Okimura Blog: You Get What You Give Back

By Lori Okimura | July 06, 2018, 3:18 a.m. (ET)

Lori Okimura, chair of the USA Volleyball Board of Directors, blogs on her experiences at the GJNC including on Ultimate Performance Volleyball club.


Like the many other volleyball people in the airport today, I am departing Detroit with a feeling of gratitude to the City for their hospitality, and to our USAV staff, sponsors, officials, volunteers and families who made the annual exodus to the USA Volleyball Girls' Junior National Championships (GJNC). I think it's safe to say that the "Motor City" temporarily became "Volley City" for two weeks with the arrival of more than 25,000 girls from nearly all 50 states, and what seemed like an army of parents, friends and family in tow.

I'd be remiss not to point out that in the days prior to my arrival in Detroit, the excitement was building thanks to the terrific promotion done by the Detroit Sports Commission on their social media. Among the obligatory riverwalk photos with everyone pointing to Canada or jumping in the air, there were terrific stories done all week about the visiting teams, the home teams, and the business tourism impact USA Volleyball once again brought to an unsuspecting but thankful city.

While in Detroit, I was able to meet and thank Kris Smith, director of the sports commission and one of the people responsible for bringing USA Volleyball to the area. I shared with him that among all the cities I'd visited for these events, Detroit had one of the best and most engaged social media campaigns in their #MyTimeInDetroit promotion. I was surprised to hear him say that the young woman running it all was an intern who had only been on the job a few weeks.

But that proves a point I've made with many of the business students I meet each year -- you get what you give back. In giving this young woman an opportunity to engage with a major sports event, the Detroit Sports Commission has received a huge benefit in return due to her great work.

The same is true for USA Volleyball. Many of the event staff and officials were once young players and coaches at the same event they are now tasked with running. And they operate like a Swiss watch! Walking around the Cobo Center convention hall, it was gratifying to see so many familiar faces of those who laid the groundwork for junior club volleyball in the USA. Long-time club directors and coaches who are training a new generation of student-athletes that include some of their own kids. And college coaches scouring the talent on the Sport Court were once those same fresh-faced kids they now watch with the eagle-eye of a recruiter.

I was really excited to see Karrie (Downey) Larsen on the bench with NORCO 17-Black. Karrie was the University of Colorado Female Athlete of the Year in 1995 and is a member of its Athletic Hall of Fame. She coached at Colorado State University with a good friend of mine, Tom Hilbert, whose daughter Myles is now on Karrie’s NORCO team. If you had the chance to see Karrie compete, you know she gave it her all whether as a junior player, in college or on the national team. And now as a coach, she's giving these young women at NORCO an amazing insight to competitive volleyball and life.

Vegas UnitedEarlier this year, I had an opportunity to visit with the Vegas United Volleyball Club at their inaugural “Sky Full of Stars” fundraiser. I learned that this club was a collective effort among three club directors in the Las Vegas area who decided to stop competing against each other, combine their strengths, and start working together to give girls and boys a better chance to succeed. They took a huge risk in coming together because they had a common goal to give back to a sport that gave so much to them. I took some time to watch the Vegas United 16-Navy team on my last day in Detroit and was again grateful to see a former player, Karissa Guthrie, coaching and leading the young women on her team. For many years, Karissa has been coaching high school and club volleyball in the Las Vegas area, influencing and teaching young athletes as many life skills as volleyball ones. She and the other coaches of Vegas United put the kids first and in doing so have developed an entire community focused on doing the same.

One of the highlights at the GJNC is the training camp of the U.S. Collegiate National Team. What a terrific opportunity for the junior players to see today's top collegiate stars together wearing the red, white and blue.

Another highlight at Nationals is always the awards ceremonies. Not only is this the end point for a long, long club volleyball season, but it’s also a moment for the parents and coaches to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy what is inevitably a tear-filled moment. Sometimes we forget how long the club season can be. And how many sacrifices go with it along the way. As I hung shiny new medals on the 16 Open winners, I caught a glance behind me at the huge crowd of parents lined up with cameras flashing wildly and tears flowing freely. These parents become road warriors of sorts, navigating the various cities where the USA Volleyball-sanctioned national junior qualifier tournaments are located, each run by private event operators, but all on the “Path to the Podium.” And if you think it’s tough for the parents, consider the college coaches, some attending 3-4 tournaments a weekend, making their way through the concrete jungles in cities like Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Reno and the list goes on.

