Kaleo Kanahele Maclay: Be the bar

Kaleo Kanahele Maclay has been a key figure in Team USA's victories in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Kaleo Kanahele Maclay has been a key figure in Team USA's victories in London 2012 and Rio 2016.

The USA sitting volleyball star looks to defend their gold title at the Paralympic Games in 2021 but also stretches herself in other arenas 

If you ask Kaleo Kanahele Maclay about her experiences in both London 2012 and Rio 2016, the American sitting volleyball player - who is considered one of the best setters in the world - would say two opposite things.

“Going into the London Games - I was 16 at the time - I was just happy to be there, excited to experience the Games without tons of pressure on me to perform,” Maclay, told Tokyo 2020, before adding, "[but] in Rio at 20-years-old, it was the complete opposite. I had one goal and it was [to win] gold. I felt a lot of pressure, but I knew that we were a team with the commitment, dedication and skill to win the gold."

However different those Paralympic Games experiences are for Maclay, on both occasions the US team went on to win medals, a silver at the London 2012 Games and finally their first gold at Rio 2016, which ended People’s Republic of China’s unbeaten streak at the Paralympics.

That victory had been a long time coming for Maclay who has been at the roster of Team USA ever since she was 14.

“I was so proud of all the work we had put in as a team to get to that gold medal match, and that match was a beautiful performance and a true example of all of the work and dedication we had put in as a team,” the now 24-year-old athlete said.

Kaleo Kanahele Maclay got her no. 14 jersey when she made her first international competition at 14-years-old.
Kaleo Kanahele Maclay got her no. 14 jersey when she made her first international competition at 14-years-old.
Courtesy of USA Volleyball

Becoming a world-class athlete

Maclay is now enjoying a stellar career in Team USA’s sitting volleyball team – in a sport that has become one of the most popular events in the Paralympic programme, and one that continues to capture the hearts of new fans around the world.

Her success, however has been laid out ever since she was young.

“I don’t remember life before sports to be honest! I started in gymnastics, then ballet which didn’t last long, then basketball, then softball and volleyball was actually the last sport I got into. It sounds dramatic, but sports didn’t just change my life, they were my life (and still are!),” she said.

But among all the sports she took part in, it was volleyball that truly clicked for the American, who was born with an impairment (club foot). At age nine to 10 years-old, she joined a club named Oklahama Peak Performance to play [standing] volleyball.

Then serendipity played its part.

Bill Hamiter, head coach of the national sitting volleyball team, was involved with the same club and spotted the young star-in-the-making. Hamiter got her started with the Para sport at age 12 and the rest as they say is history.

“My first international competition was when I was 14-years-old. It was World [Para Volley] and it is why my jersey number is 14! Fun fact."

Sitting volleyball player Kaleo Kanahele Maclay poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sitting volleyball player Kaleo Kanahele Maclay poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

That first international competition would only be one of the many firsts. She helped Team USA capture three World Para Volleyballs silvers (2010, 2014, 2018), 2019 Parapan American Games gold and 2019 World ParaVolley World Super 6 gold, where she was chosen Most Valuable Player and Best Setter.

“She probably has the best technique of any setter in the world. She also has an exceptional IQ for reading the game, trying to know where the blockers are at, where I need to take this set to make sure that we can attack more efficiently against the defense or against the blocking scheme,” Hamiter described Maclay in an interview for WOW Paralympics.

But when it comes to being called the best setter in the world – and also one of the most consistent servers – Maclay still thinks of herself as a work in progress.

“I am so honoured that when people think of me that’s what they say! It’s a great reminder because I don’t always feel that way — although I know I am a good server, consistency is actually on my list of things to work on," the no 14 player said.

“I tend to be very critical on myself because I believe I can be better than I currently am, but I know how hard I’ve worked to get to where I am. So when those things are said about me it makes me smile knowing that my hard work is being seen.”

Motherhood and other ventures

Sitting volleyball is not the only place that Maclay wants to make her mark.

Knowing that the unpredictable nature of sports could impact an athlete’s career or end it, Maclay wanted to look at life beyond sports.

