Twists of Fate

It's something that everyone can relate to. There are those little twists of fate that lead us off the beaten path. Upon reaching that other place, we sometimes experience success beyond our most vivid dreams. Such is the case with UW volleyball player, Hawaiian-born Ashley "Smashers" Aratani.

"Hawaii is really not that big of a place," said Aratani recently. "Everybody kind of knows everybody. I grew up loving volleyball. What made me want to play was watching the University of Hawaii's volleyball team. In Hawaii, we don't have any professional sports, so volleyball is a really big sport there. When I was younger, my parents would take me to the games and stuff, and there would always be a really big crowd. I would always think `this is so cool!' I always thought how awesome it would be to play in an environment like that."

She was a star at Lolani high school-- but before she knew it she was seventeen years old and contemplating her academic future. Her path was soon to cross with the U-Dub.

"The funny thing is, I wasn't even sure if I wanted play volleyball in college," she said. "To the schools that I applied to, I sent out videotapes of me playing. I felt if there was any chance to play then that would be great. The University of Washington contacted me. Jim (McLaughlin) was one of the coaches that contacted me, and it has all worked out really well.

"I really liked Jim and the coaching staff, and what they had to say about the program," she said. "I also felt like there were great educational opportunities here. That's not to say that there aren't good opportunities at the University of Hawaii. But for me, it was best to go out of my comfort zone. Leaving home is a part of the college experience that everyone should try. But a lot of people have left Hawaii to attend to Washington, so I didn't think it would be that bad of a culture shock to come here. It has worked out so wonderfully."

To say it has been wonderful for Aratani is an understatement. During her sophomore season of 2005, the University of Washington won the national championship. Aratani was a key contributor who garnered the acclaim of Coach McLaughlin. The Huskies also became the first team in NCAA history to sweep every game in the tournament. Aratani was asked what made that team a champion, beyond the obvious element of talent.

"We all worked well with each other," she said. "Everyone knew their role, and everyone knew what they were supposed to do in order to make the team play at the highest level. Everyone on the team plays at a steady level. We have had a bunch of steady players. For example, in regards to serving, Jim said that against Nebraska (for the national championship) we missed only one serve for the entire match. Everybody was very focused. Everyone had one goal, and that was to win the Pac-10 and then win the national title. We stayed focused and kept winning and it culminated into a really great win."

Her junior campaign of 2006 was almost a repeat of the previous year's success. The Huskies went 29-5 and reached the Final Four for the second consecutive season. A nice side benefit arrived, in the form of a team trip to China this past summer. Aratani was asked about that experience.

"For one thing, it was really hot and humid there, because it was the summer," she said with a laugh. "But it was a really cool experience. We got to play against a couple of Chinese university teams. We won one and lost one. They were very friendly. We actually got to ride with one of the teams on their bus on the way back to their dorms. So we got to interact with them, with little Chinese phrases, and the little bit of Chinese that we knew.

"We also got to play the Chinese junior national team," she said. "We split two games with them, too. Their style of play is different. Some of those Chinese girls can really rip the ball. And they were very fast. Their offense was fast. I think that when you see American volleyball players, they have these really huge swings. But the Chinese girls, they just snap their wrist or something. They have these really fast and quick arm swings. So that makes it really difficult to defend against."

Aside from the games, Aratani was asked about China in general.

"They were really crazy drivers!" she said. "Pedestrians had no rights whatsoever. That was the crazy thing. I was always thinking that I was going to get hit by a car every time I crossed the street. But luckily that didn't happen. And the thing I enjoyed most was the shopping. It was about 8 Yen to the dollar. And the bargaining was fun. It was a bazaar kind of thing. Vendors were trying to sell fake Louis-Vuitton purses, jewelry and pirated DVDs. I almost bought an entire season of `Sex in the City', but I wasn't sure how well it would work once I got back home!"

And was there any aspect of Chinese society that made her long for the good ol' USA?

"Western toilets!" she said. "A lot of the places like restaurants and sightseeing places, they had toilets in the ground, like it was a squatting toilet. But the hotels had western toilets, so that was OK. But places like the Great Wall of China, they had squatting toilets."

This coming fall, the senior-to-be Aratani will be counted on to provide leadership for a Husky squad attempting to reach the Final Four for a third straight year. But in earning the respect and pride of her family back home, that was locked up long ago.

"My parents are very proud of me," she said. "My family is proud of me. When we won the national championship, my relatives on the big island, they were coming up to me saying `Where's your ring? We want to see your ring!' Another day, I went surfing with my friends, and there was this guy in the water. He said to me, `Do you play for U-Dub volleyball?' I was like, `yea.' He said, `I saw that you guys won! Congratulations!' I was like, `Oh, wow. That's weird, having somebody recognize me like that.'"

But have the paparazzi managed to plague the volleyball star known as Ashley "Smashers" Aratani?

"No!" she said with a giggle. "With my hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses, I've been able to keep them at bay."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories