As the top-ranked team in the world, the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball squad frequently makes a podium appearance in international tournaments. But after earning the silver medal in the FIVB World Grand Prix final in July, the team knows its toughest competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games will likely be host country Brazil. And before the team can play the No. 2-ranked country, it has to make it through its pool play, which includes stiff competition from No. 3-ranked China and No. 6-ranked Serbia.
Head coach Karch Kiraly, the first volleyball player to win Olympic gold in both indoor and beach volleyball, said he knows his team will not have an easy go-around at the Games. Captain Christa Dietzen, making her second Olympic appearance, said she and her teammates wouldn’t have it any other way. The two spoke in a press conference on Sunday to discuss their expectations, their team philosophy and why they are excited to be playing in Brazil.
Can you explain what it means to you to be here in Rio for the Olympic Games and give us a preview of what to envision for your team?
Kiraly: We’re extremely excited to be here. We got into the buildings yesterday just fine, and things are great there, contrary to certain reports, so we’re having a very nice time there, looking forward to our first training session this evening and then we will of course begin play on Saturday against Puerto Rico. Once the groups here for the Olympics came out, we saw that we have a very strong group, and we think that’s the best possible thing that could happen for each of us in that group. We’ll face a lot of very fierce battles, and that’s what we’ve been preparing for for the last four years. We’re of course extremely excited to be here.
Dietzen: We are thrilled to be here in Rio for the Olympic Games. First of all, Rio loves their volleyball, so we’re excited to compete on this stage and with big crowds. As Karch said, we drew a very competitive pool, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. I think, in general, this team deals with challenges and adversity very well, that’s one of the characteristics of our team, and as you will hear, I’m sure, many of my teammates say, 12 are here, but we have a whole crew that has come through this gym the past four years that has allowed these 12 athletes to compete at the highest level. So we always say we’re much stronger than just the 12 here, and we’re excited to compete on this stage.
How has Team USA’s journey been with such a young group?
Kiraly: We have a nice blend of experience in people like our captain, Christa [Dietzen], who’s now attending her second Olympic Games, along with her fellow position colleague or teammate, Foluke Akinradewo and Jordan Larson and Courtney Thompson. We have eight players who have not competed at the Olympic Games previously, but who have gotten, since 2013, very many chances to battle and compete at the world level in tournaments like World Grand Prix, world championships, World Cup, so we’ve got a group that might not look that experienced on paper but has been able to log lots of matches. We’ve counted them up, we’ve probably played over 150 times with the USA uniform on in these last four years. Nobody has played all of those, but all of the people who are here have played the bulk of those, and that’s been great preparation for us.
Christa, can you kind of describe the team culture that has been built since 2013 and with Karch’s taking over as the head coach?
Dietzen: To sum it up, I think we are a very team-first, selfless culture. We had to take these younger girls under our wing in 2013 and, like Karch mentioned, we played a lot of matches and on some pretty competitive stages, one being world championships, World Cup and now the Olympic Games. So I think it’s very important, obviously, the 12 of us here, as I mentioned before, are just a small part of the 25 to 40 girls that have been in our gym the past four years, so I think we’ve all played a part in building this team-first, very selfless culture, and I think it serves us well during competition. When there’s a lot of trust, I think that’s another characteristic of this team just because of the adversity we’ve faced, the challenges we’ve faced. We’ve had opportunities to be vulnerable with each other in environments, and I think when you’re vulnerable, that’s when the trust comes.
Karch, Team USA just finished second with the silver at the FIVB World Grand Prix, and lost a thrilling five-set match to Brazil, the host for this year’s Olympics. Can you describe what the team learned and, moving forward, things that can help that?
Kiraly: Our one competition this year in 2016 was World Grand Prix, and overall it was a great experience for us. We played a number of the teams who will be contending very fiercely here for some type of Olympic medal. Brazil has to be thought of as a favorite for a medal for standing on the podium. China has to also as the world No. 2 and No. 3 teams, but they’re not the only ones by any means. There are lots of great teams here: Russia, Serbia, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Korea, and the list goes on. So it’s a really deep field, and all of those matches, win or lose, were great chances for us in our only competition. Had a nice battle against Brazil, and we know that any team that aspires to do something special here, that route for any one of those teams will go through some of the great teams like China and Brazil. So anybody who gets to play Brazil here, it’ll be an amazing atmosphere. This is probably going to be the best indoor volleyball and beach volleyball Olympics ever; there’s a good chance for that, with this country so volleyball-crazy. So as soon as we learned seven years ago that the Olympics would be here, we knew that this would be a special place for our sport to be able to compete.
Christa, what’s it like to play here in Brazil with a lot of the fans that are very knowledgeable about the game and really passionate?
Dietzen: So I had the opportunity to play here in Brazil at various locations I think three or four times throughout my career on the national team. A very specific match comes to mind — it was the 2012 Grand Prix. I don’t recall where we were competing, but the fans were so passionate and so loud in the gym with drums, with horns, with any type of noisemakers, and I remember, I think, kind of stepping off the court in between a time out, and I mean, not even able to hear myself think. And I was like, “Wow, this is so awesome.” This country has so much passion, so much pride, so much knowledge for the sport of volleyball. So, as Karch said, we’re very excited to be here, and the Brazilian fans, because they have so much knowledge of the game and they respect good volleyball. And obviously Brazil, among many other teams, is one of the powerhouses in the world. So we’re excited to see what kind of crowds we’ll have here in Brazil and excited to compete.
