Relief and Redemption as U.S. Women’s Volleyball Team Will Play for Gold
TOKYO – On the morning of the women’s Olympic volleyball semi-final here at the Tokyo Games on Friday, three-time Olympian and center blocker Foluke Akinradewo for the US team had a premonition: the United States was going to play a game perfect.
Against Serbia that afternoon, the Americans would be efficient and clinical and each player would execute the game plan as they should – she could see it playing out in her mind. And just 20 months after Akinradewo gave birth to a son, Kayode, her side would beat Serbia to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday.
Walking to breakfast, Akinradewo shared his vision with team captain Jordan Larson also at his third Olympics. Larson, an outside hitter, said she felt the same way.
“I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but yes, okay! Larson remembers saying.
The premonition was right. Against a tough Serbian side, the United States won in straight sets, 25-19, 25-15 and 25-23.
Tijana Boskovic was Serbia’s top scorer with 19 points, while Annie Drews led the Americans with 17.
“Ms. Boskovic is just one of the great, great players in the world,” said Karch Kiraly, the coach of the United States team. “At the start of today, she was probably the most important player. murderer of the tournament, but we held her back. “
Kiraly, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in indoor volleyball and also gold medalist in beach volleyball, praised Akinradewo for her role in controlling Boskovic by leading the team’s “superb block from start to finish.” .
The Americans’ victory brought both joy and relief to the team, which lost to the Serbs five years ago in the semi-finals of the Rio 2016 Games. This loss hurt because the States team -Unis had done so well at these Olympics, with the gold medal close at hand, and Kiraly can’t forget that.
He said it was “an absolute soul crush” to lose in that semi-final game because it was the Americans’ only loss in Rio and it was so close: it was played out in the game. fifth set, with the victory of the Serbs, 15-13.
The Tokyo team will now have a chance to redeem themselves from that loss when they face Brazil in the gold medal match on Sunday. The United States will be ready for anything, and any team, Kiraly said, in part because throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it has spent so much time working on team chemistry.
Americans are between 24 and 34 years old and have a mix of experience. Only four of them have competed in the Olympics, while eight of them are new to the Summer Games.
When the pandemic hit, Kiraly decided to try something new to freeze the teammates. Instead of using the team’s regular sports psychologist, he took the unconventional route by enlisting former UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist as “a pure mental performance coach.”
Enquist, a motivational speaker who also coached the U.S. softball team, was the first of several guest speakers Kiraly hosted for the team after they started training separately because of Covid-19. Other sports figures followed, including Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck, who are former captains of the US women’s football team, and tennis legend Billie Jean King, who sent Kiraly and the US team. an encouraging text after the victory on Friday.
At the request of players, Enquist has returned to lead the player-only Zoom meetings. They discussed motivational books or movies, and how the team, sometimes scattered around the world, could communicate better as a group while each player trained on their own.
Larson, for example, trained at home in California, in her garage on her Peloton and with weights. It was a lonely existence. At one point, she said, almost three months went by without her touching a volleyball because she had no one to throw it back to her. She had also stopped jumping for two months. And when she did it again, she was wearing a bald spot in the grass in her garden because she had practiced approaching the net so many times in the same place.
Larson, who is 34 and the oldest player on the squad, said Inquist has helped connect players when they need it most.
“She came and we were sort of functioning as a group of individuals; I think we all had our own personal agendas, ”said Larson, explaining that Inquist helped them“ understand how to be on the same page ”.
Their goal, however, has always been the same: to win the first Olympic gold medal in American women’s volleyball. At the recent Olympics, the team had come together. He won silver medals at the Beijing Games in 2008 and the London Games in 2012, and he won bronze in 2016.
Drews, who is competing in his first Olympics, said winning gold in Tokyo was the team’s “entire pursuit”.
“This goal influenced all the decisions we made,” she said.
The return to the gold medal game motivated Akinradewo to return after having a baby boy at the end of 2019, despite a difficult pregnancy. She is still struggling with a severe case of diastasis recti, which is the separation of the abdominal muscles and affects her core strength.
Still, she trained at home throughout the lockdown and juggled motherhood and breastfeeding with her job as an athlete. In all, she missed three years playing for the national team before returning to the team in May. Even then, she worked separately from the team most of the time so that she could protect her son from possible exposure to the coronavirus.
It was especially important for her to keep moving forward, Akinradewo said, for more than just a chance to win a gold medal.
“There was a trip back, but I was determined to do it,” she said. “Part of my desire to do this was that I just wanted other moms to know it’s possible. So I just wanted to do it for them.
On Friday morning, she also felt that she and her team could win the semi-final for all moms.
“I woke up and I was like, ‘We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it,'” she said. “And I’m glad it came to fruition.”
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