RIO DE JANEIRO – Each night, Kayla Banwarth would pack lunch for the next day, lay out her clothes and set an alarm to be out the door by 5 a.m.
The U.S. volleyball player spent about five months this year working as a volunteer assistant coach for the men's team at Pepperdine University. She worked under Karch Kiraly's former Olympic coach and current confidante, Marv Dunphy, and American assistant David Hunt.
The commitment made for a hectic schedule. Banwarth began her day with a 60-mile commute at the crack of dawn from Orange County to get to campus before rush hour. After Pepperdine practice, she would immediately return to Anaheim to work out with the national team — spending up to two hours on the court with Kiraly each day and hitting the weight room afterward four times a week.
As the U.S. women chase their first Olympic gold medal, Banwarth believes she's all the better for having coached. She and the top-ranked Americans were preparing to face Serbia on Wednesday with a chance to improve to 3-0 and make the quarterfinals. Serbia upset the U.S. in five sets at last year's World Cup in Japan, forcing the Americans to qualify for the Rio Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, in January.
"I for sure think if you coach it helps you be a better player," Banwarth said. "I've been more mindful how I am technically on the court. I think it's helped me be a little bit more strategic seeing it from a coach's perspective, kind of what works and what doesn't work and maybe finding more solutions in a faster way."
On all those long drives, she would listen to popular podcasts like "Serial." Bedtime was 8:30 most nights — if she wasn't driving home from matches late, that is.
"It was very busy, for about five months," said Banwarth, the Americans' starting back row specialist since 2013, when she was the U.S. women's most improved indoor player. "I had it figured out after about five months."
The 27-year-old Banwarth studied video, scouted other teams, helped plan practice and learned from some accomplished coaches. Dunphy guided Kiraly and the 1988 U.S. indoor team to a gold medal in Seoul.
At first, Banwarth and Hunt had joked about the idea of her helping at Pepperdine. But she also stayed home from playing overseas for a second straight year so it made sense to keep her hand in volleyball while also preparing for the Rio Games.
"It was a growing and a process that forced her to organize her time better. She's said she's really out of it in the mornings so she would have to really plan out her day the night before," Kiraly said. "It just forced her, or coaxed her, into becoming even more professional in terms of having these other obligations, being responsible for another program, understanding the game from a coaching standpoint. There were lots of really good things she benefited from that experience. She's become more mature."
Dunphy has been around volleyball for so many decades he is a good judge of talent, and he appreciated what his college players gained from watching a woman he considers right up there with the best in the world at receiving serve.
"It was great for us to have somebody of her stature," Dunphy said. "As I'm around these Olympicgames, I hear announcers say things and coaches say things, 'Oh, the best in the world' every match, 'that player's the best server in the world.' It's thrown around too loosely. But receiving serve as a passer, I don't think there's anybody better than her. Our players at Pepperdine knew that when she would say something it held water and very seldom did she demonstrate but there would be a couple times we would give her a workout, and it was like, 'Oooh, she's nailing every one of those.'"
Banwarth and Hunt have been able to draw off the things they learned in college and with the national team.
"It was cool to be able to coach her in this then have those same coaching conversations with her," Hunt said. "Coaching's more than technique. It's a lot of interpersonal, getting a vibe of how somebody's doing to help them be their best. It was cool to see that."