Feature | Volleyball

Kathryn Plummer aims to make volleyball history

The 21-year-old is the only player to have won FIVB medals in indoor and beach competitions. She's now looking to emulate USA head coach Karch Kiraly who won Olympic gold in both disciplines

By Rory Jiwani ·

Kathryn Plummer has lofty ambitions in the world of volleyball.

At 21 and standing 2.01m tall, the California native is the only player in history to win FIVB World Championship medals in both beach and indoor volleyball - taking gold at the 2014 Beach U17 Worlds, and then silver and the 2015 U17 Worlds.

Before that, she helped Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May Treanor prepare for London 2012 where the American duo completed a hat-trick of Olympic triumphs.

After leading Stanford University to a third NCAA title in four years in December, Plummer joined Italian team Monza where she has quickly made her presence felt.

Plummer already has senior experience with the US national team and was part of the squad which won a third straight Pan American Cup in Peru last July.

Now the outside hitter is hoping to make the cut for Tokyo 2020 as she starts her bid to do what no woman has achieved - Olympic medals in both indoor and beach volleyball.

Only one man has done it - USA head coach Karch Kiraly who is also her volleyball idol.

Olympic Channel spoke to Plummer who flew home to California before Italy went into lockdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak earlier this month.

Kathryn Plummer's goal to match coach Karch Kiraly

USA women's head coach Kiraly is the only volleyball player to win Olympic ...

Olympic Channel: How are you coping during the Coronavirus outbreak?

Kathryn Plummer: I am doing well! I am still in self-quarantine at home, but it is great to spend some time with family.

I have asked my trainers, both from Stanford and from Monza, to send me workouts to do at home, so I am doing those. I am also doing workouts with my brother (Kristian) and going on a lot of long walks with my mom and brother.

OC: How did you fall in love with volleyball?

KP: I started playing a bunch of different sports when I was younger. I played basketball, soccer, softball, baseball…all of the sort of Americanised sports that are really popular. Then my brother started to play volleyball. That was when men’s volleyball wasn’t that big.

In California it has always been bigger than other states, but it wasn’t like the thing to do. I just watched him play and he’s been my role model growing up so whatever he was doing I wanted to do, so that’s how I started to fall in love. My life became a life out of a volleyball gym for almost 11 years now.

OC: What have been your biggest achievements so far?

KP: The biggest achievement that I treasure for indoor volleyball, would rather be gong to the Pan-American Games last summer or playing in college for Stanford and winning three national championships.

I think the Pan-American Games is just an honour to be able to be with those girls, experience that. It's like an Olympic-style setting, like the village, a dining hall where all the athletes go and stuff like that. That was a really fun experience and that’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Playing for Stanford is something most people can’t do, and to be able to do it with my best friends, and play volleyball at an institution where I'm also geting a great education that will help me throughout my whole life, I think that was really important for me. And to be able to have success in volleyball, I think that was like the cherry on top.

For beach, I would say winning the bronze in 2017 with my partner Mima Mirkovic at the U21 World Championships. That was just a really fun tournament. We had won bronze the year before and so to win it again was awesome. I think I’m the only person to have won an FIVB medal in both indoor and beach volleyball so I think that's just pretty cool.

OC: How do you manage to juggle the two disciplines?

I don’t necessarily do that anymore, because I’m playing professionally indoor overseas. But when I was playing indoor and beach at the same time religiously, it was just fun for me. Any volleyball that I was playing was just fun.

I would be at the beach an hour and half away from my house and then scramble and drive an hour and a half in traffic to get back and practise for indoor. That was kind of my life for six, seven years, just going back and forth.

I think it was just super-beneficial in my growth because you learn different things in each discipline and it makes you better in each one, I think. For beach volleyball, for instance, you have to be good at everything, you have to learn how to pass, you have to learn how to set, you have to learn how to score. And then in indoor you can bring these things over and learn how to score in different ways, so I just think it was super-beneficial.

Kathryn Plummer (C) gets ready to make a block for Monza

OC: What are your short-term and long-term goals?

KP: My short-term goal, and it’s a long-term goal also, would be to compete for a spot in the Olympic team for the U.S. I’m going to try for Tokyo, and then try for Paris, so we’ll see what happens with that. But also in between playing with the national team, I’m going to play overseas and so I just want to keep getting better. That’s always the long-term goal, just keep getting better, and then be able to establish myself and have a great career, and then to be able eventually to stop and have a family. I want to be able to get myself on the right foot with that.

I think I want to have an indoor career first. I don’t know for how long that would be, but then after I’ll be done with indoor, I’m thinking about transitioning to the beach and seeing what I can do there too.

OC: Your national team coach Karch Kiraly won Olympic gold both in indoor (1984, 1988) and beach volleyball (1996). Why do you look up to him?

KP: I admire Karch he’s a great volleyball player, he’s one of the legends of volleyball. And he’s the only person to win a gold medal in both indoor volleyball and beach volleyball at the Olympics.

When I first started volleyball, I said, "I want to do that, I want to be the first woman to do that." So that’s kind of why I started to play indoor and beach volleyball at the same time, trying to figure out, trying to balance both of those, because eventually I want to be able to play both, and be really successful at both.

OC: What advice has been giving you?

KP: His advice is just to keep working hard and to dream really big. I have a hat in my room from him, he signed it and it says: ‘Keep dreaming big’. I think those goals that I have are really hard to achieve, but I just keep working hard for them, and trying to achieve them in little increments. I think having those big dreams, those big goals can come to fruition.

