LONDON — To the outside, the U.S. women’s volleyball team should have looked across the net Monday evening, seen the green-and-yellow kits — that’s what they call uniforms here — of their opponents, and thought of nothing but 2008. Four years ago in Beijing, Brazil beat the American women, denying what would have been the country’s first gold medal in this sport, instead winning the first for a volleyball-crazy land.
But Monday’s match came in the early stages of what is a long Olympic tournament. Four years ago is gone. These teams — the United States is ranked No. 1 in the world, Brazil No. 2 — have seen each other time and again since. And the match that would matter would come later at Earls Court, not far from the landmarks that define this city — Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Tower of London.
So what to make of the Americans’ clean, decisive 25-18, 25-17, 22-25, 25-21 victory over Brazil, one that came in front of interested and supportive fan Kobe Bryant?
“Certainly, it was a strong performance today,” U.S. Coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “But I didn’t see a perfect match of volleyball.”
Thus, a bit is revealed about the United States’s pursuit here: gold and perfection. The Americans arrive knowing they are the favorites in this tournament, and knowing that Brazil is, potentially, one of their most significant obstacles. The U.S. victory on Monday, though, shows that this team may have no peer if it plays its best.
The Americans have a force on the outside in 6-foot-3Destinee Hooker. They have experience in the middle in captain Lindsey Berg. They have veteran Logan Tom, as savvy a player as the women’s game has ever known. And they have youth in 25-year-oldsChrista Harmotto and Jordan Larson. Even as they cut through a Brazil side that won the gold in four relatively easy sets four years ago, they want little more than to improve Wednesday against China, because they know they can.
“I don’t think I’ve seen our peak yet, the whole quad,” Berg said. “And that’s exciting and scary, because I think we’re amazing. But as long as we work together, we trust each other so much, and we help each other out, it doesn’t matter if all six or seven play great — or all 12. We don’t need that. We need to play good, and together.”
They did that Monday in what each player considered an improvement over their opening match, a four-set win over South Korea. The first two sets were nearly textbook, and Hooker soared. The 24-year-old Texan, playing in her first Olympics, finished balls powerfully and cleanly, providing a new look as Tom, 31, becomes less of a finisher and more of, as McCutcheon said, “the glue.”
“She brings things to the table that other athletes don’t,” Harmotto said of Hooker. “She’s blessed.”
When the Brazilians came back to win the third set, there could have been reminders of what can happen in such situations. The Americans have played Brazil three times this year, and won them all — indeed, the team now is 25-1 in 2012. But in the most recent game between the two teams, in the gold medal match of the Women’s Pan American Games earlier this month in Mexico, the United States dropped the first two sets, then stormed back to win.
That would not be happening in reverse.
“We fought,” Berg said.
That was evident early in the fourth set. Harmotto left her position in the center of the court and began to track down a ball that looked headed for the stands. She saw a barrier in front of her, sized it up, and remembered one thing from practice.
“Those things are soft,” she said. “Usually they’re not soft. They’re usually made of wood.”
So she flung her body into the barrier, saved the ball, got back in the point, and finished it off with a kill. It only put the Americans up, 7-4, but players and coaches believe that kind of play is emblematic of the team.
“That right there just shows our desire here,” Berg said, “what we’re here to do.”
“This is the Olympics,” McCutcheon said. “That’s what you should be doing.”
It is likely what the Americans will be doing for the rest of the tournament. They have three more matches in Pool B — China, Serbia and Turkey. The quarterfinals are Aug. 7, the gold medal match Aug. 11, the penultimate day of these Games. So drawing comparisons to a loss four years ago, in a city halfway around the world, in the midst of a competition they know they can win? It’s not happening.
“It’s four years ago,” Tom said. “I don’t even look past right now.”
When Tom softly pushed the final ball over the net, and it fell to the floor before any Brazilian could touch it, the Americans gathered in the middle of their side and had a brief group hug. They then clasped their hands together and raised them as one. They were happy, yes, but they are here to see a much larger picture, one that won’t develop for more than a week, and one that has little to do with Beijing.
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