LONDON – As the U.S. women hired an Olympic champion coach, as they overtook Brazil as the world’s top-ranked volleyball team in 2011, as they won all but one game in 2012 and then rolled undefeated through their Olympic matches in London, all signs seemed to be pointed toward an exuberant end to a gold-medal shutout.
Instead, it ended Saturday as it did at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, with Brazil dancing in celebration to the top of the medals podium while Team USA wore silver with mixed emotions.
“I still believe that we’re a gold-medal team, and I’ll believe that for the rest of time,” said U.S. captain Lindsey Berg, one of five U.S. players who were playing in their second consecutive Olympic final. “Brazil -- that was the first team that took us out of our rhythm, our system.”
Brazil made several errors in the first set Saturday, but in subsequent sets turned on a powerful and relentless serving and scoring attack to win 3-1 (11-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17).
“The first set was outrageous. I was kind of like, ‘What’s going on? We’re beating them really aggressively.’ But Brazil is a great team. They battled back, they fought hard,” said Destinee Hooker, who was named “Best Spiker” of the Olympic tournament.
Brazil was able to neutralize Hooker, an Olympic rookie who, coming into the final, had led the U.S. in scoring in every match. She scored her fewest points of the tournament (14) in the gold-medal match. Logan Tom, a 2008 Olympian, also scored 14 points.
Hooker finished the Olympics as the second-leading women's scorer, with 161 points to South Korea Kim Yeon-Koung’s 207.
“They certainly slowed her down,” U.S. head coach Hugh McCutcheon said of Brazil’s effectiveness against Hooker. “And rightfully so. If I was defending us, I would want to try to deal with her. If you can contain her, then you can probably manage some of the other parts of our game.”
With the U.S. struggling to gain an offensive foothold, McCutcheon rotated in some of the team’s veteran players, including 39-year-old Danielle Scott-Arruda.
“We were trying to get some composure,” he said. “It’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been in that moment what that moment’s like. Certainly people that have been in Olympic finals, that have played in numerous Olympics, I think their experience and their composure helps.”
Those players who have played in numerous Olympics fully admit they were on a mission to finally win Olympic gold. That does not mean they were not proud of Saturday's result.
“It’s a great honor still,” Scott-Arruda said. “I’m really happy to have a silver medal. Everyone wants to be a gold medalist. That’s the ultimate goal. But leaving with a silver medal, that’s not shabby at all.”
Said Tom: “It’s a little disheartening. You go for gold and you put four years into it. But you can’t really complain about being here or getting a medal in any kind of way.”
In addition to their 2008 silver, the U.S. women won silver at the 1984 Olympics and bronze in 1992.
After the 2008 Games, USA Volleyball hired McCutcheon, who won Olympic gold with the U.S. men in Beijing.
“I’m still really proud of what our group’s achieved,” he said Saturday. “Over the course of four years, I think we’ve had a pretty good run.”
In 2011, the U.S. women ended Brazil’s four-year streak as the world’s top-ranked team. Brazil, a team the U.S. had beaten six straight times before the Olympic final, is currently ranked No. 2.
Hooker already was talking Saturday about a possible rematch at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Definitely I will be there,” Hooker said. ”It’s going to be a little different but nothing that this team can’t do. We have to go back and re-group for another four years and come out strong.”
Re-grouping will involve some big changes. Berg said she is retiring. Scott-Arruda is unlikely to be back. Tom is undecided on whether she will keep playing.
McCutcheon soon will begin a new job as head coach at the University of Minnesota.
As he bid farewell to the London Olympics on Saturday, he provided the best perspective on winning silver.
Four years ago, his father-in-law was fatally stabbed in a random incident in Beijing a day after the Opening Ceremony. He has appreciated that this Olympics has been “very ordinary.”
“Our team played well, we did the best that we could, and we got an Olympic medal,” he said. “Actually, that’s far from ordinary, when you think about it. That’s pretty extraordinary.”
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.