Members of the U.S. women’s volleyball team celebrate after winning the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on July 1, 2018 in Nanjing, China.
The U.S. women’s volleyball team was already at the tail end of one impressive bonding experience — winning the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League tournament at the beginning of July — when the players started to prepare for another.
Or maybe prepare is too strong a word.
After some time off following the six-week tournament that had them crisscrossing the globe, the team was about to embark on a multi-day excursion run by retired Navy SEALs. They just had no idea where they were going or what they’d be doing.
“We had to report to the training facility (in Anaheim, California) at 9 p.m., and were told to bring a toothbrush and sunglasses,” said outside hitter Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, who was named MVP of the Nations League tournament. “That’s all the information we had.”
That would be disconcerting for anyone.
For a group of elite, national team athletes who quite literally have built careers on being prepared, gathering as much information as possible and having a detailed plan of attack for each day, it was practically torture. Yet the experience was another building block in what it takes to create the ultimate team, and showed the teammates a side of themselves and one another that they hadn’t necessarily seen before.
“I think in volleyball, and having players with the experience we do who’ve been together a while, you fall into these roles naturally and they just become your roles,” said outside hitter Kelsey Robinson, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist. “If we’re successful, then those roles don’t really change. But you get put in this environment where no one’s been doing this forever and no one has experience and you rely on what people are good at, and people step up, whether they’re 31 years old or 22.
“It was cool to see people step up and find things they were good at, and learn that you don’t always have to lead. You can follow, too, and that’s just as good. We talk a lot about leadership as filling in the gaps, so watching your team get involved and watching people filling in the gaps was really, really cool.”
Per instructions from the organizers, details about the experience are sparse. The athletes wouldn’t want to give anything away to any future teams undertaking a similar journey with the group.
Plus, “Honestly, I’d be so mad if another team did it and it was easier for them and they knew everything that was about to happen, because we had no idea,” Bartsch-Hackley said.
Suffice it to say they weren’t near civilization, there was no cell phone service, there wasn’t a lot of sleep, activities weren’t limited to daylight hours and there were lots of challenges and problems to solve along the way that resulted in a wide range of emotions over the course of three and a half days.
“That was part of it was that you have to give in, surrender control, let go,” she said. “That was something, at least for our team, that was so necessary just because it correlates to the court. We can come up with plans, but those plans are not always going to be the case. Teams won’t always fall into our scouting reports. I thought it was an awesome experience and we had some really funny moments and some really amazing moments where you’re like, ‘Our team is so, so rad, and these women are incredible.’”
Their performance at the Nations League could certainly be described as such. Coming back together for the first time at the end of their pro seasons, the members of the women’s national team needed to readjust to one another quickly. After one hiccup in the second game of the tournament, they put together 10 wins in a row and finished the round robin with a 13-2 record to make it to the Final Six.
From there they defeated Turkey and Serbia — the two countries that defeated them in the round robin — as well as host China and Turkey once more to win the title and the $1 million in prize money.
Throughout the tournament and even in the title match, coach Karch Kiraly was moving players in and out, putting them in different positions and challenging them to rise to the situation in order to win.
“I think it’s huge for us (to be able to do that),” Bartsch-Hackley said, “It was a learning process for us the entire tournament and I think as teammates we all trust each other even in different positions.”
Perhaps even more so now that they’ve successfully navigated the Navy SEAL-designed challenges running on no sleep in the middle of the night. The team’s next major on-court challenge will be the world championships in September, where they’ll seek to defend the title they won in 2014.
“I think it makes us stronger in the fact that we’re all here to win gold, and no matter what we go through and no matter what happens day to day, that’s the end goal,” Robinson said. “When everyone buys into that we just find answers faster and work harder and have a level of engagement maybe we hadn’t had before. I think we’re mentally tougher. I know personally I was telling myself every day, ‘You are so strong, you can do this.’ I’m grateful just to be able to do this as my job and nothing else. I have it so good, and that realization makes it easier to show up every day and give everything you have.”