The U.S. women’s national volleyball team won its first-ever FIVB World Championship last October, and that success has only continued in 2015.
Last month, the program registered not one but two major victories when half the team defeated Brazil to win gold at the FIVB Grand Prix tournament and the other half of the team defeated Brazil to win gold at the Pan American Games on the very same day.
Now, beginning on Saturday in Japan, the U.S. has the chance to not only accomplish its ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games next summer in Rio de Janeiro, but the team also can earn the 12-month calendar FIVB Triple Crown by winning gold at the World Cup.
“We’re here to win this thing, not just qualify for Rio,” said team captain Christa Dietzen, who won silver with the team at the 2012 Olympic Games. “Yes, that’s the hope and part of the goal, but the goal is also to win the World Cup. I think that would be amazing for this program.”
The tournament will have the No. 1-ranked U.S. playing 11 matches in 16 days while traveling to three different host cities. The top two finishers will earn Olympic berths, and the U.S. has its hands full in round-robin group play, facing Korea, Serbia and China in its first three matches. All three teams were ranked in the top 10 in 2014.
“We have to come out the gate really strong against Korea,” U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. “They have one of the best outside hitters in the game in Kim Yeon-Kyung so one of the challenges for us is we’re going to have to hit the ground running.”
The intense schedule will be mitigated somewhat by the U.S. team’s depth. Not only did two different U.S. teams win gold in major tournaments on the same day, but Kiraly also used 14 different starting lineups when competing in the Grand Prix. Eighteen players started at least one match in that tournament.
“I think the team has been really cognizant of each player making each person better, of elevating the play of those around her, asking and answering the questions of, ‘How can I be better for you?’” he said.
While depth has certainly been an asset, so has the ability to handle adversity both on the court and off.
In 2013 the U.S. team traveled to Lima, Peru, for the Pan American Cup. Because of a misunderstanding regarding their arrival time, no rooms were available when they reached the hotel in the middle of the night. The tournament began with the team sleeping on the floor of the hotel’s executive lounge, but it ended with them winning a gold medal.
“That first trip, how the girls handled it set the tone for our approach to adversity,” Dietzen said.
Another reason for the team’s success, Dietzen said, has been its intensity. They treat every single match as if it’s for the gold medal on the highest stage, even if it’s a scrimmage, and that attitude carries over to practices too. The team has also worked with high-performance sports psychologist Mike Gervais, whose other clients include the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks. Gervais has worked with the players on taking a holistic approach to the sport.
“It’s not just focused on the skills and the volleyball side but also the team aspect,” Dietzen said. “Athletes can win matches, win games, but I think a true team and a true team mentality wins championships and gold medals. I think that’s the reason for our success the past three years.”
With each major victory the U.S. may strengthen its reputation as a favorite to win gold in Rio a year from now, but Alisha Glass said past accomplishments won’t guarantee anything if and when that time comes.
“I think that the slates get swiped clean at any tournament, especially the Olympics,” said Glass, who was named the Best Setter at the world championship last year and is the two-time defending U.S. Female Indoor Player of the Year. “Everyone earned their place and favored or not, we have to fight, each and every match.”
For now, Kiraly isn’t thinking that far down the road, nor is he thinking about the Triple Crown or the gold medal at the World Cup. He’s focused on the first play of the first game against Korea. Then he’ll let himself think about the second play.
“If we do that a couple thousand more times … maybe some of that other stuff will take care of itself,” Kiraly said.