During a Thanksgiving dinner back in November 2018, then United Volleyball Club (UVC) open hitter Kalei Mau ran into PBA player and Gilas Pilipinas mainstay Gabe Norwood and some of his friends as they celebrated the holiday. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, Mau took a photo of her and Gabe before sending it to her childhood friend and fellow Hawaiian Alohi Robins-Hardy.
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At the time Robins-Hardy was in the midst of her first year playing professional volleyball in Serbia before she got the text from Mau asking if she had Filipino lineage—which she did. Since Mau is a longtime friend, Robins-Hardy decided to take a chance in the Philippines after her stint ended in Europe. She joined Mau and UVC in February of this year for the Philippine Superliga (PSL) Grand Prix. Mau wanted her buddy by her side to help bolster the team after a disappointing performance in the 2018 PSL All-Filipino Conference. UVC finished with just one win in six matches and missed out on the playoffs.
Unfortunately, UVC folded right after the conclusion of the 2019 PSL Grand Prix after finishing with seven wins and seven losses. After Cocolife withdrew its sponsorship of the team, management was unable to find a new financial backer. This ultimately led to Mau and Robins-Hardy signing with F2 Logistics and Cignal, respectively.
Even playing for different clubs, it was like the volleyball heavens just could not keep them apart. After their split from UVC, Kalei’s F2 Logistics Cargo Movers would meet Alohi’s Cignal HD Spikers in the finals of the 2019 PSL All-Filipino. Though Kalei wound up getting the better end as she won the title, MVP, and best scorer award, Alohi also flourished in her new setting as she won Best Setter.
But how did the two get into volleyball in the first place?
Tyler-Marie Kalei Mau used to be a soccer player all the way to high school until she stumbled upon volleyball when she was 16. Coached by Robins-Hardy’s uncle in St. Francis School in Hawaii, Mau used the sport as her vehicle to play in NCAA Division—a goal of many young American athletes—as she played for the University of Arizona.
This led to her getting offers to play professionally abroad, playing in such countries as Puerto Rico and France. But disaster struck when Mau injured her hitting arm and suffered a completely torn shoulder, requiring surgery and intense rehab.
She didn’t see herself coming back to the sport until some time in the middle of 2018, when Shawna-Lei Santos, a Fil-Hawaiian setter who has played for several PSL teams got in touch with her and told her about the Philippines.
“She said ‘Since you’re Filipino they’ll take care of you and they’ll even shoulder the cost if you sign with a team here.’ At that moment it was too good to be true,” Mau shares.
She was still going through an identity crisis, even trying out coaching as a way to stay connected to the sport. But she realized that going out with an injury is never the way an athlete wants to end a career. She needs to finish what she started.
Robins-Hardy on the other hand, was born and bred in the sport, starting as early as four years old. She also played high school volleyball before moving on to Brigham Young University where she played from 2014 to 2017. She also played basketball in her first two years in college. Before coming over this year, she’s seen her fair share of collegiate USA teams and professional leagues in Europe such as Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia.
“Competition levels are super high in the States compared to just playing against the same people every single weekend in Hawaii. It was fun to go out and compete with different teams, see how other states competed. I loved going on summer trips to the mainland because it’s a different area we weren’t used to,” reflects the 6-foot-2 setter.
“I was in the Pac-12, and she was in the West Coast Conference so we jumped on a plane every other week," Mau adds. "Sometimes we would go from one state to another and then back to our home state and then out again. Schedules were crazy. But I wouldn’t change that for the world. That really helped us become stronger athletes mentally.”
Having each other
These six-footers are grateful they got each other in their home away from Hawaii. Mau says that having Alohi around as a ‘breath of fresh air’ that let her loosen up a little. “Culture here is much more conservative and quiet. But with her, I could be myself—super aggressive, loud, crazy! She understood. Being here was the longest I went without being homesick because Alohi was here,” Mau says.
Robins-Hardy couldn’t agree more as she cited how similar Filipinos and Hawaiians actually are.
“Filipinos and Hawaiians have somewhat of a same culture as far as being family-driven and respectful. Respecting your elders is a huge thing here and at home," she says. "That’s why it feels like home out here. Even more when you have another Hawaiian like Kalei."
With both having had more than enough experiences of the sport from all over, they quickly saw what made Philippine volleyball stand out from the rest, and are proud to play a part in helping develop that further.
