U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball team celebrate a victory at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on September 5 , 2020 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — Both women’s sitting volleyball teams playing in the gold medal match at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 had been in this position before.
This was not new territory for them, having played against one another in the past three Paralympic gold-medal matches. After losing to the Chinese women’s team in 2008 and 2012, Team USA looked to defend their first-ever gold medal after winning in Rio 2016.
After an intense two sets at Makuhari Messe Hall with the U.S. in the lead by two (25-12, 25-20), China would come back for a 25-22 win in the third set — forcing both teams to do something they had yet to do in Tokyo: play a fourth set.
It was halfway into that fourth set — with each team taking turns with the advantage — that the U.S.’s team captain, Kathryn Holloway, tried to motivate her teammates. “I looked at everybody, and I said, ‘you give it everything you have right now!’”
The four-time Paralympian said her pep talk was somewhat selfish, as she didn’t know how she would make it through another set.
“I was getting energy chews on the bench and just taking deep breath after deep breath to find anything in me to make sure that that point was the best that I could give,” she said. “I just know that I didn’t want to go to five, that’s for sure. I didn’t even want to go to four.”
Earlier in the pool play, the Americans had gotten their first look at the Chinese team after last playing them at world championships in 2018, where the U.S. finished ahead with the silver.But in their first match in Tokyo, Team USA would fall 3-0 (25-17, 25-22, 26-24), losing their only game to the then-undefeated team.
Having played one another in the last four Games, Holloway said they typically know what to expect from their long-time rivals. But this time, “we had literally not seen them for five years, it felt like. So, we had no idea that they were going to show up like that.”
It was one of the reasons why their first match against one another was not their best, five-time Paralympian and expecting mother, middle blocker Lora Webster said.
“We just never felt right. We never really settled in in that match. There were a lot of things that just weren’t working, and we could feel it on the court.”
One of the things that helped them today was trying to stay in the moment. “Try not to look too far up at what you can lose or what you can gain,” four-time Paralympian Heather Erickson said, who was the lead scorer with 21 points. “Focus on what we can do right now in this moment. And today, we did a really good job of refocusing ourselves.”
After the fourth set sat at 13-13, the U.S. slowly started to inch their way up the scoreboard.
Webster said she could feel herself getting excited. “There were a couple of moments in the middle of the game, and I was like, don’t go there yet. Don’t go there yet, because you can get caught up. I try not to look at the scoreboard, but there were a few times that I did.”
The other thing she felt was kicks from her unborn child, who is due in early 2022.
“The baby’s been moving the whole time. So it’s been like a fun reminder during the game when I forget that I’m pregnant, I get a nice little kick.”
After an exciting 24 minutes of play, the U.S. carved out a two-point lead towards the final moments of play. Emma Schieck’s serve point sealed the gold and a final score of 25-19.
With medals around their necks — and the Games now behind them — Webster said it would take a while for it all to sink in.
“When that game was over with and just coming off that podium, it felt like, oh my gosh, not only can I not believe that we all actually made it, but that we just finished on the top of the podium. It is such a fulfilling filling.”
It’s one she hopes to relive in Paris — assuming her family gives her the go-ahead.
“If they’re in for another ride, then we’ll go for it,” the 35-year-old said. “As long as I can contribute to my team. I’m here to support them and play and do everything I can. I love competing. Playing for Team USA has changed every aspect of my life, so I’m in it as long as I can be.”
That same can’t be said for Holloway, who will be starting a new job as the assistant director of Name, Image, & Likeness at Stanford Athletics one week after returning home from Tokyo.
“I am not sure what the future holds for me,” she said about her self-imposed break. “I love this team. I love this sport. I love advocating for the Paralympics, and I am also tired. Very tired.”
Shortly after the women’s victory, the U.S. played their last game in Tokyo, with the men’s wheelchair basketball taking on the host country in the gold medal match. Team USA ended with another gold and a total of 37 gold medals and 104 overall.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.