[ 2004 OLYMPICS ]

Robyn Ah Mow-Santos wears a towel with son Jordan's picture on it when she plays for Team USA.

Ah Mow-Santos adjusts
well on and off the court

Hawaii’s All-American setter is
a starter playing for all America

This is the eighth in a series on people with local ties taking part in the Olympic Games in Greece. Tomorrow's story will be on Heather Bown.

Life hardly ever presents you with perfect passes, and volleyball has prepared Olympic setter Robyn Ah Mow-Santos for the unexpected.

The two-time Olympian broke into the starting lineup in 2000 and set the U.S. to an overachieving fourth-place finish when there were few expectations. Fast-forward four years and Ah Mow-Santos is still running the offense. But much has happened in between.

Hawaii Olympians

The Ah Mow-Santos File

Sport: Volleyball

Competition dates: Aug. 14-28 (even-numbered days)

Birthdate: Sept. 15, 1975

Birthplace: Honolulu

Residence: Honolulu

College: University of Hawaii

Tie to Hawaii: McKinley High graduate, played for the Rainbow Wahine 1993-96

Fun Fact: Ah Mow-Santos briefly played outside hitter her sophomore year during an injury-riddled Wahine season. She finished second in UH career assists (4,313) and became a two-time All-American (1995-96).

Did you know? In her first tournament back after having Jordan, Ah Mow-Santos was voted best setter at the 2003 NORCECA Zone Championships. The U.S. won the gold medal at the Zone Championships and qualified for the World Cup, where a bronze medal finish punched its ticket to Athens.

She says there are no words to sum up the last two seasons of her life.

The Hawaii All-American escaped a brutal car accident with only a concussion and severe bruises in 2002. She was driving home from an Italian professional league match when she and teammate Iskra Mijalic were tossed from the car. Mijalic fractured the top vertebra in her spine and came within centimeters of being paralyzed.

"I thank God for giving me a second chance at life, because it was definitely a miracle that I survived that," Ah Mow-Santos said during a phone interview from Athens. "As for a lesson learned, I'll live life to the fullest, and never take it for granted. If something happy comes my way, there's no thinking about it, it'll just happen."

Happenstance is how she met husband Niobel Santos halfway around the world in Vicenza, Italy. She was playing for Metodo Minetti Vicenza and Santos was stationed in the same city. They were married six months later.

Ah Mow-Santos played through the first trimester of her pregnancy before taking a break to give birth to son Jordan Nohili Ah Mow-Santos in Feb. 2003. Two weeks later, Niobel Santos' unit was activated for duty in Iraq, where he stayed for eight months. Ah Mow-Santos became an avid CNN watcher and scoured the news for her husband.

"I didn't let anyone else change the channel," said Ah Mow-Santos, who admits it was difficult to care for Jordan alone. "I wrote every day and sent things out just so he'd still know that we love him. He'd call once in a while.

"When I left for Colorado 3 1/2 months after Jordan was born, it was hell. I missed both of them. I couldn't watch the news as much because I had practice, but when I wasn't practicing it was all about the news. It was hard not to think of him."

Being so far from a loved one at war has softened Ah Mow-Santos. So too has Jordan.

Olympic teammate Heather Bown says motherhood makes Ah Mow-Santos' emotional side much more visible than before. Teammates know which buttons they can push and don't have to guess what she's thinking.

"She will express herself more now than she used to," said Bown, Ah Mow-Santos' former UH teammate. "She'll tear up and stuff like that, where she would never before do that. She was very hard. ... She's softened up a lot.

"It's really neat to see the transitions in life. Being a mom is good for her. It's changed her a lot, but she's still a fantastic setter."

Hawaii coach Dave Shoji says that his All-American has come the farthest in communication. Her setting was always solid and several best-setter awards (2001 Grand Prix, 2001 and 2003 NORCECA Zone Championships) prove that.

Shoji marvels at Ah Mow's ability to truly see the block commit before dishing the ball. It is a talent that takes most international setters years to develop.

"Most setters have to look at the ball a lot earlier," said Shoji, who saw her compete last year in an international match. "She can take her eye off the ball and actually look across the net. That's something that just separates the great setters from the good setters. Rarely does anybody accomplish that skill early in their career or in their college career.

"She just has complete control. She can put the ball on a dime left, middle or back. Once she gets into position, the actual delivery of the ball is almost automatic."

What isn't automatic is Ah Mow-Santos' patience. But Jordan has helped mom with that, and there's no bad day he can't brighten.

"I feel so guilty because I'm not around to watch him do everything little baby boys do," said Ah Mow-Santos, who talks to Jordan at least once a day while he stays with his grandparents in Honolulu.

"But when I do talk to him, it feels so good. It could turn any bad day into a sweet day just by hearing his voice. Especially when he laughs, it's the cutest sound ever.

"Sometimes I keep asking myself, 'Is this worth it? Is all of this worth it being away from him?' And then I say, 'Well, he'll be proud of me when he's old enough to know why I did it.' "

Her teammates already know why Ah Mow-Santos isn't with Jordan. It's a sacrifice of significance that adds to the U.S. quest for medal success.

"She understands what we have and what we're capable of," Bown said. "She's taken this opportunity knowing that it's going to be hard. ... She's here with us, so that lets us know how important it is to her. It kind of gives it a little more meaning for everybody else too."

It definitely isn't a choice that everyone can make.

"It's incredible," said Robyn's mother, Lovina. "I'm not sure if it was me (that) I would be able to go through too much of that. For me, it's incredible because that's a huge sacrifice.

"You can never bring back what you miss (in a child's early years). She's missing out on a lot, but at the same time she knows that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's an opportunity that's going to factor on her future."

Right now the focus is on the present. The U.S. is fresh from a sweep of Cuba, (the gold medalist in the last three Olympics) in the bronze-medal match of the Grand Prix. The team arrived in Athens on Monday and left for a training camp on a Greek island. The team returns to the Olympic Village on Tuesday with a very realistic chance of improving on its showing in Sydney.

The No. 2-ranked U.S. doesn't have an easy path, with world No. 1 China, Cuba, four-time gold medalist Russia, Dominican Republic and Germany in its pool. But the team returns six players from the 2000 Olympics and has built chemistry around that nucleus.

"Our expectations are very high," Ah Mow-Santos said. "We are going for the gold and that's what we all want -- nothing less. I don't want to say we'll settle for just a medal, because that's not what the team has worked for.

"It will be a tough road, but who said winning a gold medal was easy."

At least she'll only be worried about one guy in her family during the Olympics. Niobel is back in America and stationed in Fort Carson (Colo.) and now the roles have reversed.

"He keeps telling me to watch out and be careful, and make sure you don't walk around by yourself," Ah Mow-Santos said. "But we're here now and it's been very good so far. They have informed us that they are doing everything they can to keep us safe, so I'm just going to trust them."



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