The year was 2013. A highly-touted freshman opposite named Nikki Taylor, who was named to Volleyball Magazine’s 2013 Girls’ Fab 50, joined a University of Hawai’i women’s volleyball program that was coming off a stellar year in which it captured the Big West title with a perfect 18-0 mark in its first season back in the league. Little did she know at that time, three years later she would have a new love.....beach volleyball.
During her freshman campaign, Taylor, who saw action in all 30 matches with 26 starts, finished 10th in the conference with a .287 hitting percentage while averaging 2.70 kills per set and registered 81 total blocks. Her efforts earned her All-Big West First Team and All-Big West Freshman Team honors as well as AVCA All-Region Honorable Mention accolades.
At that time, she was approached by the coaching staff about the possibility of joining the newly-formed beach volleyball team. “I didn’t really decide I was going to play beach volleyball until the end of the fall season my freshman year,” stated Taylor. “I didn’t know anything about beach until I came to Hawai’i but I saw the various ways it could help improve me indoor game. I kinda looked at it as an enhancer to my indoor game.”
For someone who never played beach volleyball prior to her first year in college, the Honolulu, Hawai’i, native didn’t miss a step in the transition from indoor to beach. She played in the No. 2 position with teammate Katie Spieler where they posted a 35-13 record and advanced to the quarterfinals of the AVCA Pairs National Championship. Taylor also grabbed her first of two AVCA All-American accolades.
While her first year of beach volleyball was simply to help her indoor skill set, her second year played a more important role. During her sophomore indoor season she injured her elbow in her right arm while attempting a block. Instead of having surgery, she opted to play through the pain and then used the beach season to rehab her arm. Both Hawai’i indoor head Coach Dave Shoji and Taylor credit the 2015 beach season in helping her rehab the elbow injury and making her a stronger player this year.
“I definitely think it (beach season) helped me rebound from my injury,” commented Taylor. “When I first injured my elbow it was from blocking and the nice thing about playing beach is you don’t necessarily take as many hard hits, blocking wise, as you would in indoor. It allowed my elbow to relax and heal, while allowing me to still play volleyball at the same time so it was kinda the best of both worlds.”
And Taylor has the numbers to prove it. In the 2015 indoor season, Taylor was named Big West Player of the Year while also collecting five Big West Player of the Week honors and two National Player of the Week awards - AVCA/Sports Imports and ESPNW. She concluded the year with a league-leading 4.46 kills per set average and fourth in blocks with a 1.10 mark.
Her success has come with a lot of hard work. Since she took on beach volleyball her freshman season, she quickly turned from a one-sport athlete into a two-sport athlete which can by both physically and mentally exhausting.
“It is very hard because you literally get no time for physical rest,” Taylor explained. “We get around two weeks off for Christmas break then we go right into beach season so it is a really quick transition. Your body doesn’t get much time to heal from anything that may have happened from the season before.”
Taylor also talks about the challenges of balancing both teams. “You have your beach teammates and your indoor teammates and that clashes sometimes. It is sometimes hard to manage which sport is your priority because you are in season with beach but then my scholarship, which is a priority, comes from indoor. It is definitely something that is very challenging to balance out.”
Keeping up with academics as a Hawai’i student-athlete can be cumbersome with all the travel that is required. Then you add a second sport into the mix and you are traveling most of your entire academic year.
“Traveling is very hard,” reiterated Taylor. “We are traveling year round and don’t get a spring semester to catch up on our GPA per-say, that other teams might be able to do. Academically, you really have to stay on top of your studies and do your diligence in your studies which is something that gets easier as you get older and get more in a groove and know what to do to be a good student.”
All her dedication and hardwork has paid off as she led a nationally-ranked Rainbow Wahine team to its eighth Big West title with a perfect 16-0 mark. In the postseason, the Rainbow Wahine advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament after sweeping 2013 & 2014 national champion Penn State to become the first Big West school to advance to the regional finals since Long Beach State in 2001. She has her new-found love of beach volleyball to thank for some of that success.
“I had never played beach volleyball before coming to Hawai’i so I didn’t know I would fall in love with it as much as I have,” stated Taylor. “I think at that time I mainly used it as a tool to enhance my indoor game but now it has become a part of me.”