LONDON – It hasn’t gone unnoticed at the 2012 Olympic volleyball venue that the U.S. women have a player who seems ready to contend in high jump at Olympic Stadium.
With a 43-inch vertical leap and 6-foot-4 height, opposite-side hitter Destinee Hooker led the U.S. women’s dominance as they went undefeated in preliminary play, dropping only two sets in five matches at Earls Court.
“She made the difference,” Brazil head coach Jose Guimaraes said after the U.S., ranked No. 1 in the world, beat his second-ranked team 3-1. “It’s difficult to stop her. …The things she does change the direction of the attack. She jumps so high.”
The U.S. women, seeking their first Olympic gold ever, play the Dominican Republic in a quarterfinal match today. Semifinals are Thursday and medal matches on Saturday.
Hooker, a 24-year-old from San Antonio, is an Olympic rookie. But, as veteran teammate Lindsey Berg said, “She’s come into this gym like she’s played in the Olympics before.”
Hooker ranks second only to Kim Yeon-Koung of South Korea in scoring, with 104 points to Kim’s 137. The next highest-ranking American is Foluke Akinradewo with 60 points.
“Definitely, I’ve been having nerves,” Hooker said of her Olympic debut. “But when you have veterans on the court that kind of coach you through it, like in the locker room before you enter the court, it kind of soothes your mood a little bit.”
Hooker also has her older sister, Marshevet Hooker, to call for Olympic advice. Marshevet, one of the USA’s premier sprinters, placed fifth in the 200 meters at the 2008 Games. Marshevet, with a baby due in October, is not in London.
Like Marshevet, Hooker played volleyball and basketball and competed in track and field in high school. Also like Marshevet, Hooker starred at the University of Texas in track and field. The younger Hooker sister became just the second woman to win three NCAA outdoor high jump titles.
She also played for the Texas volleyball team, leading the Longhorns to the 2009 NCAA final.
During college, Hooker competed in track in the volleyball offseason. But after the 2009 NCAA track and field championships ended, she turned her attention full-time to volleyball.
“I think I’m better with a team-oriented sport,” Hooker said. “I can contribute to them, they contribute to me, whereas high jump is more individual and I’m not really content at being that focused and just worrying about my own self.”
Hooker was named to the U.S. national team in 2010. Her teammates have watched her develop a more well-rounded game over the last two years.
“She’s not only a hitter now,” Berg said. “She blocks. She plays defense. She’s really developed her game to be a volleyball player instead of just this great athlete who jumps high and hits the ball hard.”
U.S. women’s coach Hugh McCutcheon called Hooker a “special athlete.” But he noted the U.S. team is much more than one player.
“One of the strengths of our team is that we have a lot of people who are pretty special,” he said. “There’s a lot of depth and a lot of balance. And it’s that balance that allows us to attack in different ways and defend in different ways.”
Hooker also is trying to broaden the scope of the spotlight that is, with every high-scoring performance, shining ever more brightly on her.
Asked whether she is the U.S. women’s secret weapon, she said: “I don’t think I’m the secret weapon of this team. …We have a few veterans that have been to the Olympic Games three or four times before. Being able to learn from them and regroup from them is key.”
She was right about one thing for certain: She is no longer a secret. There is no denying her presence or the effect she has on a game.
“It’s complicated for the other teams,” Brazil’s Guimaraes said, “not for the American team.”
At the 2011 FIVB World Cup, which served as the Olympic qualifying tournament, Hooker scored an astounding 39 points against traditional volleyball powerhouse China and another 27 against Italy, in a four-set victory that clinched an Olympic berth for the USA.
“She’s one of the best opposites in the world, and one of the best volleyball players in the world,” said teammate Danielle Scott-Arruda. “And she has the potential to be even better.”
The only thing more dazzling than the numbers Hooker has been posting in London – she has 87 kills, 14 blocks and three aces – are the designs on her fingernails.
She got an Olympic manicure just before heading to London, with American flags on her thumbs, British flags on her ring fingers, and gold on her pinkie fingers.
With Hooker leading the charge, all the U.S. women could soon have gold -- hanging around their necks.
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.