RIO 2016

From Iowa to Rio: Dubuque's Banwarth earns volleyball dream

John Naughton

Even as a 4 year old, Kayla Banwarth was coachable.

The Dubuque native picked up a volleyball and started batting it around the house. Her mother, Anne, a former college player and coach, decided it was time to teach her how to do things the right way.

Kayla Banwarth, a native of Dubuque, was a three-time Des Moines Register all-stater at Wahlert High School, where she was an outside hitter. She switched to defense at Nebraska and has played on U.S. national teams since 2011. She was named to the U.S. women's Olympic volleyball team on July 12, where she'll play at libero.

Unlike most youngsters who decide to do things their own way, Kayla followed the coaching advice.

"Everything we told her to do, she did," Banwarth said.

Kayla was named to the U.S. women's Olympic volleyball team July 12. She'll play libero -- a defensive specialist -- on the squad that will play in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 6-21.

She follows the course of Nancy Metcalf, who went from Western Christian of Hull, to Nebraska, to the Olympics. Metcalf played in the 2004 games.

Banwarth was a three-time Des Moines Register all-stater at Wahlert High School, where she was an outside hitter. Her devastating, twisting serve drew 364 aces. She topped 1,000 kills and digs. She switched to defense at Nebraska, where she piled up a school record 1,706 digs. She has played on national U.S. teams since 2011 in the Pan American games.

USA  volleyball athlete Kayla Banwarth, who grew up in Dubuque, poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit at the Beverly Hilton.

Tom Keating, who coached Banwarth during her freshman year at Wahlert, said he noticed her attention to instruction when he met her at a camp when she was in the sixth grade.

"We knew kind of then that she was a special kid and special player," Keating said. "She had a way about her that was very coachable."

And then there was her vision. Banwarth saw the angles of the game from an early age.

"She was looking for things that most kids don't even see," Keating said.

Keating said Banwarth was raised by parents, Anne and Tom, who instilled a strong work ethic in their daughter. Her persistence paid off.

The biggest change of her career — switching to libero — was part out of necessity, accomplished with skill and determination.

She stands 5-10, a height too small to play at the net. She reshaped herself at college into one of the nation's top defensive players.

"Kayla's size was not going to let her be an attacker," Keating said. "It's a great, great story."

Others in the 'Iowa to Rio' series:

In high school, she was already a defensive star, but used on the attack. One longtime observer of Iowa high school volleyball, Mike Henderson, prophesied that she would become the greatest defender the state ever produced. Banwarth could reach her hand underneath the volleyball an inch before it hit the floor, a save known as a pancake hit.

"She was always in the right spot," Keating said.

At Nebraska, she transitioned into a libero, where she twice earned honorable mention all-Big 12 recognition. She started for one of the nation's top programs as a freshman.

“She just continued to get better and better every year," Nebraska coach John Cook said.

After her final college season in 2010, Banwarth was faced with the decision to continue or turn away from the sport. She chose to pursue her Olympic goal.

"I don't think she was worried about an 8-to-5 job," Anne Banwarth said, chuckling.

Olympian Kayla Banwarth (1), shown here in days as a star at Dubuque Wahlert.

While many of the members of the U.S. national team played for international pro teams, Banwarth toiled at her craft, alone in a gym.

“What’s really amazing, though, is she stayed with it, without really having much of a pro career," Cook said. "She’s just continued to hone her skills, training in Anaheim (Calif.), training with (U.S. coach) Karch Kiraly and training some days by herself.”

When an NBC TV crew showed up to film an promotional spot, Banwarth took the spotlight. The rest of the team was overseas.

Banwarth's drive to the Olympic team may not be the last for a former Iowa prep. Haley Eckerman of Waterloo East went on to become an All-American at Texas. Mikaela Foecke of Fort Madison's Holy Trinity was the NCAA tournament's MVP while leading Nebraska to a national title. Two current Iowa high school players — Johnston's Taryn Knuth and Wahlert's Mackenzie May — are members of the National Junior Team.

Keating said Banwarth will encourage Iowans that they can be the next Olympians.

"It also does speak to representing Iowa volleyball," Keating said.

Anne Banwarth said she expected Kayla would be named to the team. But the official announcement of the team was made July 12.

A rush of congratulatory cards and emails started flowing.

"Now, everybody's celebrating," Banwarth said.

Reporter Andrew Logue contributed to this story.