Kristin Hildebrand: Spike in camaraderie

Kristin Hildebrand says the thing she cherishes most about volleyball is her relationships with her teammates. AP Photo

Kristin Richards Hildebrand says she has memories of volleyball talk dating back practically to before she could walk.

"Growing up, my parents would talk a lot about their days playing volleyball for BYU," said Hildebrand, who grew up in Orem, Utah. "I remember old photos of my mom playing back in the '60s in what looked like a one-piece swimsuit and heard a lot of stories about my dad traveling across the country playing for the national team."

Even after their playing days were over, Hildebrand's parents remained deeply involved in the sport. Her mom, Lori Richards, coached at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), and her dad, Dave Richards, helped organize camps around the state.

"My love for volleyball began when we were tagging along with my mom to the gym when she was coaching," said the U.S. national team outside hitter, who is looking to lift coach Karch Kiraly's team to the title this week at the season-ending FIVB Volleyball Women's World Grand Champions Cup in Japan.

"My sister and I were little gym rats. Starting at 5 years old, we would be in the gym for hours tossing the ball back and forth."

The young Hildebrand couldn't get enough, and playtime wasn't contained to the gym.

"At home we had a volleyball net out back where we would play," she said. "And I'm pretty sure we broke a few lamps inside when we were supposed to be outside."

Having always looked up to her sister, Lauren, who was two years her elder and went on to play at BYU, it was a natural choice to follow her into the club league.

"She was my hero," Hildebrand said. "I chose volleyball over other sports because I wanted to play with her."

Soon she developed other important relationships with her teammates, which helped build the foundation for a longstanding devotion to the game.

"As I got older, I understood what a special sport it is because of the team aspect," she said. "Every season, from the time I was 8 years old through high school, Stanford, and beyond, I always fell in love with my team.

"The camaraderie is amazing. All my best friends are from volleyball, and they were the ones standing next to me when I got married."

It also was volleyball that brought her together with her husband, Tyler Hildebrand, who is a former member of the U.S. men's national team and now an assistant men's coach at Long Beach State.

Volleyball has taken her around the world and back -- playing professionally in Turkey, Italy, Russia and Brazil -- but she still says what she loves most about the game is her ever-growing community of current and former teammates.

"I think the way you get to compete alongside your teammates is unique in volleyball," she said. "I feel very blessed to be able to live the life I do and make a living playing the sport I love."