Karch, you’ve been coming to the Olympics since ’84, I believe. What have you seen change over that time, not only in the sport as an Olympic sport, but also with the Olympic experience?
Kiraly: I think each organizer learns from previous organizers. So, even with something like processing that our athletes got to go through in Houston a couple days ago where they got a lot of their Olympic gear, and the manner in which they were treated was just tremendous. They found ways to improve since London four years ago, and I think each organizer does the same thing. So this is going to be a Games with a great flavor, but looking back at what it was like in 1984 and how sophisticated things like the huge meal hall that has to feed something like 20,000 people in the Olympic village once it’s at full capacity, the logistics; I can’t even imagine trying to organize something like that. But one of the things we take pride in is just being learners and improving and being better the next time we do something, better today than we were the last time we trained. And so the Olympics themselves are the same way, and Rio, along with the flavor, the great spirit that Brazilian sports fans, and in particular volleyball fans, have is going to have a flavor all of its own here along with figuring out ways to run things even better.
What made you decide to become a coach, especially a coach of a women’s team? Can you tell us something about your philosophy?
Kiraly: When I was competing - and I competed for a very long time - I was not at all convinced that I would be a coach. What really got me started in coaching was not so many years ago when one of our sons was playing for his secondary school team and had a really rough season, lost every match, lost every set of every match, and my wife said, “You know what, you’ve got to help them out a little bit. Let’s see if we can help them have a less-than-perfectly-abysmal season. And so that’s what got me into coaching, and I loved it, loved coaching our boys and that age group. And then through a series of I guess somewhat accidental and also somewhat planned circumstances, I ended up being the assistant coach for these USA women to coach Hugh McCutcheon, who won a gold medal with the men’s team in 2008 and then became the women’s head coach right after. I really enjoyed that experience, huge amounts of learning as the assistant coach under Hugh, and with this group, a really special group, I really like working with this group of incredibly intelligent, powerful, talented, hardworking, dedicated women. So that was an easy decision for me to make once Hugh stepped down and stopped coaching the USA women, that was an easy decision for me to continue on.
And your philosophy?
Kiraly: I guess, first and foremost, I’m a teacher, and I’m trying to facilitate the highest level team performance possible. But I guess the keyword there is team because we are a team. So I’m trying to be a servant leader wherever we can based on my experience as a player. We’ve tried to, I guess, hand over a lot of the driving and guiding; we rely on our players who are on the court, players like Christa who have to make a lot of the real-time decisions, the real-time observation of the game to have a lot of autonomy to take care of that. That’s the way a team performs best. One of the points of my philosophy is also to try to create a team that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. We have a lot of really good parts to begin with. Some teams add up to less, some teams add up to about the sum of their parts, and we want to add up to more.
Going back to what you said about the atmosphere, how do you as players try use that in a positive way, and how much do you have to try to cut it out and focus on your processes?
Dietzen: I believe you’re referring to the Brazilian crowds. So, thankfully, we’ve played in some gnarly environments. So Italy in 2014 world championships, they had a fantastic crowd there. Playing here in Brazil several times in sold-out crowds in those matches, so I think you build and you learn from each one of those experiences and, as Karch mentioned, we’re a very process-based team, starting from our coaching staff and working our way down. So I think you always, you know, after the match, something personally that I do and I know several of my other teammates do is we evaluate what went well, what can we do better. So a lot of those moments in the last four years when we’ve played some of those big matches, what stands out to me is when we lost to Italy in the world championships in front of their home crowd, I think we learned a lot from that match, and it prepared us for some other big crowds that we faced. I think it’s very important to remember that, you know, the court’s the same size, the ball still weighs the same, so in those moments, it’s very important to control what you can control and just know that you’re going to continue to learn from those moments. I think when it’s so loud, it’s almost quiet, and if you can channel your inner thoughts and be able to control what you allow into your brain, then I think you can handle those situations.
Karch, You had three gold medals as a player. I’d like to know, how is it different for you, this medal, now as a coach?
Kiraly: It’s nothing about me at all. It is about our USA women’s volleyball program and women’s volleyball, and indoor volleyball in general has been a part of the Olympic program since 1964, and so we’re beyond 50 years now and the USA has had lots of great finishes there. The U.S. is always a contender to win tournaments, every tournament that we’re entered in, and we’d like to notch one of those at some point. Again, I don’t know if that happens this year or down the road, but that’s part of our job is to try to contend as fiercely as we can in every tournament we enter. We know that tournaments like the world championships, the World Cup, the Olympics are the ones that teams and fans around the world focus on a lot, and so we’re excited to have another chance to try to contend for something special here.
How have you seen the team progressing from four years ago to today? What do you see different between that team and this one?
Dietzen: Obviously there are different faces — there are some returning faces, there are some new faces. In general, I thought the last Olympics, I’m not sure that we really faced much adversity or challenges throughout our pool play. We won successfully, and I thought we weren’t really pushed until that gold-medal match, so I think that was definitely a focus of ours coming in after 2012, I mentioned, what do we learn from losses or any match and what did we learn from 2012? That the team needs to be able to handle adversity better and challenges, so that’s something that Karch does very well and he did as a player, so learning throughout the last four years, we are ready for this challenge in our competitive pool and whatever any team throws at us. So I think that was something that changed from 2012 until now, and I also think as Karch alluded to, the speed of our athletes is different as well. It’s much faster, and like I said, it’s always going to change when you change personnel. I think those are the two things that stick out.