RIO DE JANEIRO – David Lee and Reid Priddy, the lone two members of the U.S. men’s volleyball team that were part of the gold-medal-winning American squad at the Beijing Olympics, stood side by side in the media mixed zone on Sunday afternoon, smiles plastered on their faces.
No, this was not a repeat of that gold medal, but it was a medal nonetheless, and perhaps one of the hardest-earned wins of their respective and respected careers – coming back from two sets down to beat reigning Olympic champion Russia – and giving Team USA its first men’s medal at the Games since that gold eight years ago.
“Let’s stay out here as long as we have to,” Priddy, now 38, said he told his teammates on court.
“Down 0-2 I was a little worried,” admitted Lee, 34, the team’s captain. “If you saw the looks on some of the guys’ faces, it just didn’t look like we were in the game yet. But we just turned on a switch, the energy came out of nowhere.”
It’s the kind of energy an Olympic medal will bring out of you, the American men storming back against the Russians to win in unlikely fashion, 23-25, 21-25, 25-19, 25-19, 15-13 inside an electric Maracanãzinho arena.
The bronze gives the U.S. men a fifth Olympic medal all time, adding to that gold from 2008, golds in 1984 and ’88, as well as bronze in 1992.
“This is as good as it gets if we’re not getting a gold medal,” Lee added honestly. “Losing for silver is not a good feeling. To go out with a win for bronze, I’m smiling from ear to ear.”
The U.S. men bounced back in similar fashion to the women’s indoor team, as well as Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross on the beach, both of which earned bronze medals earlier this week after heartbreaking semifinal defeats.
While gold had been the goal for the No. 5-ranked Americans coming into the Olympics, it looked for a few doomed minutes against Russia on Sunday morning like it could be much, much worse: Dreaded fourth place.
“It wasn’t the storybook ending like we thought it could be, or that we wanted, but this is a great honor to be coming home with an Olympic medal,” said setter Micah Christenson, whose net cord ace gave the Americans game three. “We’re going to be wearing it proudly.”
Two days earlier the U.S. had been on the losing side of a similar match, a five-set, close-as-can-be tussle against Italy, which denied them a shot at gold and sent them to play for the bronze instead.
They opened flat on Sunday, Russia building mid-game leads in sets one and two and the closing out the Americans in both. But after losing the first point of set three, the Americans began to dig deep. Their attacks started working, giving them more confidence, and a 17-14 edge soon ballooned, Christenson’s serve sending the battle into a fourth.
This was a Russian team, while being reigning Olympic champs, that the U.S. had a 9-2 mark head-to-head against since the 2012 Olympics, including a 3-0 win last month in a game played in Dallas.
Set three gave the Americans confidence, and they began game four with a huge kill from Priddy, who said after the match that this was his last as an indoor player. Team USA won that game 25-19, then traded the first 15 points of the decider, Russia leading 8-7 as the two teams switched sides.
Lee, Priddy, Matt Anderson and David Smith are the lone returners from the 2012 Olympic team that won its pool at the Games only to fall to the Italians in the quarterfinals, losing out at a shot at a medal. The U.S. women’s team, which had earned a bronze of its own on Saturday, sat courtside and cheered on the men as they went for bronze.
“It’s the worst match to play,” Anderson said of having lost to Italy less than 48 hours before and then the possibility of winning no medal at all. “When you put yourself out there to achieve greatness in our sport, you’re on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. To get that you have to risk loss, and that’s something that we were willing to do.”
Anderson delivered a key ace to give the Americans a tiny cushion, 12-10 in the fifth, then Christenson had a great tip for 13-11. The U.S. earned three bronze-medal points at 14-11, capitalizing on their third, a kill – fittingly – from the 6-foot-9 Anderson.
Team USA rushed the court, hugging and falling to the ground. The small but loud U.S. section of the crowd roared, American flags waving from it. This was what the men had wanted, even from 0-2 down against the Russians and that Italy loss lingering.
“As soon as that gold-medal chance was taken away, we put up a new goal of winning this one and that’s what we did,” Anderson said. “There are no ties in the Olympics.”
It had been a rollercoaster Olympics, in fact, for the U.S. men, who started with losses to both Canada and Italy in pool play, but then registered wins over world No. 1 Brazil, France and Mexico, as well as Poland in the quarterfinals. But after their defeat at the hands of the always-pesky Italians in the semis, they rebounded quickly, coming back from the disappointment of not being able to play for gold and earning their spot on the medal podium.
“It’s just icing on the cake,” said Lee, who is 34. “All of the American guys have had pretty amazing careers, winning a World Cup, two World Leagues. But to go out in Rio with a win, that’s icing on the cake.”
“It’s been emotional, exhausting,” said a teary-eyed Erik Shoji, the team’s libero. “I think this shows our character. Kerri and April said it all: This is the toughest match of the tournament, to get third. We battled so hard and … and we won the bronze (laughter).”
No player could say enough about Priddy, who had suffered through injuries and surgeries over the last two years, as an inspiring leader for this team as he knocks on 40 years old.
“Reid Priddy was our fire; I dedicate this match to him,” Lee, the captain, said. “He’s one of the reasons why we have this bronze medal. He should be incredibly proud of the way that he finished his career for the indoor team. He was amazing out there today.”
And joining the women’s team and Walsh Jennings and Ross on the bronze medal platform? Not bad either.
“It’s as successful as we could have been without winning gold,” Lee said. “We had a pretty amazing Olympics for USA Volleyball.”