Match point hits the hardwood, and the City College volleyball team lines up for postgame handshakes across the net. It’s a loss for the Panthers inside the North gym at City College.
It’s a deflating, yet familiar feeling for these 2017 Panthers. The team has struggled this season through a 6-18 record as of Oct. 30, with a league standing of three wins and eight losses.
For coach Laurie Nash and her players, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Stringing together losses is not something these women want to get used to.
The net comes down, and Nash addresses her team briefly before they’re dismissed. One player emerges from the huddle to receive hugs from her two biggest fans. They don’t care about the win-loss record, or how the Panthers compare with last year’s team.
They just come to support their favorite player: “Good job, Mom.”
Suddenly, Maiko Nelson forgets about losing volleyball games as she’s showered with love from her children.
Nelson is not your typical freshman. The defensive specialist is 38, competing alongside women half her age on the City College volleyball team — and she is a mother of two.
Nelson, an interior design major, took Nash’s off-season volleyball class last spring, which is usually reserved for members of the team to get some off-season conditioning. Eventually, she earned a spot on the City roster in the fall.
Upon entering the spring class, Nash knew there was something familiar about Nelson.
“Her son went to school with my son at the same elementary school for four years in a row,” says Nash. “I would see her once in awhile, just as a mom.”
It was a “small world” moment, but Nelson traveled across the globe to get to where she is now.
Her hometown of Fukuoka, Japan, has a population of nearly 1.5 million. Sacramento, by comparison, hosts just about 500,000 residents. Fukuoka is located about 100 miles northeast of Nagasaki, on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu island. It’s a city known for its gourmet ramen, elegant cherry blossoms, modern shopping malls and ancient castle ruins.
Nelson originally came to America when she was 14, as an exchange student in North Carolina.
“I came to America because I wanted to experience a different culture and open up my limitations,” says Nelson. “It was difficult sometimes. It was amazingly interesting to know a different culture. This experience made me grow as a person.”
She returned to America at age 18 and has been here since. She studied at both California State University, East Bay, and the California Culinary Academy. She married her husband Sam, a local chef in Midtown Sacramento, 13 years ago. They have two children: Peter, 13, and Hannah, 11.
Nelson, whose full-time job is teaching at the Japanese Buddhist Church of Sacramento, has always been involved in sports. She played volleyball and softball in Japan, and in recent years, she has taken up tennis and golf. During one of her final years in Japan, she suffered a broken leg playing volleyball. She thought she would never play competitively again.
“I regretted that experience for a long time,” says Nelson. “I wanted to try to play again before I am too old.”
Nearly 20 years later, she’s kept that dream alive at City College. Not only is she a contributing member of the 10-person roster, some of her teammates say she is the team’s hardest worker.
“It’s crazy to have someone like that on our team,” said sophomore captain Alexis Tomlinson. “She’s super fit. She beats all of us (in conditioning). She kills us; it’s ridiculous.”
Her work ethic comes with battle scars. On the surface is a bruised chin from diving on the floor, trying to keep a play alive. Not visible are bruised ribs, which didn’t stop her from playing a recent game, according to Nash.
“She gives the most effort,” said Nash. “She doesn’t know any other way. She just goes for it, and I think the girls look up to her.”
Nelson says she stays conditioned to keep up with the younger players by maintaining a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and quality proteins. She also says that regularly stretching helps with her flexibility.
But the physical aspects are not the only areas where Nelson excels; it’s also her mental approach to be willing to learn and understand her role on the team.
“She’s like a sponge,” says freshman outside hitter Gianna Bell. “She takes everything in and she rolls with it. She’s always pushing and always working hard.”
Between being a teammate, a teacher, a student, a mother and a wife, Nelson’s life is a constant juggling act.
“It is tough,” she says. “But thanks to the support and understanding of my husband and my kids, I am able to have my life.”
Nelson wears many hats, but on the volleyball team, she’s just one of the girls.
For more info on SCC volleyball, visit sccpanthers.losrios.edu/sports/wvball.