HERMOSA BEACH, California — It sounds awful, to tell you the truth.

Eight hours a day in a gym in Beijing, China. A country you’ve never been to, on a contract you signed because it was the lone offer you had. Only American on your team. Not a lick of English spoken. But hey, at least you know your favorite Chinese food is orange chicken! Not that it matters. Most hours of the day, waking and often otherwise, are spent in the sports hall. You eat there. Nap there. Work there.

It’s the type of environment that might break a 22-year-old coming off one of the best individual NCAA seasons in the country. But Kelsey Robinson Cook was not your typical 22-year-old. She isn’t your typical anything.

She is, on the contrary, the type of athlete that loves this stuff. Long days in the gym? Rep after rep after rep?

“Thousands of reps,” she says on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

She hasn’t yet experienced the cushy life of the Italian League. Hasn’t yet played for a coach in Puerto Rico whose only rule is to not come into the gym with sand on your feet. Hasn’t been given the rundown of a proper contract negotiation, where you can ask for things, limit your hours, where you can “really,” she says, “make it a beautiful experience.”

But her preference then is a raw beauty, the type you might see in a Rocky movie. Those long and grinding hours in the gym, making the micro improvements that only she can see and feel. Maybe her stat line will show it as an outside hitter on Beijing BAIC Motor. Maybe not. But she knows. She’s always known.

Those reps will one day be the difference.

They always have been.

“I just came from a very rigorous childhood as far as sports go,” Robinson Cook said. “I played at a club that was very militaristic and demanding in a lot of ways and for me it was always a choice. My parents never forced it upon me, I always wanted to be there. I have been a gym rat since I was a little kid. I was there from 3 to 11 and waking up at 5 to go to tournaments on the weekends. From the very beginning of my career professionally, I wasn’t able to separate volleyball as my identity and that’s who I was. I think that passion and work ethic have carried me a long way.”

There have been a pair of paradoxical motifs throughout Robinson Cook’s life: An indomitable will to win, and a vexing dose of self-doubt that has made winning an inevitability. The first word she points to when describing an 11-year career laden with gold medals, historic firsts, and lavished with accolades? Luck. The second? Work.

“I attribute my career to really being lucky,” she said. “I work really hard, but sometimes it’s truly just somebody who sees what you could be and chooses you. I owe a lot of that to Karch [Kiraly] because he did that for me.”

There is some truth that to achieve something that will be remembered in history books, luck often plays a role. But luck would have long run its course by now. And though Robinson Cook mentions that Kiraly, the head coach of the USA National Team, took a flier on the outside hitter from Nebraska, it was no stroke of providence that hers was a name he knew.

John Cook made sure of that. Her coach at Nebraska — and now family after she married his nephew, Brian, whom she met when they were both playing professionally in Italy — knew that Robinson Cook has a gift for many things. Self-promotion is not one of them. He’d tried to get Robinson Cook to play for him all four years at Nebraska. He only had the chance for one after she played her first three seasons at Tennessee and then became the Big Ten player of the year as a senior.

“The reason she told me she didn’t come to Nebraska was because she didn’t think she could play here,” Cook told Husker.com in May of 2017.

It was at once a lack of faith in her abilities and also, somewhat paradoxically, an unbridled confidence in herself that led her to begin her career instead at Tennessee, then an unproven program, a blank slate upon which Robinson Cook could author her own legacy and that of the team.

“I could see myself helping shape the program and it was important to me to play as a freshman. I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to do that at Nebraska because I wasn’t really a big time recruit,” she said. “I had a lot of great opportunities but it wasn’t like ‘She’s going to be everything.’ I wanted that chance to develop and work hard.”

Develop? Work hard? She did that and more. All-SEC as a freshman. Conference Player of the Year as a sophomore, the first Volunteer to ever claim that honor. SEC leader in double-doubles as a junior. When things began to go south in Knoxville and she tinkered with the notion of transferring, there were no hard feelings from John Cook about being spurned the first time around. She was good enough for him then. She was more than good enough for his program now.

Even then, with a resume already getting lengthy, her going to Nebraska had little to do with her aspirations in a gym. When Robinson Cook was a senior in 2013, Volleyball TV was still a decade away from being built. She couldn’t pull up the Italian League on her phone, or stream Nations League matches on her laptop. The only notion that a path to playing professionally came every four years, during the Summer Olympic Games.

