The Stowell sisters — Avery, Elyse and Clara — grew up in a volleyball-loving Latter-day Saint family. From left, oldest sister Avery Stowell played for Navy. Center, Elyse Stowell is a junior at BYU. Right, third sister Clara Stowell will play beach volleyball at Stanford. (Photos courtesy of BYU Photo and the Stowell family)
Have volleyball, Will travel:
College destinations for high-flying Stowell sisters include Navy, BYU & Stanford
Three different D1 programs have opened roster spots for siblings from volleyball-loving Latter-day Saint family.
By Jason Swensen
11 Jul 2023
Celebrated Brigham Young University track coach Ed Eyestone pulls out a timeless line whenever he’s asked what it takes for an aspiring athlete to become an elite distance runner:
“Choose your parents very carefully.”
The same could be said of excelling in volleyball — a sport that favors height, length, explosiveness and other physical traits that are typically genetic gifts from mom and dad.
And, of course, it helps if a young volleyball player’s parents are fanatics of the sport.
The college volleyball playing Stowell sisters — Avery, Elyse and Clara — can check both boxes.
Their parents — Rob and Claire Stowell— stand 6’5” and 5’11”, respectively. And, yes, they are both former college volleyball players who are yet to grow weary of their daughters’ games, practices, training sessions and tournaments.
Still, it’s quite remarkable to see the volume of volleyball talent coming from a single Latter-day Saint home in Yorba Linda, California. (Other “First Families of Latter-day Saint Volleyball” would include the Bowers and the Olmsteads.)
U.S. Navy Ensign Avery Stowell, center, celebrates her 2022 graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy with her fellow volleyball-playing sisters Clara, left, and Elyse. (Photo courtesy of Avery Stowell)
• Oldest daughter Avery Stowell was one of the top players in the NCAA’s Patriot League during her career as an opposite hitter at Navy (2018-2022).
• Second Stowell daughter, Elyse, is a 6’2” junior outside hitter at BYU who recently participated in the USA Women’s National Team ID program.
• And Clara — Stowell daughter #3 — is an elite junior player counting down the days to begin her collegiate athletic career as a freshman on the Stanford women’s beach volleyball team.
When Clara competes in her first match for the Cardinal, the Stowell trio will have played for three different Division 1 programs stretched across several different time zones — from Annapolis to Palo Alto, with a “layover” in Provo.
(Rob and Claire’s fourth and youngest daughter, Lucy, is a rising water polo player.)
“We are just so lucky and blessed to be able to sit courtside and watch our daughters grow from game to game,” Claire Stowell told Church Ball Magazine. “It has taken a tremendous amount of time and sacrifice… But it’s been a pleasure to watch them develop.”
A former BYU athlete, Rob Stowell had fun watching his three oldest daughters compete in various sports — including soccer, basketball, dance and gymnastics. But he was thrilled when they gravitated toward the game he loved.
Avery, Elyse and Clara each mastered the sport’s fundamentals — bumping, setting, spiking, serving and digging — with their father during countless training sessions.
“It all began with Avery showing interest and getting involved in volleyball — but I never thought that all three would play [at a high level],” said Rob Stowell.
No surprise, the Stowells have become skilled schedule managers over the past decade.
Juggling multiple practices and games has been their daily task.
Sometimes the Stowell girls would all participate in the same tournament. Other times, they were traveling in opposite directions across the country.
The family laughs at the memory of one wacky weekend when Rob was with one daughter at a tournament in Kansas City, Claire was with another daughter at a volleyball event in Chicago — and a grandmother was in Arizona for a tournament with a third daughter.
They also recognize the value of identifying and connecting with the right people. Rob and Claire Stowell are grateful for the many coaches, trainers, club administrators and teammates who have helped their daughters develop into elite volleyball players.
“Our strategy was finding the right community to plug our kids into that would help take them there,” said Claire Stowell.
Despite the seemingly endless series of team practices, individual training sessions, games, recruiting visits and tournaments, the Stowells have side-stepped volleyball burn-out for a simple reason:
“We just really enjoy the game,” said Rob Stowell.
“It’s fun watching your kids,” added Claire Stowell. “There is nothing better than seeing your child gain confidence and walk a little taller. That whole process is exciting.”
Volleyball: A family affair
Like many good stories, the “Stowell Sisters” volleyball story begins with a preface.
Volleyball played a key role in Rob Stowell and Claire Gaisford’s courtship. Claire was playing at Orem’s Utah Valley University when it was still a junior college. Rob was playing at nearby BYU.
“After we met, we ‘peppered’ and played a lot of volleyball together,” said Claire. “And later, when we were young marrieds, we would get together with other young married couples to play at the park.”
Naturally, the Stowells were delighted when their oldest three daughters were drawn to the sport that had drawn them together. While Rob handled the day-to-day skills instruction, Claire did much of the long-term planning to help place each of the girls in positions to grow and succeed.
