Our Independence Day weekend, unlike most of our family and friends, was spent in Madrid, Spain. I must say that we could have been some of the only Americans to not have the 4th of July to relax and enjoy everything USA (we actually played our best match of the world league that night). Instead, we were gearing up for a very important weekend with two crucial matches against a resurgent Spanish team.
Going into this weekend, we sat atop of our World League pool at 7-1. Two wins would certainly put us in a nice position to keep it that way, especially considering Bulgaria was breathing down our necks at 6-2. As I mentioned previously, in order for us to qualify for the final round of world league in Brazil, we would have to win our pool of 4 teams (USA, Spain, Bulgaria, Finland).
We could not have been more pleased with the final results. Although we had to struggle through some adversity the first night, going up 2-0 in sets before loosing the next two sets, we managed to dig deep and pull out the 5th set in front of 4,100 fans 18-16. It was most likely our biggest win of World League thus far. To Spain's credit, they never really gave up the match when we appeared well in control after the first two sets.
Funny thing, while most of our matches in pool play had been back to back nights up to this point, for some reason the matches were Friday night of the 4th, then Saturday free, and the second match Sunday at around noon. We were fortunate to have this gift of a "recovery day" because most of the guys were well spent after playing a tough five set match on the 4th. Recover days are often critical to our continued success because it can be one of the hardest things in a tournament to play matches on consecutive days.
After a Saturday spent recovering and more or less just relaxing at the hotel, we arrived Sunday morning poised to finish the weekend how we started. We did not waste any time. Sundays match was a much better overall match by our team, and the guys really played well. Reid Priddy had one of his best matches, and really helped lead our team in veteran plays. Lloy Ball also stepped up and made it easy for our hitters. We were happy to wrap up the match easier than the first night winning 3-0.
Since we played on Sunday at noon, we were unable to get flights back to the USA until Monday morning. That meant we had from about 2pm on Sunday through the rest of the evening to relax and see Madrid. We realized while we were in Spain Sunday, that aside from volleyball, Spain had experienced an unbelievable week of sports. Just before we arrived Spain's soccer team won the Euro Cup and we could already see vendors around Madrid selling title shirts and memorabilia. But particularly on Sunday, to the excitement of our whole team watching (and many of us yelling for the one we had bet for or against with another team mate), Rafa Nadal won Wimbeldom for the first time defeating Feder in one of the best matches of all time. Also, the famous "running of the bulls" in Pamplona was held this weekend. It was kind of special just being in Spain while all this was happening.
Meanwhile, our athletic trainer Aaron Brock, myself and David Lee also managed to culture ourselves and spend 3 hours going downtown to the world famous Prado museum Sunday afternoon. Most of us are fortunate enough to have traveled enough to see some of the greatest museums of the world, but its not often we get to do so while we are on trips with the USA team. Most times we travel, we do not get a free day or afternoon to run around being a tourist...there is just not enough time with training, meals, treatment, and video. Sunday was a nice change.
The Prado was worth all the hype. Aside from being filled with tourists who often times mistook two rather tall Americans as another thing to stare at in a museum, the Prado had works of art that you could marvel at for hours. Looking at some of these paintings amazed me in regards to the time and mastery that must have been achieved to create such a beautiful piece. It seemed to me that for just a moment, we could look at these paintings and reflect as athletes. We could try to imagine that similarly to these artists, we had given most of our lives to arrive at a moment in time, a culmination of honing our skills, where we could have all the right ingredients at our disposal, and the opportunity to produce a masterpiece. It's my belief that our team's masterpiece will be painted at the Beijing Olympics in less than a month.
Gabe Gardner is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This blog was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.