By Randy York, The N-Sider
This is a story about one of the Huskers' greatest-ever athletes who turned down a scholarship because she did not think she was good enough to play volleyball for John Cook. This story is intriguing because Kelsey Robinson is now one of the world's highest paid professional volleyball players after starting as an outside hitter for USA in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Cook recruited the 6-foot-2 Robinson when she was a junior at St. Francis High School in Bartlett, Ill. “We really wanted her and when we offered her a scholarship, we thought we were going to get her,” Cook told me. “Kelsey ended up choosing Tennessee and the reason she told me she didn't come to Nebraska was because she didn't think she could play here.”
Three years later, Robinson wanted to transfer. Because of her relationship with Nebraska in high school, she contacted the Husker volleyball program and expressed a desire to transfer.
Nebraska Beach Volleyball Program Became Important Lure for Recruiting
One of the most pivotal reasons she wanted to transfer was Nebraska's decision to add a beach program. “Her original dream was to play her senior year at Nebraska and then try to make the Olympics playing beach,” Cook said. “That's the main reason why she transferred here.”
The experience was transformational in all aspects of Robinson's rapid development and dramatic improvement once she moved to Lincoln.
She admits she was rarely healthy while competing in the SEC, and there was a reason for that. “Kelsey didn't take good of care of herself until she got here,” Cook said, pointing out the difference makers in her amazing makeover from one NCAA Division I school to another.
Husker Power strength and conditioning coach Brian Kmitta became a driving force for Robinson, who started making better decisions in Nebraska's daily approach to enhance strength, conditioning, nutrition and performance. Kelsey listened to NU Director of Performance Nutrition Lindsey Remmers, a former volleyball student-athlete, and she learned from Assistant Director of Performance Nutrition Tommy Jensen.
Coach Cook Will Never Forget That One Shining Moment: Touching 10 Feet
Cook will never forget that one shining moment that elevated Robinson's heart, mind and soul and enabled her to understand the remarkable rewards from making great decisions.
“I remember the first time that Kelsey touched 10 feet in testing at the end of April and how excited she was to finally reach that milestone,” Cook said. “She had never touched 10 feet before. She was close but never quite there. I still remember Kelsey running around the Devaney Center screaming that she finally touched 10 feet.”
It was a big deal for a young woman who grew up thinking that she was incapable of such goals.
After her senior season, Cook remembers asking Kelsey what she wanted to do, and yes, he recommended that she give indoor volleyball a fair shot before chasing beach volleyball.
“Maybe you can do it as an outside hitter,” Cook told Robinson before calling Karch Kiraly to see if the Olympic coach might be interested. “I told Kelsey if she can't do it as an outside hitter, maybe you can be a libero,” Cook said. “So Kelsey went out there in May, participated in the tryouts and, of course, she made the team and stayed in the program. That was the summer of 2014 and two years later, she's playing in the Olympics in Rio.”
Kiraly raved about Robinson. “She gives USA a ton – competitive fire, ball control, speed at the net, galvanizer under duress...the list goes on,” Kiraly said.
USA's Olympic Bronze Medal Team Featured Three Starters from Nebraska
Talk about Nebraska's overall history and undeniable volleyball intrigue. Robinson's escalator ride to the top of America's outside hitters gave Nebraska three volleyball starters on the 2016 Bronze Medal Olympic team. The other two are two-time USA Olympian Jordan Larson from Hooper, Neb., a one-stoplight town, and Kayla Banwarth (Dubuque, Iowa, libero), a former Husker who was so far under the radar that she never even earned all-conference honors during her entire Husker career. Thankfully, Banwarth is now an assistant coach for Cook.
"The Olympic lifestyle is far from easy,” Cook told me. “You have to basically play year-round. You give up pretty much your social life and your family life. You play overseas and train with USA when they're in season in the summer and travel all over the world. It's a tough life and when you don't perform, you get cut. It's like all professional teams. If you're not good enough, you're gone. Kelsey's strength is she's a six-rotation player and that's what we try to develop at Nebraska. We want well-rounded, six-rotation players.
“When you play internationally, the sub rules are different,” Cook said. “You need people that can play all the way around and that can pass. In college, you can sub your front-row players out and put someone in that can pass and then you can put front-row hitters in that can hit because you have 15 subs plus your libero. In international competition, you only have six so you need people that can play all the way around. That is what makes Kelsey and Jordan so valuable because they can pass, they can block, they can hit...they can do everything.”
Cook: Program Prepares Players for National Team, Professional Leagues
I ask Cook the obvious question – is that how and why Nebraska produces so many volleyball Olympians? “I think this program prepares people for the national team and the professional leagues all over the world,” Cook said. “First of all, that's because our strength program is second to none. Kelsey came in and got immediately involved in our strength program. She started seeing immediate physical gain that could take her to the next level.
“Second, playing in front of 8,000 people creates the limelight that our players are in. The media attention they get prepares them to be able to handle expectations and perform under pressure in front of big crowds. We are a program with a lot of expectation and a lot of people watching and following what we do. When you go through that and perform under that, you develop skills that allow you to handle playing in China or all over the world.”
In the process, “Nebraska helps student-athletes acquire skills that allow you to be more adaptable and understand the expectations you have playing on the USA team or on a professional team where the same thing applies,” Cook said. “They're paying you and if you don't perform, you get cut. In college, you don't get cut. I think those are the reasons why some of our players leave Nebraska volleyball and do so well on the national teams.
Husker Players Under Intense Limelight and Attention of Sellout Crowds
“We have three Olympians and it's because of this program and what it's become,” Cook said. “Playing here prepares them and develops skills you wouldn't normally get at other college volleyball programs. The same thing applies to Nebraska football. They're under intense limelight and the attention here with big crowds and same skill sets that apply. At Nebraska, we're developing athletes who can handle playing beyond college and all the pressure and expectations that come with that.
“We talk about training the complete athlete,” Cook said. “That encompasses nutrition, strength training, the mental part of competition, the volleyball part of it and the technical part of it. That's what we talk about training complete athletes. All of those areas help our student-athletes become the best version of themselves and the best athlete they can possibly be. Everyone has a top end, and obviously Kelsey took advantage of that and reached the top end after going through everything that Nebraska provides.”
Like Her College Head Coach, Robinson High Maintenance and High Energy
Cook smiles before sharing a footnote that fits Kelsey Robinson's staunch beliefs. Brian Cook, John's nephew, and Kelsey Robinson are in a “very serious” relationship. “Brian played volleyball at Stanford,” John Cook said. “They met in Italy last year and they've been an item ever since. Brian is my brother Dave Cook's son. Brian played men's volleyball for Stanford and has been playing professional volleyball overseas. Last year, they were about 45 minutes apart in Italy when they met and they have been very tight ever since.
“It's really cool. I kid Kelsey because Brian's pretty laid back,” John Cook said. “Kelsey's like me. We're high strung, high maintenance and high energy. My brother and Brian are pretty laid back, so I guess opposites attract. Out of everyone in the world, these two met, and I think it is really cool. I would not be surprised if they stayed together for a long time. Brian just retired from the indoor game and he's going to make a push to play beach in the Olympics.”
If there is one person in the world who can understand that and all that comes with it, Kelsey Robinson can. Sometimes, you just have to make the right move to get on the right road and make the most out of whatever you love best.
Nebraska paved that road for Kelsey Robinson, and no one, anywhere, regrets the results that came with that experience.
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