Team USA celebrates after winning gold at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 8, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Following the second set of Sunday’s gold-medal volleyball game at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the members of the U.S. women’s volleyball team regrouped and reminded each other to slow down, take a look around and really experience these last few moments.
“You can be so dialed in, so focused that you forget to enjoy this moment,” setter Jordyn Poulter said. “Enjoy the fact that we’re playing in a gold-medal match. Enjoy that we’re beating one of the best teams in the world as a group, with the people that we love. And so just toward the end, I think we were really just trying to stay in the moment with each other.”
Ending the match with a gold medal made it even more enjoyable.
126 years after William G. Morgan thought up the game at a YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and 57 after volleyball was first held at the Olympic Games, the U.S. women defeated Brazil 25-21, 25-20, 25-14 to claim the team’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport.
The winning point, fittingly, came off a spike from U.S. captain Jordan Larson, a 34-year-old who was likely playing her final Olympic game.
“I couldn’t write a better story for her,” Poulter said.
That the win came against the team’s longtime nemesis Brazil made it all the sweeter.
Coming into these Olympics, the two teams had met in the medal round three times, with the U.S. sweeping Brazil for bronze in 1992 but Brazil beating the Americans for gold in both 2008 and 2012.
Larson and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson were both on that 2012 Olympic team, and they were also on the U.S. team that defeated Brazil in the final of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League in June. In big games, the teams just seem to find each other.
That proved to be the case once again in Tokyo, with Brazil coming into the gold-medal game undefeated, while the Americans had lost one game in pool play but had ratcheted up their play and had their best performance yet in the semifinals.
“I expected it to be incredibly difficult,” U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. “I told the team not to expect a single point to be easy. Brazil is too great, too strong a team, too legendary a program with too strong a coaching staff for anything to come easy for us. So we were prepared fore the most difficult conditions possible.”
In the semifinals, the U.S. had swept past Serbia with clinical precision, avenging a loss to Serbia in the 2016 Olympic semifinals, when Team USA eventually won a bronze medal. That momentum continued from the start of the final at Tokyo’s Ariake Arena.
The U.S. jumped out to a 4-0 lead behind two points from outside hitter Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, and then never quite let Brazil back into it. Brazil three times got back to within a point, but each time the U.S. pulled back away, with Bartsch-Hackley supplying eight points and Larson, another outside hitter, adding six.
Opposite Annie Drew took the lead in the second set. After Brazil won the first two points, the U.S. battled back to tie it 4-4 before pulling away with a six-point run midway through, creating too big of a gap for Brazil to close. Drew had seven of her 15 points in the second.
Brazil gave the Americans their best shot to start the third. Trading points back and forth, neither team was able to create separation through the first 14 points. That’s when the U.S. went on a 9-1 run that knocked the wind from Brazil’s sails.
When Larson rose up and smacked the winning shot to the floor, the Americans let out a scream and fell to the floor in a heap. Several players, as well as Kiraly, were wiping tears from their eyes.
“I feel like this entire match and honestly the last three matches we’ve been focused on the task at hand,” said Poulter, whose 36 sets led all players. “For us to be able to sweep in the quarters, in the semis and in the finals, I think it just shows how locked in we were and how ready we were. So yeah, once it was done, it was like a release. …
“It’s a culmination of our entires lives as volleyball players to come to a pinnacle at one point.”
Drews led all U.S. players with 15 points, followed by Bartsch-Hackley with 14 and Larson with 12.
Earlier this year, the U.S. women’s volleyball team that was supposed to compete at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow held a reunion. The U.S. had competed in the first two Olympic women’s volleyball tournaments, in 1964 and 1968, but then missed two in a row. Prior to the 1980 Games, the governing body set up a residency program. Rather than putting together an all-star team in the weeks before the Olympics, the U.S. aimed to build the kind of cohesive unit that the top teams from around the world had.
That 1980 team never got to compete at the Olympics because the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. Four years later in Los Angeles, however, the U.S. won its first Olympic medal, a silver. The team has reached every Olympics since.
This year’s Olympic team developed a strong connection with the one from 41 years ago, Kiraly said, with each side sending videos to the other.
“We felt a really special bond with that group,” he said. “The 1980 team is so proud to watch our team carry on this legacy and carry it on to an even great height.”
The weight of the program’s history was on the U.S. players’ minds, they admitted, even if it’s not the kind of thing they think about every day.
“A lot of people had to sacrifice a lot for us to be here,” Larson said.
In a way, though, an Olympic gold medal had become almost an inevitability. The U.S. has been among the sport’s elite for several years. In addition to the bronze and two silver medals in the past three Olympics, Team USA also won its first world title in 2014. In the three editions of the Nations League since its founding in 2018, the U.S. has won all three titles.
“We had to learn in London and in Rio that we just weren’t enough at that point,” Larson said. “Did we believe it in that moment? Absolutely. But we had to go one extra step to figure it out.”
The team came into these Olympics with an entrenched coach in Kiraly, one of the sport’s iconic players — the only person to have won Olympic gold medals both indoor (1984 and 1988) and on the beach (1996) — who has been with the program since 2009 and became head coach in 2012. With a mix of just four retuning Olympians and eight first-timers, the group ranging in age from 24 to 34, this U.S. team came together in just the way it needed.
It all culminated with that winning shot from Larson, and then a celebratory embrace on the court.
“I just felt a release of all the hard work that we had put through over these months, over these five years,” middle blocker Haleigh Washington said. “It was an absolute release of emotion.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.