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Sports

Former St. Francis standout Kelsey Robinson ready for shot at Olympic gold

The irony is not lost on Kelsey Robinson.

The former St. Francis volleyball star never won a state title in high school or a national championship in college.

But those disappointments likely will be a mere footnote on her resume by the time her playing career is done.

Robinson, a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team since 2014, is one of 12 players on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, which is a strong contender to win the gold medal in Rio. The opening ceremony will be broadcast on NBC at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 5.

“It’s kind of crazy how everything has worked out,” Robinson said. “As disappointing as it is not having won a state championship or a national championship, it’s helped me be resilient and know how to learn from the losses.”

Robinson, 24, hasn’t lost many games at any level.

St. Francis won the state title in 2006 when Robinson was a freshman, but she didn’t make the varsity team until the following year.

The Spartans went 106-15 in her three-year prep career but suffered three heart-breaking defeats in the playoffs. St. Francis lost to Crystal Lake Central in the state title game in 2007 and dropped supersectional games against eventual state champion Joliet Catholic in Robinson’s final two seasons.

St. Francis was one point away from beating Joliet Catholic in Robinson’s senior year, a loss legendary coach Peg Kopec called one of the toughest of her career. But Robinson’s time under Kopec was life-changing.

“Coach Kopec was just a strong advocate of being a strong female and believing in myself,” Robinson said. “That was something that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

“She’s such a builder of strong women, and she convinced me that if I worked harder than the person next to me, I was going to succeed.”

Robinson has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, becoming the first volleyball player from St. Francis to make the Olympic team. That is quite an achievement considering the Spartans won 1,238 games and 12 state titles under Kopec, who retired after last season as the winningest high school coach in Illinois history regardless of sport.

“I am just so happy for Kelsey,” Kopec said. “She’s worked so hard and it’s so important to her. It’s really wonderful to see a young woman’s dream come true.”

A 6-foot-2 outside hitter, Robinson was always a dominant attacker, but that’s not what sticks out in Kopec’s mind.

“Kelsey was young and exuberant, such a phenomenal, beautiful athlete who had fun,” Kopec said. “She made the team fun and did a good job of balancing her talent with having fun.”

Robinson played three years at Tennessee, where she was 2011 SEC Player of the Year (the first Tennessee player to earn the honor), before transferring to Nebraska for her senior season. After battling injuries early in her college career, she recovered to earn All-America honors at Nebraska before graduating in December 2013.

All the while she harbored a dream.

“I realized I wanted to be an Olympian when I was 12,” Robinson said. “Watching Kerri [Walsh] and Misty [May] and our indoor team, I was really inspired and wanted to be like them.

“Through college I thought I had a better chance with the beach team and I competed in the summers on the beach. Then when I got to Nebraska I got an invitation from the national team to play libero.”

It is rare to see a tall player in the back row, but Robinson is a terrific passer and was willing to play out of position when called upon. She helped the U.S. win the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) world championship in 2014 and finish third in 2015.

“I would do anything I had to help the team and get a chance to get on the court,” Robinson said.

When injuries sidelined two of the team’s outside hitters, Robinson got her chance and now is a starter. One of three outsides on the U.S. team, she will see plenty of action in Rio on offense and defense.

The top-ranked Americans open play against Puerto Rico.

“We’re looking to win gold,” Robinson said. “For me this is the fun part. I’ve put in three years of hard work trying to make a roster. Now this is the time to go out and let her rip.”

Kopec said anyone watching Robinson on TV is in for a treat.

“She is a phenomenal athlete and she is just a fun player to watch,” Kopec said. “Her dedication and passion shows and the camera goes to her.”

Asked what advice Robinson would give to younger players, she uses herself as an example.

“As cliché as it sounds, anyone can achieve the thing they want to if they’re willing to put in the time and hard work,” Robinson said. “You just have to know how to grind it out.

“A lot of people stop when they hit roadblocks, but you’ve just got to keep going.”

When to watch

Who: U.S. women’s volleyball

What: 2016 Rio Olympics tournament:

TV: NBC networks

Pool matches: 3:05 p.m. CST Aug. 6 vs. Puerto Rico; 1 p.m. Aug. 8 vs. Netherlands; 1 p.m. Aug. 10 vs. Serbia; 1 p.m. Aug. 12 vs. Italy; 3:05 p.m. Aug. 14 vs. China

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