“What I love here is that everyone’s super scrappy for every ball. Not letting one drop on the floor. Just having a lot of heart. A lot of passion," Robins-Hardy says. "That’s why rallies here last longer. You really have to be in shape.”
Both Hawaiians were quick to add that if Hawaii had a pro league that had all their former collegiate athletes, it would actually be similar to what the Philippines has. Simply because the style played here is similar to how Hawaii does it, too.
“If you go there and you just jump into one of the high school club practices, you’ll see little Dawn Macandilis and Kath Arados. Hitters like Alyssa Valdez, who just gets up and rips balls. Sisi Rondinas. You can find those there. That’s what people don’t know. And they’re Filipino too,” Mau explains.
The 24-year-old actually dreams of having a mentorship program in the future to tell people about the Philippines and the volleyball opportunities available here.
“There’s a lot of girls who want to play Division 1 NCAA. Growing up our biggest goal in our minds is to be a Division 1 NCAA collegiate athlete. Instead of making the bench of D1 programs that’s never going to use you and just make their bench deeper, I’d say come here and be the next Alyssa Valdez! Or be like the Santiago sisters!” she says emphatically.
With cousin Gabe Norwood being the only relative she knows around here, Robins-Hardy isn’t shy to express her love for him and his family. Their relationship has definitely grown since she moved out here and they have been her go-to on her off-days.
“Just being able to go to his games and them coming to mine has been huge. I appreciate them getting out. Being able to bond with his kids and his boys like Chris Ross, Sol Mercado, Joe DeVance and Simon Enciso have helped, too. I love them to death,” she says.
Mau on the other hand, has always had to find a way to get her family to watch the games, which she admits is quite difficult due to the time difference. The fam doesn’t stay up late to be able to catch them, so the best she could do is retell the story to them. You could just imagine the euphoria she felt when her dad and grandma came out to support her in the 2019 PSL All-Filipino finals, watching her live bag that title and MVP award.
“For them to be here, it was unexplainable. They went home now and are retelling everyone about it. When we won it I just blanked everyone out and zoned in on them at the moment. It was crazy. I was blessed to have them watch me.”
As both of them aim to bring their own distinct contribution to the national team—Mau says its her energy while Robins-Hardy says its her defense—both players were also honest to admit that volleyball cannot be forever.
In 10 years, Robins-Hardy sees herself out of the playing business and into coaching. Maybe go back to Hawaii and start teaching young players. Mau, on the other hand, has a few ideas up her sleeve. “Maybe in 10 years we’ll both be moms who are professional beach volleyball players killing it in the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals)!”
Five seconds later she retracts. “I wanna be a singer! A pop star! Music’s my passion. I can also be a personal trainer or nutritionist. But if not, then maybe a life coach. I want to open a health and wellness center with a little café in the corner called ‘Café Lei’ where I’ll be making smoothie bowls and stuff.”
National team troubles
Given their respective spectacular individual performances at the PSL, both players were invited to try out and join the pool of the National Team, the main goal of which was the Southeast Asian Games this month. Mau's scoring prowess and Robins-Hardy's cool-as-ice decision-making—packaged in two-six-foot frames—might have been a game changer against our regional rivals.
Both have journeyed with a select pool of local players as they underwent intense training abroad in countries like Thailand and Japan. They have also joined different mini-leagues such as the ASEAN Grand Prix, helping our Filipina volleyball players get podium finishes.
Then the setbacks started. In September, six-foot-five NT veteran Jaja Santiago apparently had to withdraw from SEAG duties because of her commitments to her Japanese League Team. Robins-Hardy followed suit the next month, following some issues she had securing a Philippine passport.
The latest and perhaps biggest blow came this month as Mau was taken out of the NT by failing to secure clearance from the United States Volleyball Association to play for the Philippines. The open spiker also did not meet the two-year residency required by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) for an athlete requesting to change Federation.
This a disappointing development for fans who were hoping to see the Fil-Hawiian swing away alongside Alyssa Valdez against the three other participating nations. Now, with the games only a few weeks away, the NT must now adjust without the big gun in their roster.
Only time will tell when both players will get to suit up for the national team. Mau knows for certain that her Filipino volleyball journey is not over yet.
"It’s my passion for the game that has brought to where I am today and nothing and no one can take that away from me," she says in her twitter account. "No matter what jersey I have on, I’ll always play for this country."