RIO DE JANEIRO — The tears were immediate and visible and hard earned, and though the U.S. women’s volleyball team has one more match to play here, though it may earn a third straight Olympic medal, the tears in the moment showed that wasn’t the goal.
“It’s the journey that matters,” U.S. veteran Kayla Banwarth said afterward. She turned her head to the side, mustered the gumption to say more and exhaled. “Not the outcome.”
That is this group’s philosophy, and it is what the players and staff will lean on while two other teams play Saturday for the gold medal, with the Americans preceding that game, hoping for bronze. American Olympic fans may be tied up in the moment with swimmers gone home and still in Rio de Janeiro, with track athletes and basketball players and so many other hopefuls who want to end the Rio Olympics with gold. The women’s volleyball team will turn inward.
“Lean on each other,” Jordan Larson-Burbach said. “That’s all we got.”
This was all in the aftermath of Serbia’s deserved and surprising 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13 victory Thursday afternoon in an Olympic semifinal at Maracanazinho, an arena filled with passionate volleyball fans who embraced Serbia as their own and booed any of the American supporters’ chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” The loss was a disappointment to a U.S. team that entered the Olympics ranked first in the world, that blew through its first six matches here undefeated. For Serbia, though, it meant more.
“I don’t have words,” Serbian Coach Zoran Terzic said, “because this is a historical moment — for me, for Serbian volleyball, for everyone in Serbia.”
That comment, perhaps more than any other, illustrated the U.S. team’s standing on the world volleyball stage. In the past two Olympics, the U.S. women have approached taking gold — a prize the program hasn’t won since 1996 — losing each time in four sets in the championship match to Brazil.
Here, then, was their opening. On Tuesday night, long after the Americans had advanced by dispatching Japan, China shocked the host Brazilians in five sets. Though that figured to take some luster off Saturday night’s final — a prime spot at the Olympics for the host nation, with Maracanazinho sure to be at its craziest had the Brazilians advanced — it presented the United States with a path to gold.
Then came Serbia, which the United States beat in four sets during group play. The team that returned to face the Americans was better prepared — and just better, period.
“That was probably the best match Serbia’s ever played,” Banwarth said. “So props to them.”
The best match Serbia’s ever played also included an injury to one of the Americans’ best players. Outside hitter Foluke Akinradewo suffered a knee injury late in the opening set and was unable to come back — depleting the U.S. attack.
“There were a whole slew of things that we were looking to solve,” said U.S. Coach Karch Kiraly, a gold medal winner with the men’s team in 1984 and 1988 but in his first Olympics leading the women. “We look to be problem-solvers on the court. We adjusted our lineup. We adjusted it again. We adjusted it again.”
Yet Serbia kept coming. Only when the Americans took the fourth set to force a decisive fifth did the United States seem at all in control. The Americans held an 11-8 lead in the final set — which is played to 15 rather than 25 — but, after a Serbian timeout, couldn’t extend it. With the set tied at 13, the Americans made a service error. Serbia closed out the match on the next point.
When the final ball landed, the Serbian players leapt and pumped their fists, screaming in exultation. The Americans mostly stood still, with the subs heading onto the court for some group consolation. The crowd — happy that anyone other than the United States won — squealed with delight.
“I love the energy in Brazil, for sure, whether it’s loud against us or for us,” Kiraly said. “That kind of energy and that kind of atmosphere is why we’re all doing this. We love passion like that. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for you or against you.”
They will see passion like that once more here on Saturday night. It just won’t be in the match they preferred.
“We came here together,” Larson-Burbach said, “and we’re going to leave together, and we’re going to leave hopefully with a medal.”