RIO DE JANEIRO – It was hard to fight back the tears for libero Kayla Banwarth, two of them dripping down her face Thursday after the U.S. women, the No. 1-ranked team in the world, were shocked in the indoor volleyball semifinals.
She stood in the media mixed zone, recorders pushed close to her, eyes reddening. Minutes later, in the press conference room, middle Christa Dietzen did the same, coach Karch Kiraly patting her on the back in comfort.
“Right now, this loss is deeply disappointing,” a sullen-faced Kiraly told reporters. “It cuts deep, it’s very painful. And that’s okay. When you care that much it’s going to. We get some time to grieve… We’re going to come back harder in 48 hours to fight for a bronze medal.”
But the Americans had come to Rio to fight for a gold. Having lost in the Olympic final in both 2008 and 2012, Team USA had continued to strengthen an already-world class program with Kiraly at the helm the last four years, and were ranked above even powerhouse Brazil, the two-time Olympic defending champion heading into the tournament.
Winning all four of their matches in pool play as well as their quarterfinal, the Americans looked destined for another shot at gold when they took on Serbia – a team they had already beaten this week – in the semifinals. And then Serbia shocked the U.S. in five dramatic sets, 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13.
“This one stings,” said Dietzen, the team’s captain. “But we had a great example set for us when Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross responded really well after their semifinal loss, so we plan to take that same approach. We’re going after the bronze, that’s our next goal.”
Goals change during the Olympics. The Americans didn’t dream of losing to Serbia on Thursday, but they also didn’t dream of Foluke Akinradewo, their star middle, going down with an injury in the second set. She left the game and never returned.
It’s always taken a village for the U.S. women’s volleyball team, however. After not medaling since the 1992 Barcelona Games, the team – led by names like Logan Tom, Destinee Hooker and Lindsey Berg – went back-for-back in silvers in Beijing and London.
Akinradewo was on that 2012 team, as was Dietzen, setter Courtney Thompson and outside hitter Jordan Larson, the returners on an American team that has worked its way to the top of an abundantly talented volleyball pyramid.
“We left everything out there,” Larson said. “That’s all you can do.”
Serbia, having never won an Olympic medal of any color in men’s or women’s indoor volleyball, called the win “historic.”
But the U.S. women have prided themselves on taking things one at a time – literally. There is a focus on each and every point, never an expectation of winning a set or match before they go into it. It’s something that Kiraly has fostered, the man who won back-to-back indoor golds for the U.S. in 1984 and ’88, then another gold – this time on the beach – at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
“I think we saw how much these special women care for each other,” Kiraly told reporters, making note of Dietzen’s pressroom emotions. “It’s not just the 12 that are here, but we have far more that have made major contributions to who we are and what we do. … We represent a large group in spirit, and that’s going to be a big part of our regrouping and resetting, is to represent that whole group.”
The Maracanãzinho was rocking throughout Thursday afternoon, when the U.S. won the first set but then lost the next two, watching Akinradewo go down but then rallying in game four, winning it going away when Serbia knocked a serve long, 25-16.
The fifth felt like it belonged to the Americans, who held leads of 9-6 and 11-8. But Serbia knotted things at 12 and 13, and then Team USA middle Rachael Adams netted a serve to give the Serbians their first match point. They capitalized on the attack.
“We fought really hard and obviously it hurts that we couldn’t push a little more,” said Banwarth. “It’s the journey that matters, not the result.”
The result the Americans will want on Saturday afternoon is a win, however, when they’ll face either China or the Netherlands – both teams that they have beaten in pool play – for a shot at the bronze medal.
Was it all too much? Brazil out, the Americans the de facto favorites, the chance at a gold medal dangling in front of Team USA. Larson doesn’t think so.
“Everybody is a great team here,” said the second-time Olympian. “Serbia is great and they played really well.”
But the tears were for something: A strong sense of pride and accomplishment that this team expected itself to deliver what a country has never been able to do in women’s indoor volleyball. Saturday they play will for bronze. Win, they get a medal, and lose they go home empty-handed.
How do you approach a game like that?
“Lean on each other – that’s all we got,” said Larson. “We came together, we have to do it together. That’s how we’re going to leave.”