The past year has been memorable for each of the volleyball-playing Stowell sisters.
When Avery graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2022, she wondered if her days of high-level volleyball were behind her. She was, after all, a newly commissioned ensign reporting to her first duty assignment in San Diego as part of the Navy’s surface warfare community.
U.S. Navy Ensign Avery Stowell, far right, celebrates winning tournament gold with her teammates on the All-Navy Women’s Volleyball Team. (Photo courtesy of Avery Stowell)
But her passion for the game remained. Living in volleyball-rich San Diego, she found opportunities to play with other former college players and keep her skills sharp.
Recently, she was selected to play for the All-Navy Women’s Volleyball Team that included former teammates from the Academy.
“We ended up going to USA Nationals and winning one of the adult divisions, which was super fun,” said Avery.
Claiming a gold medal in a national tournament also elevated Avery’s street cred within the Stowell household. Both of her volleyball-playing sisters — Elyse and Clara — had played on national tournament winning teams. But this was a first for big sister.
“When I won a gold medal with the All-Navy team, it became a running joke for my sisters to say, ‘Welcome to the club — you finally made it’,” said Avery, laughing.
Avery’s military duties will determine if she is able to play in the future with the All-Navy squad.
Elyse, meanwhile, was a key player during BYU’s 2022 campaign — helping the Cougars reach the second round of the NCAA tournament and earning a February invite to the U.S. Women’s National Team Open Program in Colorado Springs. The program is used to identify players for Team USA.
BYU outside hitter Elyse Stowell spikes a volleyball during the 2022 contest versus rival Gonzaga. (BYU Photo)
She and her Cougar teammates also did some globetrotting in May — visiting France, Egypt, Turkey and Greece and playing five matches against international opponents.
Elyse and the rest of the BYU team also participated in a Sabbath-day devotional on a hillside in Nafplio, Greece, and later visited the ancient Greek city of Corinth where the Apostle Paul ministered thousands of years ago.
“It was an amazing trip,” said Elyse.
Besides competing in several memorable matches, “we also had opportunities to share a little bit about our religion — and then talk and learn about others’ religion. It was a cool exchange.”
Now Elyse is looking forward to BYU competing against defending national champion Texas and other Big 12 volleyball powers during the Cougars’ upcoming maiden season in the P5 conference.
While both Avery and Elyse have enjoyed the thrill of D1 volleyball during their respective college careers, their experiences as Latter-day Saints have been far different.
During her four years at the Naval Academy, Avery was the only Latter-day Saint on the Midshipmen roster. Meanwhile, the majority of Elyse’s teammates at BYU have been Church members.
Avery said she arrived in Annapolis having been taught by her parents that her personal actions would represent her religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
She was certain that when people witnessed her demonstrating, say, kindness or generosity, they would associate those attributes with her faith.
“I never felt pulled down by being a member of the Church,” said Avery of her time at the Naval Academy. “I felt uplifted. There was definitely an added level of pressure, but that was a good thing.”
For Elyse, wearing “BYU” on the front of her jersey and representing the Church-sponsored school in intercollegiate competition are special blessings.
“It’s great to be able to represent what our Church and what our school stands for. There is a lot to be proud of.”
Stanford awaits Stowell sister #3
Now Clara is anxious for her college career to begin on Stanford’s beach volleyball squad.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “This summer is all about preparing, finishing the junior volleyball season and finishing our last club tournament.”
Clara knows her older sisters helped blaze her college volleyball trail. When she began playing at a competitive level, the Stowell sisters were already a known quality in the volleyball community.
“So there was some pressure,” she said. “But I was just so happy to finally be a part of that.”
Stanford bound-Clara Stowell dives in the sand to dig a volleyball during a 2023 beach volleyball tournament in California. (Photo courtesy of Claire Stowell)
Now whenever Clara has a chance to play against Avery or Elyse, she expects to win.
When the three sisters were living at home together for an extended period during the early months of COVID-19, the family would frequently go to a nearby park, set-up a net — and it was Game On.
“There was,” remembered Clara, ‘“a lot of smack talk.”
Elyse notes that volleyball has provided her family with something that they can share. Now watching Lucy develop as a water polo player only strengthens those bonds. Athletics connect the sisters. They cheer for each other.
“It’s nice to have those moments where you can just enjoy the sport for what it is and have a lot of fun,” said Elyse.
“Speak for yourself,” interjected Avery. “Those opportunities to play with my family are when I can assert my dominance as the older sibling.”
Avery then quickly added, laughing: “It’s a talented family — but it’s also very clear that my younger sisters are just better than me. They’re more physical. They have better skills and better techniques.”
Big sister Avery takes pride watching her younger siblings develop as athletes and as Latter-day Saint women.
“Volleyball has given us so much in terms of growth and development and individual strength and confidence.”