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Women’s volleyball final: Brazil reduces U.S. to tears

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LONDON — It is late in the Olympics, but there is still plenty of time for tears of all variety. There they were Saturday night at Earls Court, where the women’s volleyball players from Brazil formed an impromptu circle, dancing and singing and waving their flag, crying all the way.

And on the other side of the court, the team that thought it would finally cry those tears of joy went through a traditional, match-ending procedure, shaking hands with the referee, then coming back in single file to high-five each member of the coaching staff. And when the Americans did that, they cried, too.

The U.S. women entered Saturday’s gold medal match as the favorite, and early on, it played the role superbly. But in scarcely more than an hour, the four years of work the Americans put in since losing the gold medal to Brazil in Beijing seemed to evaporate. Brazil emphatically took the final three sets in a 11-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17 victory that started the waterworks on both sides — for vastly different reasons.

“Right now, I still believe that we’re a gold medal team,” captain Lindsey Berg said. “And I’ll believe it for the rest of time.”

The Americans, ranked first in the world, dominated this tournament before the final. They won all seven of their matches — including a thorough dismantling of Brazil in pool play — while taking 21 sets and losing just two. They entered the gold medal match off a sweep of South Korea, and on a 16-set winning streak. When they crushed Brazil in the opening set, there was little reason to believe Saturday wouldn’t finally bring that gold medal, the prize that had eluded the Americans since women’s volleyball came to the Olympics in 1964.

“The team was playing very well and executing at a high level,” U.S. Coach Hugh McCutcheon said. But Brazil made some changes, particularly in how it attacked the American block, led by Destinee Hooker and Foluke Akinradewo. And when they did, the match turned.

“You could see that Brazil grew and grew in confidence,” McCutcheon said. “Once you start playing catch-up, once you start reacting, it’s very difficult. Usually, a team wants to be proactive, to be controlling the rhythm.”

The Americans never returned to that point.

“It’s the first time we’ve not had control the whole tournament,” Berg said.

The had no control, either, of the Brazilian fans — passionate about volleyball, and filling Earls Court to the rafters — who booed during almost every U.S. serve. The Americans, offered an excuse, didn’t take it.

“It’s Brazil,” four-time Olympian Logan Tom said. “We know their fans can be — uh, I’m going to put my foot in my mouth.”

Brazil’s play, spearheaded by Sheilla Castro and Jaqueline Carvalho, had a much greater effect on the United States, which never held a lead past the early stages of any of the final three sets. When the Brazilians served for the match in the fourth, Carvalho dug out a ball Hooker tried to kill, and Fernanda Rodrigues finished off the Americans. The two sets of tears appeared immediately.

There were all manner of reasons for them.

“I’m done,” Berg said later, retiring at 32 after three Olympics. “I’ve given a lot of my heart and soul, and it’s been an incredible outcome, more than I’ve ever imagined,” and she started to cry some more. “There’s a couple of us that I think are done and have no regrets. None of us would have stayed as long as we did. There’s a lot of girls that stay in this program a long time, and there’s a reason for it.”

Afterward, Brazil’s celebration continued on the court, with Fabiana Oliveira first waving the flag in the center of the raucous circle, then draping it around her back as she collapsed on the floor, weeping. The Americans, as they were announced as silver medalists, were involved in a series of one-on-one hugs, and then headed to the locker room.

The medal ceremony remained, and the U.S. team dutifully reappeared on the court, subdued in navy blue track suits. The Brazilians, it seemed, hadn’t stopped dancing, not for a moment. As the team from Japan received its bronze medal, the Brazilians led a chant for their fans. As the Americans received their medals and bouquets, the Brazilians thumped their hands on the podium, on which they were about to step.

“They celebrate a little differently than I would say Americans would do,” Tom said. “I let it slide. I did tell them, ‘Get your [rears] down from the [stand] before you celebrate.’ It’s just a little respect.”

The U.S. team came here to earn Olympic respect, respect it earned over the last several years in the volleyball community. And when they couldn’t do it, it hurt – “the stomach, the heart,” said veteran Danielle Scott-Arruda. All over, in fact, enough to make the players think back over the last four years, to consider the same spot on the medal stand, listening to the Brazilian national anthem. Enough to make them cry.

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