She first made a name for herself in volleyball as a pre-teen in Japan. Tomo Nakanishi wound up earning first-team All-Ivy status four times and turned Brown into a League power.
For most athletes, the recruiting process begins some point in high school. If they are high school standouts, coaches may start contacting them as underclassmen.
Brown's Tomo Nakanishi, however, was first recruited at age 11, to play volleyball for a prestigious junior high school in Osaka, Japan.
The Nara, Japan, native had just been playing volleyball for about a year when she started in Osaka, but was immediately a standout for her talented team. She was named a captain on the team that won the Junior Olympic Cup.
But concentrating almost solely on volleyball for three years took its toll on Nakanishi and she needed a change.
"I felt that I had so much of volleyball already that I wanted to try something new," Nakanishi said. "Upon graduation from junior high school, I decided to attend high school in Connecticut."
Nakanishi attended Westover School, a small private girls' school in Middlebury, Conn. There she worked on her English and reenergized her attitude toward volleyball.
"At first English was definitely my struggle, but volleyball helped me make friends and overcome my time away from home," Nakanishi said. "When I played volleyball again in high school I realized how much I love the sport. The environment had changed and I realized that volleyball is something that I can be proud of and something I can represent myself with."
Nakanishi represented herself well with her volleyball skills at Westover and was recruited by many Division I schools. Her ultimate decision came down to where she could play competitive volleyball, but also concentrate on obtaining a quality education.
"As much as I wanted to play Division I volleyball, I also wanted to study at a prestigious college," Nakanishi said. "Among other Ivy League schools, Brown was the best fit for me in terms of academic freedom, size, location and most of all, volleyball potential."
Nakanishi's decision to attend Brown fit her needs and turned out to be a major boost for the Bears' program. The outside hitter made an immediate impact in her freshman season, leading the Bears' to a 5-2 record, tops that year along with Yale. With Nakanishi's help Brown had its first 20-win season since 1984 and its first post-season invitation. She was named first-team All-Ivy and earned Rookie of the Year honors.
Laden with injuries, the Bears struggled to a 2-5 League record in the 1997 season, but Nakanishi still earned first-team accolades for her play. But it was the 1998 season where the Bears and Nakanishi really made their mark.
Brown cruised through the League season undefeated for the first time in the school's history, taking the Ivy title, finishing with a 23-9 overall record and earning a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Bears were defeated by Hawaii, but had made their mark as a formidable force in the League.
While Nakanishi helped bring her team some national success, it was the competitiveness within the League that stood out most.
"I felt competitive playing against any of the Ivy League schools," Nakanishi said. "Players in the Ivy League were in the same position as I was... we all played volleyball for love of the sport and outside of volleyball we had to study hard as well."
And Nakanishi did study hard. As a Business Economics major, in 1999 she was named Academic All-Ivy, was awarded the USAA All-American Scholar Award and was an Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar.
While the Bears didn't repeat the success of the 1998 season, Nakanishi continued her dominance in her junior and senior seasons. The Ivy Player of the Year as a junior, she earned two more first-team All-Ivy honors, making her one of just four Ivy League athletes to have been named first-team all four years.
Nakanishi's impressive tenure with the Bears lives on today. She still holds the records for career kills (1,716) and digs (1,762) and in 2006 was inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame.
Since graduating in 2000, Nakanishi has returned to Japan, putting many of the skills she learned on the volleyball court to use in her professional life. She spent two years working for Denso Corporation — a Toyota group company, and one of the best automotive parts manufacturers in the world. Following that she returned to Nara to work for Yamato Trading Corp. She now exports Japanese construction machines throughout the world, using Japanese, English and sometimes Chinese in her work interactions.
"I can use my business negotiation skills to pursue customers," Nakanishi said. "Sports helped me in many ways in my career — I learned to work as a team and to understand other's feelings. And, most importantly, sports have helped me keep myself healthy even with a busy work schedule."
— Josi Carlson