That gave birth to a new passion: a cookie decorating business; Cookies with Kaleo along with a coffee, bakery and flower shop called Flower and Flour which she opened in Oklahoma, where she resides.

“My husband (Matthew) oversees the coffee aspect, our business partner (Kelly) oversees the floral aspect and I oversee the bakery! I call the pastries my labour of love, they are some of my favourite recipes and now I get to share them with every customer who walks through the door,” the American Para athlete said.

On top of all this, Maclay is also a mum.

“I am a mum to the coolest three-year-old on the planet!," she proudly said.

And how does she juggle an elite career, her business ventures and raising a family?

“I get asked this question a lot on how I juggle them all."

"The best way for me to explain it is for me to be wherever I am while I’m there. If I’m in the parenting role with Duke, I do my best to be present and be with him, when I’m at the shop baking or running the business, I do my best to be present there. Same if I am at practice, I choose to focus only on being at practice.

"I think as people we tend to spend a lot of time invested in thinking about what’s next and not enough time of being where we are.”

The sacrifice of time is something that Maclay has done to be at her best in all aspects of her life - from being a mum, to a businesswoman and as an elite athlete.

"[It] has always made me thankful for the time I’m with my family and time I’m on the court. Since time is the sacrifice it encourages me to make that sacrifice worth it. If I’m going to be away from my family I go into each practice or each match more intentional when I remember what I have sacrificed to be in that moment."

To be a person who wears many hats, Maclay takes inspiration from the women from Team USA, whom are doing equally amazing things like her.

"Each of my teammates are doing incredible things, like Nicky [Nieves] she has her own non-profit organisation, Katie [Hollyway] has been incredibly involved in the Paralympics getting equal pay, Heather is an incredible coach to the club I used to play for, Whitney & Bethany both own small businesses as well!

"I’m so thankful for my team, I have grown up with most of my teammates — they’ve watched me grow and become the person I am and I have watched them grow and become the people they are. It is an incredible honour to be a part of this team and play along side this amazing group of women!"

All for one in Tokyo

However present Maclay may be for all her business ventures and her family, this year 2021 requires her to be as focussed as ever with the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games, where USA aim not only to defend their title but to confirm their status as the world’s best.

With Team USA already qualified for a spot for Tokyo 2020, thanks to the silver medal at the 2018 World Championships, the final roster have yet to be announced but Maclay is almost a sure shoe-in for the squad.

“Our goal for Tokyo 2020 is Gold! There is of course a road map to get there, but that is goal insight and I can’t wait!," the athlete. who will be 25-years-old come Games time, said.

Whilst training took a backseat last year with most of them working out individually at their homes, Maclay is now grateful that they can get back together as a team.

“Being back into full time training is the most motivating, I love being on the court with my team and we have a 'Countdown to Tokyo' on our board that we look at everyday. As the numbers get lower it becomes more surreal and is major motivation,” she added.

Maclay and the rest of Team USA are aiming for their second gold at the Paralympic Games.
Maclay and the rest of Team USA are aiming for their second gold at the Paralympic Games.

And is she looking forward to another showdown with their rivals People’s Republic of China come Games time?

Maclay says Tokyo 2020 will be different.

“The rivalry has shifted for us since the Rio Games, we’ve gained the perspective that our biggest rivalry is with ourselves — meaning we have worn the title of no.1 in the world with honour. We want to be the team to beat, and the only way we stay that way is if we are the bar to beat,” Maclay said.

'Be the bar' has become their team motto, which according to the Maclay helps them to push each other to be the best version of themselves.

“[After Rio, our coach] went on to share about 'becoming the giant' and the idea that now we are the team to beat and how we can go forward while other teams may be chasing to beat us — how we can be the best team that we can. It has really stuck with me and moulded how our team has operated post-Rio and into Tokyo 2020.”

With no rivals to combat with other than themselves and with Maclay at the helm, Team USA are in it to win in - aiming at another shot at Paralympic glory for a chance to declare themselves as the true giants of the sport.

Team USA's sitting volleyball team at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

Team USA's sitting volleyball team smashed their way into victory against the People's Republic of China during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Watch Team USA and world's best sitting volleyball teams in action from 27 August to 5 September at Makuhari Messe Hall A.

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