Janet Kalaniuvalu left the mountains for the ocean. All the way from Orem, Utah, the young woman is spiking through life—on and off the court. With her passion and drive, she is unstoppable. Her first love was football, but now she commands the court as she plays volleyball for the Miami Hurricanes.
Football runs in Janet Kalaniuvalu’s family. It was only natural for her admiration of the sport to turn into more than just something she enjoyed from the sidelines. Kalaniuvalu recalls her uncle Lewis Powell, a coach at the University of Utah, sneaking her into football camp, handing her shoulder pads and telling her “Here’s some pads, just go.” It was that simple.
As a young girl, Kalaniuvalu ran the field calling plays and throwing touchdowns. With pads and a helmet on, she blended right in with the boys. So much so that when her helmet came off, shock could be seen on the faces of her male teammates. Kalaniuvalu was destined to stand out. But not on the field—the court.
As she grew older, the reality of Kalaniuvalu playing football was out of the picture because of her gender. She was heartbroken, but she could not stay away from sports. In the seventh grade, she traded in the shoulder pads for knee pads and started her volleyball career. Growing up in Orem, Utah, a town 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City, she attended Mountain Valley High school, where she was known as the volleyball team captain and “boogie robot”—a nickname she garnered from a childhood email address.
Her parents were always strict, telling her to “go to school, go to college and hopefully earn a scholarship to play college volleyball,” she said. And she did just that and accepted a scholarship to Southern Utah University to play college volleyball. In that moment, Southern Utah University was a good fit, especially because it was only 223 miles away from her family’s home. However, she needed to push herself more, especially when it came to her sport. She decided to trade the snowy mountain tops for the warm blue ocean and transferred to the University of Miami, 2,481 miles away from her home.
This was a big change. Not only for Kalaniuvalu, but also for her greatest treasure, her family. Her and her siblings are extremely close. Each time Kalaniuvalu returns home to Utah, she goes back to her first flame—football—tackling each of her siblings, one by one. The Kalaniuvalu family has many traditions surrounding football, specifically on Thanksgiving. They host a Turkey Bowl and enjoy a good old game of classic American football.
She notes that the biggest lesson she has learned from her siblings is the concept of unconditional love. “No matter how much we’ve argued or all the crap that we went through growing up as kids, even being apart from them, I’ve learned that they’ll always love me, and I’ll always love them and be able to take care of them,” she said.
Kalaniuvalu has a special bond with her younger sister, Teisa. Not only are they the only girl siblings, but they also played high school volleyball together. In fact, Kalaniuvalu is the reason why Teisa played volleyball in the first place. In the middle of her season at Southern Utah University, Kalaniuvalu drove four hours for Teisa’s high school senior volleyball night. “I watched her walk through the doors and I started crying, even though it wasn’t a big deal,” said Teisa. “But she just knows what’s important to people and she pulled through for me that time because she knew that her presence mattered. She found a way to get there for me.”
Today, Kalaniuvalu is an outside hitter on UM’s volleyball team. “I wouldn’t say that she has changed,” Teisa shared. “I think that her opportunities have definitely gotten bigger. And her chances at playing sports at an even higher level have gotten bigger.”
Reflecting on her time at UM, she said, “I just think I’ve matured a lot. She expressed how easy it is to get distracted in college environments but says she has become more focused on her future. And because of that, she feels that her volleyball skills improved. The advertising student is still deciding what her plans are after college and if playing professional volleyball will be in her future. “It’s been one of my goals for so long that I can’t really see myself not doing it, even if it’s just for a little bit,” Kalaniuvalu said.
Kalaniuvalu views playing volleyball as a blessing. The journey of getting to play the game she loves was not easy. From day one, she said, her father instilled the definition of hard work and she has made it an expectation of herself to make her family proud. “My family is my biggest motivator,” she said. “They just have worked really hard, so that I could even have the opportunity to play volleyball,” she said. At five years old, Kalaniuvalu had a flaming passion, relentless drive and wanted to be the first girl to play in the NFL. Today, she continues to embody that energy and proudly represents the Kalaniuvalu name just this time with knee pads instead of shoulder pads.
words._lauren mokhtarzadeh. photo_um athletics. design_giselle spicer.