Ah Mow-Santos quietly, efficiently set the pace
Wednesday, Aug 5, 2009
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Robyn Ah Mow-Santos was the mouse that roared in Manoa. She moved on to volleyball's highest level where she has lived, quietly and quite contentedly, for the past decade.
In that time the shy McKinley graduate has appeared anything but timid. She was the starting setter for Team USA in the last three Olympics, finding a way into the gold-medal match in Beijing.
Ah Mow remains the silent warrior. When she cranks up the volume it is with those magical hands that, ironically, make no noise as she sets volleyballs to some of the greatest hitters in the world.
Ah Mow is back in Hawai'i now, with son Jordan starting school in Kapolei. Husband Niobel should be back from his third tour of duty in Iraq in the next few months. She is still bashful and very, very good at the game she has played since fifth grade, picking it up while she followed parents Lovina and Talmadge to their games.
Three-time Olympian and two-time All-American are not the descriptions she anticipated when she left McKinley in 1993.
"To be honest, when I was a senior in high school, I had no intention of going to school," Ah Mow said. "We couldn't afford it, and I had no clue what I was going to be doing. I did have scholarship offers, but you know people who live on Hawai'i, they can never leave, and I was one of them. I would be homesick if I went over to the next-door neighbor.
"I remember I went to a camping trip with my neighbors to the North Shore, and my mom had to come and get me because I was crying and wanted to go home. So leaving and going to college somewhere else was not even an option for me. Dave (Shoji) came to talk to my counselor and I took some extra classes the summer before senior year and I was at UH in '93. I seriously had no clue what I was going to be doing ... none!"
Shoji, the Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach, had her future plotted out, at least for four years. He saw the innate gifts Ah Mow had — the sweet hands, the exceptionally quick anticipation that allowed her to get to balls most would not, the precise placement on every silent set and the intense desire no one could teach.
"I think it's just her desire for perfection that sets her apart," Shoji said. "She's never satisfied unless she is really good. And she is very adaptable. She played for different coaches, not only overseas but at the Olympics — she set high, set low, set fast. She could do anything you wanted her to do.
"I think skill-wise she was the best setter we ever had in the program. That's saying a lot because we had a lot of good setters. Technically, her location was impeccable. There was never a question about her location and her ability to get to a ball and make something out of it."
Ah Mow and Angelica Ljungquist, the 1996 national player of the year in 1996, formed a talented nucleus that helped bring the Rainbow Wahine back to the final four in 1996, for the first time in eight years — a lifetime by Hawai'i standards. They lost in the final, but that team caught the state's imagination like few others. It averaged 8,378 fans, still the NCAA benchmark.
"Walking out into that arena and just looking at all of the fans cheering, it was an unreal feeling," Ah Mow said. "We've played in tournaments in Colorado with the national team, and it wasn't even close to that crowd we had in those four years. The fans are so awesome, and they love good volleyball.
"I've seen Angelica a lot overseas, and I've played against her a lot of times. That was weird."
Ah Mow remains third on the school's career assists list, despite setting full time only 2 1/2 seasons. The career leader is Kanoe Kamana'o, another "too-small" setter who was a floor wiper for the Rainbow Wahine when Ah Mow played — and left an indelible impression on the 'Iolani student.
That impression only grew as Ah Mow, tentatively at first, found her way to the game's top level.
"I wasn't sure that she wanted to go on," Shoji said. "Here's this quiet girl that rarely spoke to anybody. To go overseas was a huge step for her. She was fairly comfortable going to U.S. tryouts and things like that, but once she took that step she really grew up and grew to enjoy volleyball more."
Ah Mow will tell you without hesitation that she loves the game. It took others time to love her game. Deitre Collins, a Hawai'i All-American a decade ahead of Ah Mow, spent the summer of 2000 helping the national program. At the time, Ah Mow was the backup setter for the U.S. team. Without warning, and while Collins nodded in agreement, head coach Mick Haley started her in the Grand Prix against fifth-ranked Korea.
The 10th-ranked Americans won. They stunned fourth-ranked China the next match. Ah Mow became the starter a month before Team USA left for the 2000 Olympics. She hasn't let go since.
"Robyn has a flat-out competitiveness that you cannot teach," Collins said back then. "Put Robyn in a game and she's a different person. I'd go on her back anywhere. She plays at such a high level mentally. I say just let her play, she'll find a way to win. He (Haley) finally saw it, thank God."
Until then, the 5-foot-7 Ah Mow had always been considered too small. She still is, and that is a huge part of her remarkable story. It is a story Ah Mow would never tell. Around friends and family she is animated, but few on the outside are allowed in.
"I was the most quiet person, never liked the media as everyone knows, didn't like the spotlight," Ah Mow recalled. "But I loved playing the game. That's all I knew, was playing the game.
"I remember in '96 the USA team came to play in the arena for the Grand Prix, and I was watching the games with Cuba and thinking to myself, 'There is no way I'm gonna be able to play against those girls.' They were like 10 feet taller then me and any college player. It looked pretty scary! But I remember thinking I'd like to do that, only I knew I was never going to be able to because I was too small."
Ah Mow, now 33 and a veteran of three Olympics and seven professional seasons, even fooled herself. The U.S. lost the bronze-medal match in 2000, took fifth in 2004 and nearly came up golden in Beijing — with a pair of "too small" but completely committed setters from Hawai'i in Ah Mow and Punahou graduate Lindsey Berg, whose huge sacrifices clearly paid off.
"Dedication is a lot of it," Ah Mow said. "Since you are small you have to work 10 times as hard as someone who is twice your size. You've gotta love what you are doing. If you don't, it's not worth it.
"Not many people pay attention to athletes from Hawai'i, especially small ones. Lindsey and I, no one really knew us. We weren't in the volleyball magazines, USA volleyball had no idea about us, but guess what, we both were from Hawai'i, and we both set for the last two Olympics. So if we can do it, anyone can."
It is quite an accomplishment for someone who would get homesick going down the street. Ah Mow has now traveled the world and found a second home in Switzerland, where she has played for the VBC Volero Zurich team since 2004. It is not the highest level of pro ball, but the club and its president have made Ah Mow and her family feel comfortable and she remains close with many of her teammates.
Those friendships, her family and volleyball remain the pillars of her life, and it has become a good life with only one regret. Last year, Robyn's mother and "best friend" Lovina got sick when she was visiting Switzerland. Doctors could not save her.
"I wish my mom could have physically been there to see me on that medal stand receiving that Olympic silver medal," Ah Mow said. "Maybe her dying had an impact or reason on why we won ... that's why I say I wish she could have been there.
"But I would not change a thing ... because I believe things happen for a reason."
Ah Mow is keeping in shape during this "sabbatical" year and hopes to play again. The game is not out of her system and it would be hard to imagine that ever happening. Her experiences with the sport have been too memorable, from McKinley to Manoa to representing the U.S. — "and the smallest state out in the middle of nowhere" — on the game's grandest stage.
She still recalls precise moments of her first Games, "lessons learned" from her second and the pride silver brought in Beijing.
"Lessons were learned, and because of that victory was there," Ah Mow said. "It wasn't gold, but it's close to it and I'm proud of it, very proud. I'm proud of the team and how everyone put everything on the side, and thought of just volleyball and one goal."