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Difference Maker

Apr 25, 2022

IN THE LIFESPAN of every elite college sports program, there is a turning point -- when a transformative player steps on campus and lifts the team's credibility and level of play to a higher plane. 

For Stanford beach volleyball, that player is sophomore Xolani Hodel. 

In its' 10th season, Stanford beach volleyball has more depth and talent throughout the lineup than ever. The Cardinal is coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance and is in the running for another. Propelled by a sophomore class that has been program-changing, the Cardinal is at the point now where it can compete with any program in the country for top recruits. 

And Hodel has been the centerpiece of that ascension.

In the midst of that, the Huntington Beach native has found time for self-reflection. Coming from a mostly-white community and excelling in mostly-white sports, Hodel had conflicting views on her role as a Black athlete. 

In an e-mail to a question about whether she feels it is important to be singled out in a largely white sport because of her race, Hodel provided this response: 

"Since I was young, there has always been this stigmatized representation of African American people in my mind -- either placed upon me by encountering prejudiced or racist people, or through TV and the media. This harmful perspective of myself led me to try and assimilate to my predominantly white surroundings, including the schools I went to and sports I played, especially in beach volleyball. 

"This is a part of the reason why I was always extremely motivated to excel in academics and athletics: to fight against the stigma of being African American. 

"I began to understand quite recently that I shouldn't be fighting my identity, but rather embracing it, because it is this that differentiates me and provides me with unique strengths and perspectives. Not only embracing it for myself, but for younger African American athletes trying to establish their place in predominantly white sports."

Hodel came to this understanding on her own, but with support from her parents, including her mother, Peggy Odita-Hodel '90, a Stanford track and field All-American and former school record-holder. If Odita-Hodel feels that local news outlets are neglecting athletes of color, she'll let them know about it. 

"Representation matters," Odita-Hodel said. "We've been to tournaments where Xolani's playing and an African American mom would come up and say, 'Oh my gosh, we love watching your daughter play because there are so few of us out here.' It's so great to see that."

Xolani is a South African name from the Xhosa and Zulu peoples. It means, "Please Forgive, Peace." It fits. Xolani has a personality and persona of contentment, but will leave everything on the sand in a match, and work even harder to leave even more the next time, never appearing to lose control. 

To be in this position of leading a top-10 team to its greatest seasons yet, is both an expectation and a surprise. The expectation comes from anticipation of where her future is taking her. The surprise is the reality of where she came from compared to her peers – as a five-sport athlete with limited indoor volleyball experience and late entry to the beach game.


Photo by John P. Lozano/
* * * 

HODEL'S STANFORD STORY began in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where Peggy grew up, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants Okechukwu, an artist and professor of African art history at Ohio State, and Florence Odita. 

In the 1960s, they stepped into a country rife with racial tension. They sought to alleviate discrimination by withholding their native language, Igbo, from their children. By growing up without accents, there was less reason to be bullied. 

"It came from all the biases that come along with being an immigrant -- you're not American, you're speaking a strange language, you must not be very intelligent …" Peggy said. "Parents make decisions based on their experiences to hopefully make things easier for their kids. I regret it, but I understand why they did that."

Their avenue to combat racial injustice was instilling the importance of education. "No one can take your knowledge from you," they told their children.  

Peggy came to Stanford and set a school record in the seven-event heptathlon that stood for nine years. She won the 1990 Pac-10 heptathlon title, earned All-America honors, and graduated as the third-best high jumper in Stanford history. 

She competed at a world-class level for another decade, training in throwing events under former UCLA thrower Greg Hodel, whom she would marry, and made a bid to compete for the Nigerian Olympic team. Peggy also appeared regularly on TV's American Gladiators, in contests of strength and agility. Today, she owns her own interior design business and coaches high jump and hurdles at Huntington Beach High, Xolani's alma mater. 

Greg, a calculus teacher at Jordan High in Long Beach, enjoyed passing his passion for math to his kids. On long drives, he was known to declare, "Time to do some car math!" and gave Xolani and younger brother Xander equations to solve. 

