Elissa Sato, “part of our sport’s history,” who died last month at 84, left behind a tremendous volleyball legacy as the matriarch of the Sato clan that produced three Olympians, Gary, Eric, and Liane.
“For about five decades, I couldn’t go into a high school, club, NCAA, or USA gym, or the sand and not run into Mrs. Sato,” former USA Olympic and longtime Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy said. “She was helping the event by scoring, or one of her kids were playing, or one of her friends were coaching, it was a USA versus whoever, or it was a neat beach tournament.
“It seems like wherever I went, she was ahead of me. It was rare when I went to a gym and she wasn’t there.”
Gary Sato was an assistant coach on three Olympic teams and is in his fifth year as an assistant coach with the USC men’s volleyball team. Eric won an Olympic gold men’s medal in 1988 and a bronze in 1992 (Gary was an assistant with those teams). And sister Liane won an Olympic bronze medal in 1992 and also played on the 1988 USA Olympic team. Their father, Richard, died in October 2014.
Elissa Sato, who was born on November 16, 1935, in Honolulu, had three other children — Scott (who played at San Diego State), Glenn (who played at Loyola Marymount) and Tedi — and many grand-children who have made their mark in the sport.
“The best volleyball in America was played in the Sato’s backyard,” Dunphy said. “The whole crew, the parents, the kids all played, and they played at a pretty damn high level.”
Elissa is also survived by her sister Lynn and brother John, nine grand-chilidren (Andrew, Katie, Blossom, Katie, Sarah, Rachel, Malia, Max and Jackson), and one great grandchild (Dylan) with another on the way.
Elissa met Richard while playing volleyball at the asphalt volleyball courts near the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial. She worked at John Adams Middle School and Santa Monica high school as a teacher’s aide in the Special Education department.
“They were so passionate about supporting the kids,” Gary Sato said. “When I played at UC Santa Barbara, they would all jump in an old orange Ford Econoline van, all my brothers and sisters and neighbors would jump in the van, and head to Santa Barbara or wherever the game was.”
Eric recalled how supportive his parents were.
“A lot of parents these days are over-involved, helicopter-type parents. My parents weren’t toxic, they would support their kids and the coach and the program,” Eric said.
“I remember getting into the van on the ride home, and my parents would always say, ‘I thought you played well.’ They never really criticized us, criticized the team, or gave us advice. They just said, ‘I thought you guys played a great game, I enjoyed watching you play.’
“That just stood out. My parents never critiqued us. I think the only time my mom got mad at me was when I threw an f-bomb in high school. I sprained my ankle, and I threw an f-bomb. When we got in the car, she said something to me, and I think I probably had to walk home after that.”
Elissa was so vocal that Richard preferred to sit apart from her at matches.
“She was fiery. Just fiery,” Liane said. “You could hear her yelling and screaming in the stands. My mom and dad would not sit together in the stands because my mom was so fired up.
“She was all kinds of fired up. Yelling, screaming, cheering, ‘Move your feet!’ All kinds of good cheering, it was fun.”
Sometimes too fired up, Gary recalled.
“I was playing baseball at Santa Monica High in 1972, and we would have an away game, and she would be one of the only parents in the stands at some pretty rough schools,” he said.
“She had just learned to drive, after raising six kids in diapers, and I remember a game at Centennial High. A guy took a swing at me trying to pick me off third base, and I heard my mom scream from the stands, “Hit him back!”.
“And I thought, ‘Mom, you’re going to get everyone killed here.’
“For the record, I didn’t hit him back.”
The 1988 Seoul Olympics was one of the high points for the Sato clan, with Gary coaching the men’s team, Eric earning gold, and Liane finishing seventh. Elissa, Richard, Scott and Glenn were able to attend.
“I remember my mom yelling, ‘Go, go, go!’ and even at the Olympic games, I could still hear my mom in the crowd,” Eric said. “I knew where they were, and I could hear them yelling throughout the match.”
Elissa often brought snacks to her kids’ events. Eric recalls her mother bringing food on the Bud Light four-man tour in 1993 and 1994 when both he and Liane competed.
“The athletes’ tent was catered,” Eric said. “My mom would spend the entire night before preparing all this food. She would set up an umbrella on the corner of the court with a bunch of food, and a lot of the players would come to my mom’s tent rather than the players’ tent to eat food.”
Elissa made her own mark on the sport, scoring for nearly 50 years, earning the first Southern California Indoor Volleyball Hall of Fame Lifetime Service Award in 2017. She also ran the Pepperdine volleyball camps for nearly 20 years.
“One of my sayings is, ‘You get what you tolerate.’ We had big camps, about 250 kids, but nobody messed with Mrs. Sato,” Dunphy said.
“That freed me up to teach skills, and I didn’t ever have to worry about the dorms, the logistics, admin, drop-off or pickup. She did it all, and she was in control. I stayed out of her way.
“There were several times when somebody stepped out of line, engaged in some shenanigans, whatever, and she would pull them in, and she was good. She would debrief the camper, and one of her favorite lines was ‘I know more than you think I know about what happened here.’ And heaven help the kid, if they lied to her, it was over.
“If it was 10 at night, midnight, 2 in the morning, whatever, she would call the responsible adult, and say, ‘Come pick up your daughter, son, whatever.’
“I loved it. Word gets around, and so that didn’t happen too often. People knew that if you came to a Dunphy camp you were going to play volleyball and play it straight. Nobody messed with Mrs. Sato.”
Accordingly, Dunphy acknowledged Elissa’s lifelong contributions.
“I think she’s just part of our sport’s history. She made lots of contributions through what she did and her family,” Dunphy said.
“I’ll be forever grateful for what she did for me, my family, Pepperdine, and the sport.”