By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
In the seemingly endless stream of fans cueing up to get her autograph, Tamari Miyashiro came face to face with scores of young players who see her as the ultimate role model.
She is an honest-to-goodness Olympic athlete, after all.
Miyashiro and her teammates on the United States women’s volleyball team had completed their final tune-up July 18 at USC, before heading off to London the following day to compete in the 2012 Summer Games.
The Honolulu native admitted to being a little weary from the intense training schedule, but also excited about the opportunity of a lifetime, to perform on the world’s biggest athletic stage.
“It’s surreal. I don’t think it’s hit me yet, to be honest,” Miyashiro said. “Obviously, it’s a huge thing, and the impact is huge, but at the same time, you try to keep everything you’re doing the same, because that’s what got you this far. You want to compete when it really matters. You want to keep the routine the same, because obviously, it works.”
The 25-year-old, 5-foot-7 libero and defensive specialist is a member of a squad that features stars such as Logan Tom, and is a heavy favorite to win a medal in London.
“This is my first Olympics and you have expectations. People tell you this or that, but it doesn’t really have meaning until you’re actually there,” she said.
Thus far, the Team USA game has been effective. After an opening win over South Korea, the American women took a 3-1 victory Monday over Brazil, in a rematch of the gold medal final won by the Brazilians at the Beijing games four years ago.
“This team can do it,” Miyashiro said with guarded confidence at USC. “We have to take one game at a time because we’ve seen a lot of these teams before, but this is the Olympics, so everything is different.”
After first taking up volleyball at the age of seven, Miyashiro progressed quickly in the sport, showing exceptional skill despite her diminutive size.
“When she was in high school, she worked really hard and was one of the best players on her team,” said her mother, Joey Miyashiro, who has also been one of Tamari’s coaches over the years. “She was tiny, smaller than everyone else on the team, but she wanted it so badly, she just worked that much harder.”
Tamari has the athletic pedigree, for certain. Joey played at the University of Hawaii, while her father, Gordon, was a standout in football at Northern Michigan.
At Kalani High School, Miyashiro lettered all four years and was the 2004 Hawaii Gatorade Player of the Year. She played club ball with the Asics Rainbows, making strong showings at the 2001 Junior National Championships and 2002 Davis Festival.
Her breakout performances, however, came at the University of Washington, where she began to flash the skill level of a world-class player. By the time she graduated in 2009, she had been named the National Defensive Player of the Year twice and has set the still unmatched school record of 2,382 digs and 5.36 digs per set.
After college, Miyashiro played with teams in Poland and Austria, before joining the U.S. national team two years ago.
For this Olympics, she has had to make the adjustment from being a regular starter to being able to contribute in limited situations. She is listed on the team roster as a libero/defensive specialist, but has been used mainly as a substitute server, coming into a match at key points to serve effectively and then give way after a sideout.
“All 12 of us have a big role on this team and each role is unique,” Miyashiro explained. “My role is to come in and serve, hopefully dig a few balls and help us score a few points. I hope I can help each of us be better and help our team be better in any way I can. All the roles, even the non-starters, are really important.
“If everyone does her job, the team is much better.”
Miyashiro said the training schedule has been so grueling that she hasn’t spent more than three days straight at home in nearly seven years, but that she is grateful for the opportunity.
“There aren’t many people who will ever be in the position I’m in now, so I’m just trying to take it all in and do the best I can do,” she said.
And while she understands her daughter is among the best players on Earth, Joey Miyashiro said Tamari and all who have supported her haven’t lost sight of the good fortune that has helped her reach this level.
“I’ve seen her develop through great coaching and a good college program,” Joey insisted. “It’s been her journey to get there, but you’ve still got to be lucky. Hopefully, the dream can keep on going.”
Tamari wouldn’t speculate on how well the team would do in London, but said the road to the gold medal will go through the Americans and they have one objective: to be the best in the world.
“Everyone shows up to play the USA,” she said.