Xolani always loved to attack math problems. At age seven, she opened an advanced Math Olympiad book with high school- and college-level problems and cried when she couldn't solve them. Typically, her success rate is far higher. Rubik's Cubes are especially vulnerable.  

Stanford beach volleyball head coach Andrew Fuller said that on Xolani's recruiting visit, Greg was the only parent he's ever had who asked about Stanford's Fields Medal winners. That's a prize awarded every four years to the world's top mathematicians under 40 years of age. Stanford, for the record, had three – professors Akshay Venkatesh (2018), Maryam Mirzakhani (the first female winner, in 2014), and Paul Cohen (1966).

Xolani plans to continue her mathematical pursuits through a major of product design and a minor in economics.


Peggy Odita was a track and field All-American in 1990. Photo by Rod Searcey/Stanford Athletics.
* * * 

TO CONSIDER XOLANI as solely an athlete or math whiz or any number of labels, is to sell her short. And, at 6-foot-1, that's not easy to do.

She began modeling and acting at age 12, with runway work and even national TV spots. Her first TV commercial actually was at age two -- an NCAA commercial with Xolani was running down the beach ahead of her mom. The theme: Embracing life beyond sports. 

Xolani's TV exposure peaked on Feb. 1, 2015, in a Pepsi ad that aired during Super Bowl XLIX (Patriots vs. Seahawks) -- the most-watched TV broadcast in American history, with 114.4 million viewers. 

At the audition for an "unnamed" brand, "They had me look up at the cement ceiling pretending I saw something amazing in the sky," she said. "After I made my most amazed face and jaw-drop, the look that they had on their faces made it seem like I did exactly what they envisioned for the ad, which made me so excited because they usually don't give you any feedback and you only hear back later if you got the job."

She indeed got it. On the set she had her own room with her name on it. "So crazy to me at the time," she said. In the commercial, she appeared for about two seconds, looking up at a giant Pepsi spaceship. 


Xolani's Super Bowl commercial moment in 2015.

Xolani also designs clothes. Despite never taken a sewing class, she creates patterns and looks and puts them together. 

"I'm really big on thrifting and reconstructing what I buy, either for a better fit or better style," Hodel said. "I love street fashion and a lot of my outfits and creations center from street style. For one, it's typically super comfortable but also very practical for day-to-day activities. I've made -- all from scratch -- skirts, bucket hats, and I'm currently working on an asymmetrical top."

Though she's not selling anything yet, she plans on getting some of her bucket hats (reversible, with different patterns in each side) on the market soon through her Instagram account.  

So, how did beach volleyball enter the busy life of Orange County's 2019 Athlete of the Year? Yes, she's from a beach community, but soccer was her main sport and first love. As an attacking midfielder for the CDA Slammers elite club team, Hodel was a state Olympic Development Program selection and received scholarship offers. She was impressive enough in her single season of high school basketball to earn interest from recruiters. And it wasn't hard to imagine Xolani following in her mother's footsteps as a heptathlete in track.

Instead, her beach volleyball life began with a mile run at Huntington Central Park East, just around the corner from Mesa View Middle School. Each Friday, mile runs were a staple for sixth-graders in P.E. class. Watching one day, was P.E. teacher Hayden Jones, a champion beach volleyball player in his native New Zealand. 

"The mile is one of those things where you find out if kids have a little grit," Jones said. "It's painful to run fast and push yourself, and she was running pretty fast. With her height and athleticism, I can remember her teacher pointing her out to me and saying, 'You've got to keep an eye out for Xolani. She could be someone you get for volleyball.

"I said, 'You're right.'"


Xolani Hodel meets Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2012. Photo courtesy of Peggy Odita-Hodel.

The summer before Hodel entered high school, Jones sought kids to use in a coaching video he was making as part of his master's in education. This was the opportunity he was looking for. He contacted Peggy and Greg and proposed using Xolani in the video in exchange for free beach volleyball coaching. 

"That's how it all started, really," Jones said. 

He wondered, How do I spark an interest? 

