Heather Erickson led Team USA to a silver medal in women's volleyball at the 2012 Paralympic Games, two years before the team took another silver at the world championships.
It was a question Bill Hamiter obviously had rolled over in his mind many times before:
What’s it going to take for this team to win a gold medal?
“That’s a great question,” said Hamiter, laughing. “I thought we had it figured out.”
Hamiter, the coach of the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team, recently returned from Poland where his team won the silver medal at the ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships and became the first American team to qualify the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
So Hamiter obviously is proud of a group that went 5-0 in pool play, powered past Russia in the semifinals and then nearly defeated China in a tight championship match.
The U.S. lost 23-25, 25-22, 19-25, 25-21, 17-15 – but was ahead 13-11 in the fifth set. That’s about as close as you can get to a gold medal without bringing it home.
It marked the fourth straight silver medal for the U.S. in top international play, counting the 2008 and 2012 Games and 2010 world championships.
Outside hitter Heather Erickson has been on all four of those teams and was disappointed about coming up short.
“I’m kind of over silver,” she said.
“Everybody on the court played their hearts out,” said Erickson, USA Volleyball’s 2013 Sitting Women’s Player of the Year. “The final game we took them to five sets and we lost by two points. … So it was literally one error less or two errors less. That’s pretty much what it came down to.”
Erickson called it a tough loss because she and her teammates were confident this time would be different. Still, she said it “was a great game to be a part of.”
For Hamiter, it was yet another sign that the Americans can play for gold in 2016. In fact, he noted that Team USA had beaten China in its three previous matches. But he was hoping this time would be different.
“There was disappointment,” said Hamiter, speaking about his players’ reaction to the close loss in the final. “Like I said, I think we had that goal of going in there and trying to win the world championship. We believed we’d be able to qualify somewhere if we didn’t qualify there. … We would probably (qualify) within our zone next year.
“So the frustration was just a little bit of hey, we fell short, we had it, we knew we had it and we just didn’t get it done.
“But like anything, when you step back you look at how they played, how we played, and they were definitely looking at that as a positive because they know we played well.”
But beating China is a chore.
The Chinese team in Poland included five players from its championship team from London, and that fivesome has been together 12 years.
“They’re not going to roll over and let you take it,” Hamiter said. “China’s a great team. You’re going to have go to out there and earn it.”
So what’s it going to take for the U.S. to be on the top of the podium at Rio?
Over the next two years, Hamiter said this team is going to have to learn to execute just a bit better.
As he went over the stats from the final match with China in Poland, Hamiter noted Team USA and China were close in every category: aces, blocks, kills and hitting percentage. The game could have gone either way. But in the fifth game, China did what it needed for the victory.
Over the next two years, Hamiter’s goal is to help his players get to a level where they can get the key points in key situations. He’s hoping that sense of urgency and importance can be sharpened in international competitions next year, including at the ParaPan American Games in Toronto.
“You’ve got to know that every point matters,” he said. “We’ve got to execute. It’s that whole mentality. As much as we teach and preach that, it’s just competition that really builds that into the players. ….
“The players know they can play with China and that we can beat them. … It’s getting out there and getting it done.”
This particular U.S. team isn’t as experienced as China, but it has some exciting newcomers to go with veteran outside hitters Katie Holloway and Erickson – “our big go-to guns,” Hamiter said – and Monique Burkland in the middle.
Then there’s setter Kaleo Kanahele, who just turned 18. She was on the team in London but didn’t play much. At the world championships she was selected best setter of the tournament. Hamiter calls her a “perfect setter” for their offense.
In addition, Abby Mueller, who just turned 17, is an outside hitter with big potential. Nicole Nieves, 24, is another player Hamiter sees contributing in big ways over the next two years.
One good thing about clinching a spot early in the Road to Rio, Hamiter said, is that the team can focus on fundamental improvements without having to focus on qualifying.
“We can begin now, start looking, what are we gong to change, what are we going to alter, to get ready for Rio,” he said, adding, “It puts us ahead of the game a little bit.”
Erickson is eager for the work ahead and the chance to win in 2016.
“It’s still stinging at me,” she said of the world championships in Poland. “We could have won that match. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. We’re right there with them.”
Erickson recalls being on the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2008 that was just happy to get to the final. Now she wants some gold to go with all that silver.
“It’s just the little things, the small details, that we need to fix,” she said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.