And after this week, she isn’t going to do it anymore.
So Larson, the captain of the American squad competing at the Tokyo Olympics and at 34 its oldest player, took a moment to reflect Wednesday as she led Team USA out of the tunnel and onto the court for its quarterfinal match against the Dominican Republic. Here in the single-elimination round, she never knows when the next time will be the last. For the rest of this tournament, she will treat every point as if it’s match point on her career.
“I addressed those emotions before I even set foot here,” Larson, an outside hitter, said following the Americans’ 25-11, 25-20, 25-19 victory that sent them into a semifinal match Friday against Serbia. “I’ve thought about it a lot: How do I want to leave my legacy? And what do I want to leave behind when I’m done with the sport and with USA Volleyball. For sure, those thoughts went through my mind, and I got a little emotional today.”
The one thing missing from Larson’s extensive résumé — which includes an Olympic silver from the 2012 London Games and a bronze from the Rio Games in 2016 — is the same thing missing from Team USA’s. Since women’s volleyball debuted as an Olympic sport in 1964, the United States has five medals — three silvers, two bronze — but no golds. The Americans are two wins away from changing that narrative forever, but as Team USA knows, the last couple of wins are the toughest.
“Our objective is always to do something that hasn’t been done before, but the opponent has a lot of say over how that works out,” said Coach Karch Kiraly, a gold medalist with the men’s indoor team in 1984 and 1988. “We’re going to keep hurtling ourselves at that door and try to break it down and stand at the top as no USA women’s team has done before.”
Over the past few days, a better metaphor might be the rest of the world cracking that door open for the Americans. On Monday, defending Olympic champion China, with star Zhu Ting hampered by a wrist injury, failed to make it out of the qualifying round. Then on Wednesday, Turkey suffered an upset loss at the hands of South Korea. Thus, in a span of 72 hours, the world’s third- and fourth-ranked teams were eliminated. That leaves No. 2 Brazil as the biggest threat to Team USA, which is ranked No. 1.
There is more positive news on the horizon for the Americans: They could see the returns of star setter Jordyn Poulter and opposite hitter Jordan Thompson by Friday’s semifinal. Both have been sidelined with ankle injuries, though both dressed Wednesday. (As the last Jordan/Jordyn standing, Larson resisted the urge to take the court Wednesday in multiple layers of bubble wrap.)
As much as Larson wants an Olympic gold medal to round out her trophy case, she knows better than to view it as a magical object with the singular power to validate her career. That career, from an all-American stint at the University of Nebraska to a 2014 world championship with Team USA to three Olympic appearances and (so far) two medals, needs no such validation.
“If we’ve done everything and come up short, I’ll be okay with that,” Larson said. “In Rio, we took the bronze, but I thought we gave everything we had, and that’s what we walked away with. I want the most out of this team, and if that means walking away with gold, that’s fantastic. But life is going to go on.”
Larson’s life certainly is. She has been playing overseas for more than a decade now, which, combined with her U.S. national team duties, has left her an average of one month off per year. In a roundabout way, it was the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shutdown of global sports that showed her how much life she had been missing and how her post-volleyball life might look. And she kind of liked it.
“It was kind of nice to just sit, and to be at my house for more than a month,” she told NBC. “I haven’t had much of a chance to kind of step away and really reflect.”
While her volleyball life went on hiatus during the pandemic, real life hurtled forward. She and boyfriend David Hunt, the men’s volleyball coach at Pepperdine University, got engaged in July 2020. The wedding will be Aug. 27, exactly 19 days following the gold medal match in Tokyo.
The wedding planning over the past year has been a whirlwind, and it will be exponentially so in that narrow window between the Olympics and the big day. But for this stretch of three weeks, the length of Larson’s stay in Tokyo, those duties have fallen to other folks, all of whom know better than to try to involve her.
“My mind,” she said firmly, “is here.”