It’s a situation as rare as she is.
Three-time Olympian Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, one of the greatest setters in Hawaii women’s volleyball history, has joined the staff of the UH men’s team as a student-coach. It’s a relatively new coaching classification, recently blessed by the NCAA to allow former athletes to return to complete their undergraduate degrees at their original institutions.
What is rarer than Ah Mow-Santos’ skill is having a female coach for a men’s team. The opportunities at the Division I-level are very limited: 22 men’s programs vs. 317 women’s.
It’s hard to say who is deriving the most benefit, the Warriors or Ah Mow-Santos, who needs 16 credits to finish her B.A. in sociology.
"For me, I’m honored she is with us," Warriors senior setter Nejc Zemljak said. "She is still probably one of the best setters in the world.
"We’re all pretty stoked about it, have quite an amount of respect for her. Being an Olympian speaks for itself."
Ah Mow-Santos, who turned 35 Wednesday, said she hoped to go into coaching but knew she needed to finish her degree first. She had wanted to go back to school this past summer, but between having her second child eight weeks ago — daughter Jream — and her husband Niobel on maneuvers as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, it didn’t work out.
Two days before this semester started, UH men’s coach Charlie Wade called. The timing was as perfect as the backsets she’s been tossing back to the Warriors during practice.
"I’ve known her for a long time," said Wade, a Rainbow Wahine associate coach during Ah Mow-Santos’ final two seasons in 1995-96. "We had stayed in contact. She’s always had good observations, has been all over the planet and seen volleyball being played in a lot of different ways.
"Whether it was the national team or playing professionally overseas, she’s had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. From our program’s standpoint, why wouldn’t you want a three-time Olympian to come in?"
Wade himself made the transition from coaching collegiate women to men this past season. He knows there will be the same questions he got about crossing over to the other gender.
"At the basic level, it’s the same game," he said. "There are more similarities than differences, and what you’re working on is the same with men and women.
"Robyn is a volleyball fan. She’s watched a lot of men’s volleyball at the highest level. What I like about her is a no-frills approach. She gets to the crux of what is most important. She makes astute observations and she’ll get more comfortable with her role."
It didn’t take long for the Warriors to find out that Ah Mow-Santos speaks softly but her words carry weight.
"When she does say something, you know you’d better be listening," senior hitter Brennon Dyer said. "And her sets — she’s amazing."
After helping the U.S. to the silver medal in Beijing in 2008, Ah Mow-Santos has all but retired from competition. The McKinley High graduate is back home — both in Honolulu and at UH.
"It’s good to be back," she said before running laps with the team in warm-ups Friday. "I like the guys. There’s a little different atmosphere with them in the gym, but they come in ready to practice."
She’s also been in the Stan Sheriff Center to watch her former team play. The sixth-ranked Wahine are 10-1 after beating Brigham Young for a second night.
"They’re good," she said. "And I like the freshmen."
Ah Mow-Santos, a two-time All-American, ranks third on the UH career list in assists (4,313), behind Kanoe Kamana’o (6,428) and Martina Cincerova (4,637). Her final two seasons, the Wahine went a combined 66-4, losing in the 1996 NCAA final to Stanford.