Krista Vansant's accomplishments on the court have helped her become one of the most recognizable people around collegiate volleyball, but now her mission is centered around coaching.
After her first season as assistant coach of IU volleyball, Vansant will have the opportunity to coach some of the NCAA's top athletes while improving her own coaching skills.
Vansant will help coach Team USA’s National Collegiate Team in May during the team’s Japan Tour. To get to this point, Vansant had to put aside her love for playing to pursue a new path in the sport.
Krista Vansant missed prom. She thought about college before most of her peers thought about getting a driver’s license. She constantly has a smile on her face, but she has also spent many nights crying with her mom.
Many of her friends in Southern California did not understand the recruiting process she dealt with each day, yet some still questioned the decision she made to attend the University of Washington in 2011.
“My peers in high school were like ‘You’re so dumb. You can go to UCLA, what are you doing?’” Vansant said. “It was really challenging to me. I felt like I was being judged all the time.”
But those friends with hindsight can see where they might have been better suited to keep those thoughts to themselves.
While she turned down top volleyball programs like Penn State and StanfordUniversity, Vansant found a home in Seattle.
As a junior, Vansant was named the 2013 American Volleyball Coaches Association National Player of the Year and won the same honors from ESPNW her senior season. She is the all-time kills leader at Washington, and those people who judged soon became notifications on Vansant’s phone again.
“It was definitely a hard decision and people didn’t really understand it for a long time until I got there,” Vansant said. “Then I would get messages from high school kids — I wouldn’t call them friends — but high school peers being like ‘Oh, I see why you went there.’”
The decision to attend Washington came after a recruiting process that began early in middle school. Vansant said each visit to each school made her want to commit, but thankfully her mom Tricia Vansant was there to help keep her patient.
Her mom was also there to help her balance the hardships of making such a big decision.
“It provided a lot of pressure,” Tricia said. “She was so young that had she been a little older, it would have been a bit easier for her.”
“It was a very overwhelming process for me,” Krista said. “People think that when you get recruited at a really young age, life is great.”
While Krista said much of her social life growing up was “normal teenage kid stuff,” most of her days were spent in a cycle of school, practice, homework and sleep. Tricia played basketball at Loyola Marymount University in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, but Krista never got into the sport because she would constantly foul out.
Krista began playing club volleyball when she was 8, but the grind of becoming the nation’s best collegiate player started much sooner.
“We taught her how to use her volleyball arms when she was 2,” Tricia said. “It was definitely her passion, and she was lucky that her passion and her talent matched up.”
Jim McLaughlin, who was the coach at Washington at the time, wrote Krista a 12-page document listing how she would benefit from being at Washington and how her four years could play out with the team.
McLaughlin came through on most of his promises, and when Krista's career at Washington ended, she was able to continue playing professionally in Switzerland. However, the style of play did not fit Krista, and she decided to quit playing after less than a year.
“Krista has always been the happy-go-lucky, just go-with-the-flow type of person, but when she was over there, she was miserable,” Tricia said. “It was really hard being her mom knowing that she was struggling.”
That’s when Krista decided she would look to take her knowledge of the sport and put it to use as a coach. During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Vansant returned to Washington as a program assistant.
“It’s been a good transition,” Krista said. “I enjoy myself every day. I still get to be around the game and watch a ton of it on TV.”
Krista's return to Washington included a surprise — or at least what was supposed to be a surprise. The Huskies decided to retire the No. 16 Vansant jersey on Nov. 8, 2017. But Krista was close friends with the director of operations Bobbi Sumpter.
“She is not very good at keeping secrets,” Krista said. “She told me, and I was blown away. I was completely shocked.”
Krista's jersey joined Courtney Thompson’s No. 3 jersey as the only ones retired in program history. Before the ceremony, Krista had to give a speech at an event with donors and teammates where she promised herself that she would keep her emotions in check.
“I’m not gonna cry. I’ll be all right,” Krista recalls telling herself ahead of the day.
That promise was short-lived as Washington Coach Keegan Cook’s speech before Krista's made her cry.
“It was Keegan’s fault,” Krista said.
Tricia cried when she walked into the arena earlier in the day and saw the black cloth in the rafters that had the No. 16 jersey underneath it.
“Even just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes,” Tricia said. “It was just so surreal that she was able to do something so big, and they acknowledged it.”
A month after the jersey retirement, Krista made the trip to Kansas City, Kansas, for the women’s volleyball Final Four where she expressed her interest in coaching to Steve Aird.
They established a relationship throughout their careers thanks to mutual friends and competition.
The Final Four was a familiar setting for the both of them, as Aird was an assistant coach for Penn State when the team defeated Washington in the 2013 semifinals. The following season they faced off again in Aird’s first season as head coach of a struggling Maryland team. Krista was able to win that battle.
“She was an absolute nightmare to try to defend,” Aird said. “As a coach, someone that kept you up at night.”
Less than two weeks after the Final Four, Aird was named the head coach of IU volleyball. Adding Krista to the staff was a no-doubter for Aird, and she was named an assistant coach less than a month later.
“She understands the game. She trained at the highest level,” Aird said. “Making the transition to coaching volleyball is difficult and sometimes can be frustrating for elite players because certain things don’t come as easy to other people.”
Krista has always considered herself “one of the boys” and developed a close bond with Aird and fellow assistant coach Daniel Gwitt on and off the court.
Aird’s mission at Indiana, a program that went 1-19 in Big Ten play the season before he was hired, was to establish more than a competitive team. Instead, he wanted to establish a fun culture at IU that has rarely been seen around the volleyball program.
“I’m learning how to run a business,” Krista said. “That’s not something I was anticipating getting into, but I’ve definitely bought into it.”
In her first season coaching IU, the team went 7-13 in conference play and contended for a postseason spot until the final week of play. Aird said Krista's success as a player helped her as a coach, but it was the hardships she went through that made her a coach the players could relate and look up to.
Krista has also racked up miles in the air by frequently going on recruiting trips or spending time with potential transfers. It’s a part of the game she isn’t used to, but Aird has seen her become a strong piece in bringing in quality players — especially from the west coast.
“In the Pacific Northwest, she’s a legend,” Aird said. “The number one thing is being authentic and being true to who you are, and she does a great job of that."
In Japan, Krista will be working under Heather Olmstead, who coached Brigham Young University to a Final Four last season.
She said she will treat the experience as a chance to develop skills from other great coaches and look to use that in her second season with the Hoosiers.
“Being able to represent not only the U.S., but IU on that stage is going to be really cool,” Krista said.
The Big Ten will still be the nation’s toughest conference when she comes back, but it will continue to be an opportunity for her and her staff to turn around a struggling program in impressive fashion.
Her peers have doubted her before, and many people doubt that IU will ever rise to the top in such a difficult conference.
It will just be another chance for her to make people swallow their words.