"Beach volleyball is my passion," he said. "I was hoping she would fall in love with the game. It turns out, she was very good at it, and she enjoyed it."

Mindful of Xolani's expansive commitments, Jones only approached her for coaching if he knew she had gaps in her schedule. Sometimes, it was months between sessions. 

"I was just trying to keep her involved and hope she would choose volleyball over her other sports," Jones said. "She was going to get to the top of any sport she tried to pursue, but it didn't take me long to realize she had a very high ceiling in beach volleyball."

Jones sponsored Hodel to attend a USC beach camp. During a session called Queen of the Court, players started at one court and advanced to others by winning. Hodel, only a freshman, made it to the top court against players preparing for college. 

Jones knew Fuller from the AVP pro beach tour. Their wives – Tracy Lindquist and Lauren Fendrick, respectively -- were longtime pro beach players, and Fuller had played on the tour himself. 

Because Hodel came from Mesa View, a Gifted And Talented Education magnet school, Jones felt that Hodel could prosper at Stanford academically and athletically. Jones phoned Fuller.

"I think I've got someone who really would fit your program," Jones said. "You've got to watch this kid. She's the best athlete I've ever seen."


Photo by Bob Drebin/
* * * 

AFTER STANFORD OFFERED a scholarship, the focus toward beach volleyball started in earnest, even as Hodel competed in four sports her senior year – two high school (indoor volleyball and track) and two club (soccer and beach volleyball). 

Despite coming in raw in a volleyball-skills sense, Hodel was gifted in her ability to recognize movement and patterns and understand her place in it – likely learned from soccer and basketball. 

"Playing all these different sports certainly gives her an edge in the game, a style of play a little bit different than anyone else," Jones said. "It's hard to describe, but it's definitely one of her superpowers. They call it the X factor. It's not physical and it's not necessarily even psychological. It's a sense of reading of the game and knowing what's going to happen."

When beach volleyball began at Stanford in 2013, the program was treated as a spring practice for the indoor team. Gradually, Stanford extended the schedule, built a beautiful stadium complex, and gave way to beach specialists rather than those who went back and forth between the indoor and beach games. 

Fuller took over in 2017 as Stanford's first beach-only head coach, recruited specifically for beach, and the victories increased. The missing piece was a beach-focused player who could serve as the keystone to the program, grab the attention of top recruits, and affix herself to the top of the lineup. 

Hodel has been that. Teaming with senior Sunny Villapando, Hodel moved into No. 1 spot for the final third of her freshman season, as the Cardinal geared toward the playoffs, and has been at No. 1 ever since.  

Villapando, the program leader in career wins (67) and wins at the No. 1 spot (43), was a perfect partner at that time for Hodel – uplifting, encouraging, and providing an example of the on-court intensity needed to perform at that level. 

"With Sunny, I never felt like I did playing with anyone else," Hodel said. "It felt very secure, like she had my back. And at every sideout, there was confidence we had that play."


Photo by Glen Mitchell/

Hodel originally partnered with classmate Kate Reilly and returned to that partnership last summer for the under-19 World Championships, advancing to the semifinals in Thailand. They bring a different dynamic, as a hard-hitting duo that fits together "technically, tactically, emotionally," Fuller said. 

They are 18-4 as a pair this season, with Hodel already No. 3 in program history in victories at the No. 1 spot, with 25. She was a first-team All-American as a freshman, and could make it two for two as a sophomore.  

Two others in her class, Maya Harvey and Emma Sharp, play among Stanford's top three pairs, and all four sophomores have been vital to the Cardinal's already equaling its season record for wins (23), with the Pac-12 tournament (beginning Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona) and perhaps NCAA's still to come.

"Xo's already really good," Fuller said. "And she has so many areas where she can continue to grow. There's an ocean of possibilities."  

Those possibilities are not limited to performance. As she grows in stature, Hodel can become a leader in diversifying the game. 

"It definitely doesn't go unnoticed in my mind that I am one of the few African American players in beach volleyball," Hodel said. "And it's very important that this doesn't go unnoticed in others' minds."

And maybe that's what being a difference-maker truly is all about.