Tori Dixon is with the rest of the U.S. women’s volleyball team this week in Nanjing, China, where they’re preparing to go after their seventh title in the FIVB World Grand Prix Finals.
Having finished second in the three-week, nine-match preliminary round to earn a spot amongst the final six teams, the U.S. women open play on Wednesday against Serbia, the team that upset them in five sets in the Olympic semifinals last summer in Rio.
It’s a position Dixon thrives in, and that she’s ready to take on full bore. It’s also a position that couldn't be more different from the one she was in at this time last year, and not just geographically.
While the rest of the U.S. team was on the verge of opening the 2016 Games, Dixon was at home working her way back to full strength after left knee surgery. She’d torn her ACL that January playing for her professional team in Japan. With the recovery and rehabilitation, there just wasn’t enough time to get back to top form, so Dixon had to watch as the team went to Rio without her.
“Getting hurt sucked, and the timing was even worse,” said the 24-year-old middle blocker from Burnsville, Minnesota, via email. “But when I got hurt, it was always about the next step. I tore my knee, now I have to pack to get back to the U.S., now I have to get surgery, now heal the wounds, now get the swelling out, etc. There was no real down time or anything to think about how bad the situation really was.”
Dixon might not have even been in the position to make an Olympic team, however, had she not opted for a different type of surgery four years ago.
Back in 2013, while she was still a student-athlete at Minnesota, Dixon finally got an answer as to why for the past five years her heart raced out of control periodically when she played. She’d blame fatigue and dehydration, but as the episodes went from once in a while to multiple times a day, she knew something wasn’t right. Dixon was diagnosed with an extra node in her heart, and although it wasn’t life threatening, it was a threat to her volleyball career. Dixon immediately opted for surgery.
“I could either take medication every day for the rest of my life, I could start limiting my activity in terms of intensity and duration, or I could have the ‘low risk’ surgery and take care of the problem all together,” said Dixon, who also was invited to attend her first national team camp in 2013. “Not only would I have to limit my volleyball play, but it would have also limited any physical activity for the future, and in everyday life. It's just not something I wanted to live with. For me, it was an easy decision.”
Dixon was back to 100 percent within about six weeks, only her 100 percent post-surgery felt a lot better than what she thought was 100 percent before. With more to give in training and conditioning, she felt like she was on top of the world.
In 2014, Dixon joined the national team for a handful of tournaments before it went to the FIVB World Championship in Italy. In her first major international tournament, Dixon started in six of the 13 matches and converted 52.2 percent of attacks into points along with a 0.24 ace average as the team went on to win its first world title.
“Being on that team has been my favorite international experience so far,” she said. “I've never felt more in tune with a team. You could just feel how everyone was invested and we had a great tournament. Being in Italy and getting the full Italian tour was awesome, too. It really added to the whole experience.”
Her national team career progressed from there. In 2015, Dixon was named best blocker at the FIVB Volleyball World Cup, where the team won the bronze medal. The U.S. also won gold at the NORCECA championship and the FIVB World Grand Prix, during which she started eight of 14 matches with a 2.61 points per set average and 42.9 kill percentage.
At the NORCECA Olympic qualification tournament in 2016, the U.S. won gold, secured its spot in the Olympics and Dixon was named best blocker.
Two weeks later, she was injured.
As disappointing as it was, Dixon said, she kept herself occupied mentally and physically with the benchmarks and challenges that are part of the rehab process.
“Even to this day there are still benchmarks with the rehab process I’m working on,” she said. “It never stops. I was very lucky to not have a major injury throughout my career, and I'm working hard to make sure I don't have another one.”
Now, the U.S. is in the Grand Prix Final for the third year in a row after finishing 6-3 in the preliminaries. Serbia is the only team in the final group that the U.S. did not play in the opening matches, although the Americans are well aware of what damage the Serbian team can do. Team USA faces Italy on Thursday, and should it advance, the semifinals are Saturday and are followed by the medal round on Sunday.
“The finals are very exciting,” Dixon said. “Everyone in China is excited, and the venue is huge. There's always a lot of hype around finals week and I think my team and I are just trying to soak it all in, and play really high level volleyball.”