwarth while she was learning the alphabet. Mackenzie traveled to Lincoln to see Banwarth play in college, and again to Omaha, Neb., this year to watch her qualify for the Olympics.

“It’s crazy for me to think about,” Mackenzie May said. “I have always looked up to Kayla, since I was a little girl.”

There’s Krystal Tranel, a junior, the Golden Eagles’ returning starter at libero. She was 5 when she saw Banwarth set records at Wahlert. Now Tranel is making t-shirts honoring Banwarth with her teammates.

“It’s amazing. She came from Dubuque, but she worked so hard to get where she is today,” Tranel said. “Just seeing that she’s done it makes me think I can hope to do something like that too.”

Kayla Banwarth hasn’t forgotten them, or her friends from home, or her family, or the city that raised her.

Reflecting on her Olympic achievement, the day the roster was announced, Banwarth paused. Admittedly, she had said, the emotions of the day were overwhelming.

No one ever said Kayla Banwarth lacked the heart of an Olympian.

Finally, with a thick voice, she said:

“I want the people of Dubuque to know that I take great pride and honor in representing them. It’s not something I take lightly. For all my friends and family and people who have supported me through this journey, I want them to know that every time I step on the court, I carry them in my heart.

“I definitely couldn’t have done what I’ve done — what I’m about to do — without them.”

Telegraph Herald 

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