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Kaleo Kanahele Maclay was busy last week moving her family from Hawaii to her home state of Oklahoma. They stopped along the way to spend Thanksgiving with her mother-in-law in New Mexico.
Then it was back on the road, which is where Kanahele Maclay has spent too many days during what she called “the most unconventional year” for her.
Kanahele Maclay, 23, has learned to make the most of her time while constantly on the move. She’s a youth pastor, a small business owner, a college student, a wife and a mother to her 2-year-old son, Duke.
However, Kanahele Maclay had one more commitment that required her to be away from her family last month. The two-time Paralympian is the starting setter for the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team. As one of its most experienced players, she helped the Americans win the 2019 World ParaVolley Super 6 in Tokyo to cap an undefeated season.
Kanahele Maclay was named the Most Valuable Player and the best setter at the tournament, which served as a tune-up for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, where Kanahele Maclay and the rest of the Americans will look to defend the gold medal they won four years ago in Rio.
“I want to make this time as quality as I can while I’m away from my son, to really make it worth it because it is hard,” Kanahele Maclay said. “It’s hard to leave him.”
Kanahele Maclay was born with a clubfoot, in which her left foot was twisted out of position. She had surgery on it when she was around eight months old, but she still has limited use of her left calf muscle.
None of that has affected Kanahele Maclay’s effectiveness in sitting volleyball, which is played like standing volleyball except players move around the court in a sitting position and can’t jump while hitting over a lowered net.
Kanahele Maclay has been with the U.S. team for nearly a decade and made her Paralympic debut in 2012, where she helped Team win the silver medal in London. More recently, she also led the Americans earn the gold at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019.
As the team’s setter, she acts as its quarterback, running the offense and leading the attack.
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Kaleo Kanahele Maclay poses for a portrait during the Team USA Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
“We actually play as a cohesive unit rather than individual players, and that’s really set us apart and given us the ability to do things that we weren’t able to do, say, in London because we weren’t a cohesive team,” Kanahele Maclay said. “I think we’ve really grown in that over the past eight years or so, and it’s shown and it’s proven itself.”
That cohesiveness has come despite Kanahele Maclay regularly training thousands of miles away from her teammates. Because the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team practices at its training site in Oklahoma City, Kanahele Maclay had to rely on her family as training partners while living in Honolulu.
Even her son got in on the action at times.
“My husband and Duke would come and watch me train and come train with me. So it’s really fun to watch (Duke), even when I’m trying to block,” Kanahele Maclay said. “I have videos of me knocking him over because he just wants to be there with me playing, and every time I sit down he’ll sit down next to me, so it’s been really cool to be able to experience that with him.”
Kanahele Maclay was born and raised in Oklahoma City. She said her family’s decision to return to Oklahoma was made, in large part, so she could train with her team.
Kanahele Maclay started dancing and performing gymnastics as a kid because her mother wanted her to learn how to use her left leg and gain coordination, which can be difficult for children born with a clubfoot. She began playing standing volleyball at age 10, and two years later she was introduced to sitting volleyball.
“Because I really grew up being fully mobile and (my disability) was congenital, I really learned to use (my leg) like you would normally as any kid would,” Kanahele Maclay said. “So I do have a lot of limitations, but it didn’t really limit me to play volleyball or play sports. I just had to adapt to whatever it was."
“In standing volleyball, a lot of the jumping was difficult for me and I couldn’t jump very high, but I could still jump.”
At one point, Kanahele Maclay was playing both standing volleyball and sitting volleyball in high school. She said there’s enough of a difference between the two that her high school volleyball coach allowed her to warm up before their standing volleyball practices to help her get adjusted.
“I’d go from sitting volleyball in the morning and then about 3 in the afternoon I would have school practice,” Kanahele Maclay said. “And I couldn’t serve the ball over the net just because the mechanics are a little different when you’re playing standing volleyball versus when you’re playing sitting volleyball.”
Kanahele Maclay has no trouble multitasking, though.
Along with her and her husband serving as youth pastors, Kanahele Maclay has been taking business classes through DeVry University to enhance her small business called Cookies by Kaleo, in which she sells decorated cookies. The online classes have made it easier for her while traveling overseas and back and forth between Hawaii and Oklahoma.
“I’ve been traveling more than I ever have because I travel to our training camp, so this is technically the most unconventional year,” Kanahele Maclay said. “It’s cool that it’s all paid off, all the time I’ve put into it, our family has put into. It has paid off.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.