Past meets present in the BYU women’s volleyball program

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The BYU women’s volleyball program has claimed over 26 conference titles, including this season’s West Coast Conference championship, with several Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four appearances in the NCAA tournament.

The women’s volleyball program has been a solidly established team for over four decades and is progressively moving forward.

Charlene Johnson Whitted and Michele Fellows Lewis go up for a block. Both former student athletes were inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame. (BYU Photo)
Charlene Johnson Whitted and Michele Fellows Lewis go up for a block. Both former student-athletes were inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame. (BYU Photo)

The program also has a legacy of elite athletes, with connections from the past reuniting in the present day. Assistant coach Charlene Johnson Whitted is a former student-athlete who played for BYU from 1991 to 1994. Charlene played with Michele Fellows Lewis who played from 1990 to 1993 and now coaches Michele’s daughter, Emily Lewis.

Charlene considers Michele to be one of her best friends and is thrilled to be coaching Emily, a 6-foot-4-inch freshman outside hitter.

“You know, it’s neat and kind of a weird thought,” Charlene said. “I played with Michele and now I’m coaching her daughter. It’s fun to be a coach and it’s good that Michele liked me, because her daughter likes me. It’s just great being able to coach one of my best friend’s daughters.”

Charlene and Michele’s friendship started several years before attending BYU. The two spent four years of their adolescence playing on the same volleyball club team in Las Vegas. Eventually they both made their way to BYU and helped the team appear in the Final Four in 1993. Charlene, Michele and their teammates took BYU to another level of success.

Charlene played as a setter for BYU and was named an All-American, Conference Player of the Year in 1994 and set several career records that are among the highest the program has ever had.

Michele was also named an All-American and the 1993 Conference Player of the Year. She made 1,190 kills over the course of her career as the team’s middle blocker and outside hitter.

The relationship between a setter and the hitters on the court is vital to the team’s offensive success. Charlene strongly feels that her success as a setter largely comes from Michele’s strong front-row abilities.

Charlene Johnson Whitted sets Michele Fellows Lewis. Both were vital in helping BYU make it to the Final Four in 1993. (BYU Photo)
Charlene Johnson Whitted sets Michele Fellows Lewis. Both were vital in helping BYU make it to the Final Four in 1993. (BYU Photo)

“She was always a go-to player for me,” Charlene said. “She made me better than what I was because she could hit any set that was anywhere and I just loved playing with her.”

Michele feels Charlene was an incredible athlete on their team and blessed her daughter is learning from her former teammate and Olympian.

“She’s extremely gifted and to put onto of that, an extremely hard worker, and what you get is an Olympian,” Michele said. “Charlene is so fun to play with, very respectful to all her teammates and a team player. She’s an incredible person.”

Both Charlene and Michele were inducted to the BYU Hall of Fame. The two remained close throughout the years when their time at BYU came to an end. Now their paths are crossing again with Charlene coaching Emily.

“I just felt so much excitement when I learned that Char was coming [to BYU],” Emily said. “She’s like an aunt, because she and my mom are so close. I knew my mom was excited. So having Char back in Utah, back at BYU, when I heard about the change, I was really excited.”

While the mother-daughter duo are similar in personality, Charlene sees differences in their volleyball skills and abilities. But it’s Charlene’s honesty and willingness to help that both Michele and Emily are most grateful for.

“I feel so lucky that she’s coaching my daughter,” Michele said. “Charlene knows the game and she’s willing to help anyone however she can. She’s very professional and there’s no favoritism. She’s honest with Emily and that’s what we’d both want! It’s such a great situation, we feel very lucky.”

Emily has spent her first season cheering her teammates from the sidelines. The legacy of her mother is motivation for her and helps her push through difficulty. She knows her mother was running sprints and playing on the very court she walks on every day. It drives her to work hard and look toward the future.

“It means a lot to me that she left a good legacy, big shoes to fill,” Emily said. “I realize that with this year, I have to be patient. But I’m excited to just work hard.”

The BYU program has consistently progressed over the years, but Charlene and Michele have noticed similarities and differences among the student athletes. The libero position is a new addition to the game of volleyball since they played. There are more substitutions now at the college level. Today the athletes receive more specialized training and are stronger.

There is one additional consistency within the BYU program itself: volleyball should come third in the student athlete’s life.

“Our number one goal here on our list of who we are is we have to be spiritually strong first,” Emily said. “I just thought that was amazing from day one, that no other school in the country would say you have to get your spiritual self right, and then school and then volleyball. I appreciated it so much and took it to heart.”

The coaches weren’t just focused on building a nationally ranked team or the number one team in the nation. They were focused on building their athletes into great people. Lewis remembers her own coach, Elaine Michaelis, and has high regards for the current head coach, Heather Olmstead.

“She would coach us off the field as much as on the field,” Michele said. “Volleyball was third and I feel like that’s the same way. Heather Olmstead, she is obviously doing a great job. She’s very intelligent in every way, especially with volleyball. She knows her stuff and my daughter loves playing for her.”

The current women’s volleyball team is well on their way to continue the success they’ve had. BYU claimed the WCC Championship this season and will be playing in the Sweet 16 game on Dec. 11 against No. 4 Nebraska in Lexington, Kentucky. Just like the athletes before them, the team will continue making their mark both on and off the court.

 

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