USA head coach Karch Kiraly at the 2017 FIVB World Grand Prix Finals in Nanjing, China

OC: What made you move to play in Italy?

KP: I wanted to come to Italy because it’s one of the best leagues in the world and I wanted to challenge myself. I just wanted to keep getting better to hopefully earn a spot on the Olympic roster one day.

I just wanted to be surrounded by people that are some of the best volleyball players in the world and I wanted to learn a different culture and experience something new, because other countries are very similar to America, I would say, and Italy is not one of those countries. So I wanted to embrace it and just throw myself at it wholeheartedly, and see what I could do and get better. I’ve already seen myself improve in different aspects of my game.

OC: How’s life in Italy?

KP: It’s definitely a big culture shock. Italy is very different than America, but in a good way because I’m learning new things. I’ve started to learn a little bit of the language, like I ask my teammates: ‘How do you say this?’ Because I want to know and I want to fully immerse myself in this because I don’t know if I’ll be there again.

I think embracing the culture is a very valuable thing. I’ve found a lot of cutie little cafes that I enjoy, I am a big fan of the cappuccino now, some espresso, but being away is hard, like my family, my friends, being away from them is very difficult. But I’m making new friends and it’s just fun to explore a new country and just be able to experience a different culture.

Kathryn Plummer (L) celebrates a point with her Monza team-mates

OC: What are the main differences between pro volleyball and college volleyball?

KP: In the U.S., in college, sometimes you can get by with not having the greatest match but still coming out with a win. That happened with our team a couple of times. We recognised that we didn’t play our best, but we still managed to pull out a win. But I think overseas on any given day, anyone can win. The people at the bottom of the Italian league, they are still very very competitive.

You have to bring your best any given game because anyone can beat anyone. I think that's what we've definitely learned as team is that you have to bring 110% every game, because if you let off, people can capitalise on that.

OC: Many other elite athletes, like Kerri Walsh Jennings, Katie Ledecky and Kate Courtney, come from Stanford. What’s the secret of your university?

KP: I think at Stanford the balance is the most important thing. So having a great education and being some of the top athletes in the country and in the world, this is kind of ingrained as soon as we step into campus.

School comes first and if you are working hard in the classroom, probably you’re going to be working hard in your sport as well, because that’s like your characteristics. If you put your best effort out there, you’re usually going to come out successful.

OC: Who are the players that inspired you growing up?

KP: Some of the players that inspired me, from the U.S., are Clayton Stanley, Matt Anderson and from the women’s team Ogonna Nnamani. Just having someone to look up to, especially in America, they're great role models to have and they are very approachable which makes it fun because you can ask some questions.

Ogonna Nnamani went to Stanford, so I’ve had some conversations with her, just about her experiences. She went to the Olympics when she was still in college so she had a little bit of a different path than me. So it’s just been good to have those connections.

Matt Anderson (blue) playing for the United States against Poland at Rio 2016

OC: What makes you unique as a player?

KP: I’m very tall, but I think I can do what most tall women can’t do - I can pass, I can play defence, I can set. I started my volleyball career as a setter actually and I played all up until college as a setter. I think that comes from beach, I just had to learn how to do a lot of things. So that makes me unique in that I can do a lot of different things. Whatever my team needs me to do, I’ll try to do it at my best.

OC: What skills can you transfer from indoor to beach and vice-versa?

KP: In beach, you have to learn how to pass, because it’s either you or your partner that's going to get served, so you can’t really hide, you’re very exposed. So you need to learn how to pass at high level. And then be able to set your partner how they want it and be able to get feedback, because it’s just you and your partner.

I think indoor has helped me with beach too in that indoor is six versus six and you've got to learn how to score with six people on the court, and then beach is only two. So if you can learn how to score with six, you can probably learn how to score with two people. So it’s a very back-and-forth thing where I learned a lot from each discipline.

OC: How physically intense are both disciplines?

KP: Beach volleyball is just different. There’s elements, there’s sand, so you definitely need to have a different level of fitness just because the sand is a different from than the hard court.

Indoor, in professional, girls hit the ball a lot harder than in college or in youth, I think that has been an adjustment, they are a lot bigger, they have a better technique and the list can go on and on. So you have to just be able to adapt at a really quick rate because if you don’t learn fast, you are not going to be able to play. So I've learned that just keeping the ball really high and not having to hit the ball as hard as you can every time because people are expecting that so if I can mix in things that I've learned in beach, I think that's a good balance.

Kathryn Plummer hits a spike for Monza

OC: What's impressed or surprised you most since playing in Italy?

KP: I think I was most surprised at how high the girls hit the ball, because you see on TV people bouncing the ball in volleyball and most of the time that doesn’t really work. So you have to keep the ball really high, you have to hit the ball really deep. I think that’s super-impressive because if you can hit over or through a really established block with a bunch of girls that are big and tall and be able to find ways in the court to score where defenders aren’t, that’s really impressive. So they’re hitting like deep corners and deep down the line and it’s really hard to play defence behind that.

OC: Tell us about your love for basketball...

KP: I’m still an avid basketball fan. I go to a basketball game when I can, I’m watching it on TV, I’m definitely a fan of Stanford basketball, NBA is great, WNBA is awesome.

One of my favourite players is Tim Duncan, played for the Spurs. I kind of grew up watching him, ‘cause my mum really liked him so that’s really where my love for the Spurs came from. I’ve met other basketball players but never him. He’s one of my idols.

Kobe Bryant was one of my idols. I actually had the privilege to meet him a couple of times because his daughter played volleyball and I was in the gym when he was there. We had some conversations and he was an awesome guy.