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Volleyball Legends Inducted Into SMC Sports Hall of Fame  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

April 1, 2011 -- Sometimes talent really does run in the family, and nowhere is that more apparent than among the Satos, volleyball stars who've racked up an impressive tally of Olympic gold and bronze medals, along with championship wins in the sport's top international tournaments.

Three siblings from the local family were inducted into Santa Monica College's Sports Hall of Fame Thursday, after Gary and Liane Sato spoke to more than 100 students who wanted to know all about the Olympians' success-filled careers.

At a luncheon in honor of Gary, Liane and Eric Sato, College President Chui L. Tsang gave them his “heartfelt congratulations.”

“I feel like this is family affair,” said Tsang.

Gary, Liane and Eric Sato at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
Photograph Courtesy of Bruce Smith, Santa Monica College

Noting that Gary had attended SMC in the 70's, Tsang asked him “How come you look so young?”

“One of my sisters was in the cosmetology department,” Gary was quick to answer to appreciative laughter.

The Satos have had close ties to SMC since their early days.

The Sato youngsters used to play volleyball across the street from the college at the John Adams Middle School gym, where their mother, Elissa, sent them after they were finished with their homework.

“Sports is what kept them clean, kept them on the straight path,” Elissa said. The family often went to the beach and played volleyball together. “They had to have a ball. No TV,” she said.

When Gary went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, “we used to pack up the van and go see his games,” sister Liane said.

“(Liane) had to be a volleyball player since all of her four brothers played,” Anna Collier, chair of the Kinesiology and Athletics Department said. Collier added that Liane was the setter, or the “brains” of the family team.

Brother Gary was the first to take competitive volleyball seriously when he was in high school. Initially, he had played baseball and football, but he found that volleyball was more exciting.

“Volleyball is action-packed,” Gary said. “When we've got a team on the ropes, you can see it in their eyes.”

After high school, Gary attended SMC three times – first to get the credits he needed to transfer to UCSB, then to pick up credits while he was attending Pepperdine.

He took a break while he coached the U.S. Men's Volleyball teams to Olympic Gold and Bronze Medal wins before returning to SMC for the third time to pick up prerequisites for his education in chiropracty – he's now Dr. Gary Sato.

He has since rejoined the staff of the national team and is now coaching them in Anaheim in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics.

Olympic Bronze Medalist Liane taught for a time at SMC, and now is a coach and physical education teacher at Santa Monica High School. Under her direction, the SAMOHI boys volleyball team won the southern section California Interscholastic Federation championship in 2006.

Eric, the youngest, known during his days as an Olympian as the best defensive specialist in the world, competed with the gold medal winning team in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and returned with the team to win bronze in the 1992 Barcelona games. Although inducted into the SMC Sports Hall of Fame with Liane and Gary, he was unable to attend the ceremony.

What was it like to compete in the Olympics, the students who questioned Gary and Liane Thursday wanted to know.

“The volleyball part was fun, winning was really fun, but being there with my family was the best,” Liane answered.

“The hair on the back of your neck just tingles” coming into the arena when the crowd cheers, Gary said of the opening ceremonies. “We went a little crazy...It's really fatiguing, but you can't rob the athletes of the experience.”

And then there were the after-parties.

“After we won the Olympics, we got to go to the White House,” Liane said. In 1992, the reception on the White House lawn got rained out, so the athletes had to move inside.

“We were running around, going into the rooms we weren't supposed to...putting our feet up on the desks,” she remembered with a laugh.

“Do you still like to go to the beach to play,” a student wondered.

Liane, who played professional beach volleyball before the Olympics, said she still likes to play exhibition games with celebrities for Team Paul Mitchell.

“I play on the beach as much as I can,” Gary said. He plays at the Sand and Sea Club – “It's a rough crowd,” he joked.

The Satos join a growing roster of distinguished Santa Monica College athletes, including Olympians Tommie Smith (runner), Lenny Krayzelburg (swimmer) and Johnny Gray (track and field).

“Mr. Volleyball,” E. B. de Groot is also a member of the SMC Sports Hall of Fame. De Groot was instrumental in getting volleyball recognized as an Olympic sport, and led the Santa Monica College men's team to four straight USVBA Collegiate Championships from 1961 to 1964.


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