Bethany Zummo is one of four members of the U.S. Women's Sitting Volleyball Team who will make their Paralympic debut in Rio.
To Paralympic fans, 23-year-old Bethany Zummo is already one of the best – if not the best – sitting volleyball libero in the world heading into the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
But the Dublin, California, native won’t fully back that statement yet, as she gears up to make her Paralympic debut.
That’s because she’s a nitpicker. A point-blank perfectionist.
And she admits it, too.
“I’m such a perfectionist,” Zummo said at least five times when speaking with TeamUSA.org. “In the middle of playing, I will think I’m playing the worst game of my life, but then I’ll look back at my stats and think, ‘Oh, I actually passed really well.’”
As the defensive specialist, owning the back row, Zummo is responsible for a great deal of her team’s passing in serving and receiving situations. She’s there to add ball control, passing the ball well so her teammates can properly run the offense.
So, of course, she wants to make the perfect pass every single time.
“Whenever my setters get yelled at, there I am in my head yelling at myself,” Zummo said. “The only reason they’re getting yelled at is because I can’t get my passes to them to make their job easier.
“But I’m working on it,” she added. “You just need to fight through adversity; sometimes stuff just doesn’t go the way that you want it to and you have to just play through it.”
Zummo trains at the University of Central Oklahoma and is one of four athletes on the 12-strong U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team making their Paralympic debut in Rio. After winning bronze at the Athens 2004 Games and silvers at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games, the program is still in search of its first gold.
Zummo may be just what the Americans need.
Born with two congenital disorders, fibular hemimelia and proximal femoral focal deficiency, she had her right foot amputated at 2 years old. She’s been playing volleyball since 2005.
“I ended up choosing volleyball because – I don’t even want to say it – I didn’t want to run,” Zummo said, laughing. “It had nothing to do with my leg. I was just a brat. Then I fell in love with volleyball and ended up running all over the place when I played standing volleyball.”
After being left behind as an alternate for the London 2012 Games, Zummo refused to stay upset. Rather, she quickly decided she needed to relax and take some of the pressure off of herself. The last four years have been about remaining positive and becoming mentally tough in front of her teammates, who can read her face like a book.
“Confidence was a huge thing I lacked before London,” Zummo said. “Before London, it was much more emotional and much more of a roller-coaster. I just wanted to be able to contribute to my team and make us the best we could be, but I didn’t feel like I could do that as much. Whereas now, I feel like a very important part of my team.”
Zummo is one of two starters on the team without Paralympic experience, the other being Nicky Nieves in the middle blocker position.
She believes the Rio 2016 Games are likely to come down to a U.S.-China rematch once again. The two countries could face each other twice, as they are grouped in the same preliminary round pool.
China has won gold at every Paralympic Games since women’s sitting volleyball was introduced at the Athens 2004 Games, and defeated the U.S. in the London 2012 final, 3-1.
But the tide has recently begun to shift.
The last three times the two foes squared off, the U.S. has come out on top. At March’s World ParaVolley Intercontinental Championships, where four of the American starters were 23 or younger, the U.S. women beat China in both pool play and the final. The U.S. also defeated its rivals in an exhibition match in the Netherlands last month thanks to its impressive defense.
“People who watch the game focus on the hitting and the offense, but I think something we’ve all really realized is how defense can win a game,” Zummo said. “All of us, the whole team, have really worked on that side of it, and I really think that’s going to help us win a gold medal.”
If the American defense continues to improve in the final month before Rio, who knows what Team USA’s potential will look like in September?
Perhaps Paralympic perfection could be in the cards for Zummo after all.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.