I happened to be walking by when the awards ceremony for the 17 Patriot division was underway. Team Detroit received their national championship gold medals and a parent told me that this was the third gold medal in as many weeks that this club earned. What a great example of how local clubs benefit from national championships being held in their hometowns, and when they also have an opportunity to travel around the country to compete. What a great moment for that club and those young women, and especially for the coaches and parents who guided their path to victory.

I spent my last few moments in the Cobo Center, with the Ultimate Performance Volleyball Club of Tulsa, Oklahoma. When this club first started, they set a goal of having a small handful of teams focused on building from the ground up and changing the definition of what playing club volleyball meant in their area. The founder is my best friend and someone who came into my life because of club volleyball. Missy McCaw-Frette, a high school All-American from Tulsa crossed my path when I was coaching a club team in the Lone Star Qualifier. I was in college at the time and took my girls to watch Missy's team play after our match was done. At the time, Lone Star Qualifier was held in Austin, Texas. Back then, we thought having three courts in your gym was “massive” and now that same tournament is on three weekends on 150+ courts in the Dallas Convention Center and generates millions of dollars in tourism revenue for the city.

Missy was a collegiate student-athlete, college coach, club coach, high school coach, and as you can guess by now comes from a long line of coaches in her family. A handful of our men’s national & Olympic team alumni played for her mother, Peg McCaw. Missy's brother, Chip, was a member of the 2000 Olympic Team in Sydney before turning to a pro beach career and is now a men’s volleyball volunteer assistant at Pepperdine University and club coach for Team Rockstar in Southern California where his son, Auden, plays. Missy, who played at our alma mater, USC, and her husband Dave, who played at Ohio State University, decided to get back into club volleyball because as parents first and foremost, and as student-athletes and coaches, they wanted to create a new culture and share what they had learned over the years, on and off the court. They also wanted to create opportunities for the players from Tulsa, like daughter Emma, to have the experience to travel and compete nationwide, as both of them had done as collegiate student-athletes. It’s great for our sport that people like Missy, Dave, Chip and others like them are getting back into the sport through coaching.

There are stories like this all across the country in each of the 40 regions of USA Volleyball. And as I make my way today to the USA Volleyball Boys’ Junior National Championships in Phoenix, I’m confident I will learn about more past players giving back to our sport as coaches and club directors, parents and officials. And I’m sure to hear more stories from parents about what path their families have traveled to get to these events. I’m excited to hear those stories.

With less than a year left in my tenure with USA Volleyball, I’m savoring opportunities like these to visit with our staff, sponsors and participants at events like the junior national championships. I started in junior club volleyball, and I have a healthy respect for what club directors and parents go through during the course of the season. I remember what it was like to work in the sporting goods world back in the day when only a few companies, or people for that matter, paid attention to club volleyball.

Now, club volleyball is arguably one of the most valuable channels of business in our industry, and thanks to companies like Molten USA, adidas, and others, the club volleyball market has exploded and become an influencer category. Would it surprise you to learn, some of the top business people in our sport came through the ranks of USA Volleyball clubs? Melissa Dawson and Brynn Murphy of Molten USA and Christine Shelby of adidas are just some examples.

Kristy Cox, the woman who runs the USA Volleyball national events department and who was on the ground in Detroit with her event team is another example, as is most of her department. There are many other examples. And thanks to Sport Court and Sports Imports, we've gone outside the box with our thinking of where volleyball can be played. It never gets old to see and hear people's first reaction to walking into what was once a vast empty space only to see volleyball courts as far as the eye can see and try to figure out how the net systems can be so perfectly set up, like magic! These companies and many others like them have changed the dynamic of volleyball and literally brought it to new places for more people to play and enjoy.

So to all the coaches, players, parents, officials, friends and family I’ve crossed paths with out there (mostly at the airport, in the hotel elevators, and at the concessions stands inside the convention center), thank you for sharing your stories with me and thank you for giving your kids this opportunity to be part of the Path to the Podium. A special mention and our deepest condolences on behalf of the USA Volleyball Board of Directors to USAV member Krysta Boas of the AVA volleyball club from the Lone Star Region in Texas, and her family & friends on the loss of Krysta's father Greg, and stepmother Julie on the way to the tournament.

Next stop, Phoenix to check in on the USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships and to witness firsthand the amazing growth of boys' club volleyball!