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U.S. women’s volleyball team lays down its burdens, picks up a gold medal

U.S. volleyball players celebrate their gold medal victory. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

TOKYO — The tears started well before Sunday’s gold medal match, when the members of the U.S. women’s volleyball team gathered in the quiet of their locker room to share what they were grateful for. (Spoiler alert: one another.) And they started up again around the instant Jordan Larson rose above the net and, with a sledgehammer of a right hand, crushed the final point onto the floor at Ariake Arena, then dropped to her knees and sobbed.

“I’ve cried more in the last 24 hours than I think I have in my entire career,” said Larson, the Team USA captain and outside hitter. “I’m not an emotional player, not an emotional person. But I think the emotions got the best of me, and now I’m in this euphoria-shock state.”

It was only during the gold medal match itself — a scant 82-minute bludgeoning of Brazil in straight sets, 25-21, 25-20, 25-14 — that the waterworks turned off. In those moments, the Americans were too busy distilling 57 years of their inherited Olympic futility and unleashing it with uncommon fury upon the Brazilians. When you come up through the U.S. national team, you never can get too far away from reminders that the American women had never won Olympic gold.

“It’s not thrown in your face, but you’re aware of it,” middle blocker Haleigh Washington said. “ … It’s definitely on the back burner.”

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That history — zero gold medals in Olympic competition between 1964 and Sunday afternoon — goes a long way toward explaining the intensely emotional reaction from the Team USA players when the final point was in the books. They all collapsed pretty much exactly where they stood, before crawling, lurching and melting toward one another in what became a huge scrum.

“All the hard work we put in through these months, these last few years — just a lot of release of emotion,” Washington said. “It just came out. It wasn’t cute. I was ugly-crying out there. It was not cute. But it was amazing.”

The Americans, in their red tops with white lettering, and the Brazilians, in their classic green-on-yellows, knew each other well in a setting such as Sunday’s. Brazil, in fact, had a large hand in keeping the Americans off the top of the Olympic podium through the years, beating Team USA in the gold medal matches in 2008 and 2012. All told, it was the 10th time the rivals had met in the Olympics, with each side now owning five wins.

On this day, the Brazilians simply had no answer for the murderous left hand of Annie Drews, who led the Americans with 15 points and sent so many screaming rockets over the net you half-assumed some poor Brazilian was going to emerge with Mikasa V200W stamped across her forehead. Nor could Brazil penetrate the wall of arms put up by Washington and Foluke Akinradewo.

Team USA’s march through this tournament was breathtaking at times. The Americans, after falling behind to Italy two sets to one in their final match of the preliminary round, reeled off 11 straight sets, failing to drop a single one to the Dominican Republic, Serbia and Brazil in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final.

“It tastes sweeter when you come close and suffer some really painful losses,” said Team USA Coach Karch Kiraly, who completed an unprecedented trifecta, having previously won gold medals as a player in men’s indoor volleyball (1984, 1988) and beach volleyball (1996). “We suffered some gut-wrenching, soul-crushing losses that made this one taste that much sweeter.”

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Before Sunday’s match, the American players gathered in a “gratitude circle,” as they have been doing before matches for several years now. It was here that they could not only express gratitude but also share concerns, worries and doubts, with the knowledge someone else was feeling the same way. What they were taking on in Tokyo was huge: trying to crush the awful, gold-less narrative that, despite other triumphs in other tournaments, had come to define the program.

“Anytime you work for something big, for something that has yet to be obtained, you’re flooded with doubts, fears, worries,” Washington said. “But you have to push those away. I think that’s the definition of being brave and being fearless. It’s the definition of what this team is.”

In the early days of the Tokyo 2020 tournament, things stayed relatively low-key and mundane — and the tears were minimal. But as they built toward an Olympic championship they all recognized was within their grasp, the players began to go deeper and the emotions expressed became more intense.

“We have been vulnerable, worked through hard things and had hard conversations,” Drews said.

“I personally don’t think I’ve ever cried this much,” setter Jordyn Poulter said. “Hearing the people you love express their gratitude for each other and to be in the circle with those people can’t help but make you emotional.”

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When it was her turn to speak in the gratitude circle before Sunday’s gold medal match, Poulter, at 24 the youngest player on the U.S. roster, could barely get through it. And she could barely get through the retelling of it in the mixed zone with the media after the win.

“I expressed that I watched all these people in their entire careers, in different phases, at different levels,” she said. “And just to stand beside them and go to battle with them and do something [the U.S. women] have never done, I’m just so grateful being part of this program.”

They talked openly about the mission and about the prize: the gold medal. It was audacious in a way. Other teams might shy away from such a specific target because if you build it up too much, anything else would be another crushing defeat, one you might never get over. But maybe the Americans just knew it was their time.

“It’s one of the most vulnerable positions you can be in as an athlete — putting such a lofty goal out there for people to hold you to that standard,” Poulter said. “… I think every single person talked about chasing the gold, making history. And I think it’s the bravest thing you can do, to put your goal out there and then go and try to achieve it.”

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The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.