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Micha Hancock has already had the type of athletic success that most people can only dream of, and soon she may add another accomplishment to the list: world champion.
Hancock is currently with the U.S. team playing in the FIVB Women’s World Championship in Osaka, Japan. Team USA is undefeated at 7-0 after a win over Turkey on Monday and needs just one win in its final two matches of the second round to advance to the final six and have the opportunity to play for the gold medal.
Which, in a sense, they do just about every time they step on the court.
“I think the good thing for this team is nothing really needs to change, it’s always the same focus,” said Hancock, a setter from Edmond, Oklahoma. “We have this thing called ‘gold-medal match day’ where even if it’s a scrimmage on a Friday that counts as gold-medal match day. We try to keep that standard no matter who, when or what we’re playing and I think it helps at times like this.”
Hancock, 25, wouldn’t be where she’s at today if she hadn’t had high standards for herself all along.
Her father Michael was a former professional heavyweight boxer and her mother Kelly a college basketball player, so athletic ability is part of Hancock’s makeup. She started playing volleyball as a child on a co-ed team alongside her sister and her mother, who also played as a youngster before moving to a town in Oklahoma where volleyball wasn’t offered and she made the move to basketball. From her parents, one of the values she learned was commitment.
Hancock went on to guide her high school team, Edmond Memorial, to three straight state championships. The only year they weren’t state champions was when she was a sophomore, and that year they were undefeated all season, she said. Among her many accolades, she was twice named the Gatorade Oklahoma State Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
In the middle of all that, she also was the starting setter for Team USA at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010. She had nine points, four of them aces, against Belgium in the final as the U.S. took home the silver medal.
“It was an honor to wear the badge on your jersey and just know that you're representing the United States of America,” she told The Oklahoman at the time. “It was definitely motivation.”
Hancock had initially planned to play college volleyball at the University of Tulsa, where her sister Kelsey played, but the coach there left after she signed and so Hancock petitioned the school and the NCAA to let her rethink her options.
It turned out the only school that had a scholarship left was one that hadn’t recruited her but did have quite a legacy in the sport.
Hancock ended up at Penn State, a program that won 109 matches in a row before the streak ended in 2010, and she helped lead the Nittany Lions win back-to-back Division I national titles in 2013 and 2014. She was MVP of the 2013 championships and the AVCA Division I national player of the year in 2014.
Yet Hancock never saw any of her many awards and accolades as much more than confirmation that she was heading in the right direction.
“I’m sure it helped my confidence, but it was never something I was expecting or aspiring to so when I did get (an award) it was like, ‘Hey, your hard work is paying off, now keep putting your head down and working.’” she said. “I see my game as something where there’s always room for improvement. That helped me get to where I am and also keeps pushing me to be better.”
Hancock was with the U.S. team that won bronze at the Pan American Cup in 2016, and last season she won gold at the same tournament and competed in the FIVB World Grand Prix.
Her primary role this season is as the backup to Olympian Carli Lloyd, the team’s setter who won bronze at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, coming in as a double substitute along with opposite Karsta Lowe.
“It’s pretty awesome to back up someone as humble and hard-working as Carli Lloyd,” Hancock said. “We just had this conversation about our relationship and it’s awesome that she goes out and kicks butt, and I get to come in and she’s opened the court for me and I get to keep the girls rallied then she comes back. It’s been a really good system.”
Hancock earned her first FIVB start as setter earlier in the tournament when the team took on Trinidad & Tobago and won in a three-set sweep. She’s come off the bench most of the summer, however, including during the Nations League campaign in which the women won the gold medal.
The U.S. won the world title in 2014 and they know that defending it isn’t going to get any easier as the tournament goes on. Despite the undefeated record, they’ve had some tough matches against Russia and Thailand in particular, with both teams playing very different styles, and had to adjust quickly.
The final two teams they’ll play in the second round are China, the defending Olympic champion, which is 6-1 so far, and Italy, which is also undefeated at 7-0 and leads Pool F.
For a team that plays every day like it’s gold-medal match day, however, the sense of urgency and pressure that come in big situations such as these is nothing new.
To get to that day for real and come out with the hardware and the title of world champion as a member of the U.S. team is something Hancock hopes to experience.
“I just got chills thinking about it,” she said. “I’m playing with some people I grew up playing against and watching and to be able to do that on the U.S. team, representing America here, it’s so much bigger than any one of us. We’d be thrilled to pull that off. We’re gunning for it.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.