She was more interested in beach.

“The only thing that stuck out to me was Misty [May-Treanor] and Kerri [Walsh Jennings],” Robinson Cook said, referencing the pair who had just won a third consecutive gold medal at the London Olympics. “When I got to Nebraska, I still wasn’t in that mindset of thinking I was going to go pro. I was thinking I’m going to play beach.”

There is little doubting she would have been elite on the sand. But Robinson Cook’s potential in a gym was obvious, proven, measurable. It was here and now, making her a finalist for the Honda Award. And besides: It was May-Treanor herself who recommended that Robinson Cook go indoors first, make some money. The beach would always be there. Cook helped ensure indoor would be, too. He placed a call to Kiraly, informing him of Robinson Cook’s talent and work ethic. So no, it wasn’t luck at all, or Kiraly taking a blind chance on Robinson Cook, that she found herself in the USA national team gym in the summer of 2014.

Robinson Cook earned that luck all on her own.

“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.”

She made the team, had her eyes opened to a world she was only just realizing existed: Life as a professional volleyball player. But because she was so late to the scene, the only contract she was offered was in Beijing. And because she was so new, a rookie’s rookie, she still had no idea what the life of a professional volleyball player looked like.

Those long days in the Beijing sports hall, the ones that would turn many athletes to the beach or an office back home, are not the norm, something she would find out soon enough. But they were little slices of masochistic heaven to someone like Robinson Cook.

“I just thought this is what it is, this is how we do it,” she said. “I’m just going to show up, work hard.”

It’s those days in China that she credits as forming the backbone of her game as a professional. Her improvement was such that she made the USA roster and won a World Championship. She has since added three Nations League golds and two Olympic medals. Her right arm was the fulcrum of a USA team that, in 2021, claimed the first Olympic gold in the country’s history. Individually, she has laid claim to every accolade an outside hitter could want — MVP of the Italian League, Best Outside Hitter in the Champions League, Best Outside Hitter of the FIVB Grand Prix and the World Cup and the World Championship.

That “show up, work hard” mentality has led her to success on clubs everywhere from China to Puerto Rico to Italy to Türkiye to Japan and back to China and Italy again. It has molded the culture within the USA National Team gym, where she has been described by teammates and coaches as “fiery,” a “fireball,” and, amongst other descriptors of intense heat, “a little spark.”

“When you play with Kelsey, there’s no doubt that she is going to compete,” former libero Kayla Banwarth told the Chicago Union-Tribune. “She is going to bring everything she’s got.”

She does this because, for Robinson Cook, what would be the point of doing anything less?

And under the eye of Kiraly, what other choice does anyone in the USA gym have?

The women’s national team is as deep and talented as it has ever been. There are dozens of supremely gifted women vying for just 12 spots. A healthy tension, iron sharpening iron, shaping the Americans into the No. 2 team in the world, behind only Türikye. But tension nonetheless.

“The environment that we live in is very difficult. You’re competing for a spot with some of your best friends and in 11 years I’ve seen so much heartbreak,” Robinson Cook said. “Some days are good, some days are bad. There’s years where you want to quit and you keep asking yourself why do you want to do this, why do you keep showing up? But what I’ve learned is you have to understand why you’re doing it. It might be different from person to person to person, but why am I stepping into this gym? Why am I competing? Why am I choosing that? At the end of the day, it’s one person’s choice. Our coach decides either you’re on this team or you’re not.

“I know that I might have my heart broken but I’m OK with that because I’m going to show up for me and I’m going to compete with passion and joy, those are the things that fill me up. I’m OK that one day it might break me. That’s something I try to instill in other people. You have to do it for you. Ultimately, you showing up and your fullest self is going to infiltrate this team the best way.

“In team sports it can be hard because you can get wrapped up in we’re not meeting the standard, we’re not doing this well, this person didn’t run that ball down, they’re not giving effort. The more you get caught up in that stuff, you can really spiral and that just takes you out of your own performance. Something I live by every day is that it starts with me. Not me saying you need to do that or that was good, but it starts with me in terms of how I compete, how I show up, how hard I go for every point because eventually people will get on my back and we’ll go together. That’s how I approach every day.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here