RIO DE JANEIRO — By the time the women’s volleyball team from Brazil takes to the court at the famed Maracanazinho arena, its counterpart from the United States normally has already finished play. That was true again Tuesday: The Americans began their quarterfinal match against Japan at 2 p.m. The Brazilians took the same court about eight hours later.
“I haven’t watched Brazil at all,” American libero Kayla Banwarth said. “They play at 10:30 p.m. That’s my bedtime — past my bedtime.”
These are the two teams for which Maracanazinho grows raucous. The Americans generate derision, the Brazilians love. They began the Olympic tournament as the co-favorites, because the U.S. team is ranked first in the world and the Brazilians have won the past two Olympic golds, beating the Americans in the final match each time.
Each, for now, was dealing with the necessary steps to get to Saturday night’s gold medal match. The U.S. team beat Japan on Tuesday afternoon in the quarterfinals, a 25-16, 25-23, 25-22 victory in straight sets that was actually more difficult than it might sound. The Brazilians were left to compete in what amounts to the prime-time spot in the host nation, a late-night match against China — past Banwarth’s bedtime. In an upset, China dethroned Brazil in five sets. The third-ranked Chinese will face the upstart Netherlands women, who earlier beat South Korea in four sets.
A young China team rallied from losing the first set to stun the medal favorite Brazilians 15-13 in the decisive fifth set early Wednesday morning. Brazil’s players cried at their early exit and a young boy in the stands burst into tears.
Next up for the United States, in Thursday’s semifinal, is Serbia, a straight-set winner over Russia.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that a U.S. women’s volleyball team has never won Olympic gold: winning silver first in 1984 and then in both Beijing and London, when Brazil beat the Americans in four sets. So they deal with such new expectations — how, exactly?
“By not having expectations,” said U.S. Coach Karch Kiraly, who won gold as a member of the American men’s team in both 1984 and ’88.
This is Kiraly’s approach, which might sound odd for the leader of one of the best teams in the world: He talks about the power of low expectations, which he says has “at least two benefits” — one with some rather deep meaning.
“One is that we know we have to work really hard in order to win,” Kiraly said. “If we don’t expect to win the next point, we know we have to go out and earn it rather than just thinking it’ll just happen on its own. And then when we do accomplish something we didn’t expect, we can derive a lot more satisfaction and increase our overall level of happiness — not only in volleyball, but in life.”
Given that, the U.S. team must be positively giddy over the way this tournament has developed. Only two teams finished unbeaten through the five matches of group play: the United States and Brazil. But Tuesday’s victory was another example of how the Americans have been pushed within those matches. Japan, which plays outstanding defense, drew even at 22-22 in the second set before American outside hitter Jordan Larson-Burbach put away the final three points. The U.S. squad went up 20-13 in the third set, only to watch Japan go on a 7-0 run.
“We’ve been pushed a lot,” Hill said. “The Netherlands match was a five-setter. It was a grind. I think that helps us prepare for the next — hopefully — two matches. They’re going to be a grind, no matter who we play.”
The grind will come within the mayhem of Maracanazinho, which is designed for volleyball and in which the Americans face significant hostility. A late-arriving crowd Tuesday was decidedly pro-Japan and was decidedly loud in expressing that.
“We’re used to it, I think,” Banwarth said. “The only time fans cheer for us is when we’re in America. They’re cheering for anyone else overseas, so we’re pretty used to it.”
Said U.S. middle blocker Rachael Adams: “There may be expectations from the outside, but within our team, we’re just trying to get better and better. That’s our focus.That’s our expectation. And everything else is outside noise for us.”