World Championship Bound!

By Lori Okimura | Oct. 03, 2017, 11:32 a.m. (ET)

It was a rare and wonderful opportunity for USA Volleyball to host the 2017 NORCECA Men's Continental Championship at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The USA Volleyball headquarters is only a few miles away, where the majority of the staff is based.

For the past week, teams from 10 federations in our zone have called the "OTC" home - living, eating and training on campus in preparation for a chance to qualify for the 2018 FIVB World Championship. The USA teams were joined at the OTC by Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala. Our thoughts were with the two missing teams from Puerto Rico and Cuba, who were unable to travel due to the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In Puerto Rico especially, the situation is quite dire and we join with our NORCECA confederation in standing by to learn how we can help them recover from storm damage that has devastated the islands.

The U.S. Men's National Team won the GOLD MEDAL and solidified their appearance in Bulgaria and Italy next September to compete for the world title. They will be joined by the Dominican Republic (silver medal) and Canada (bronze medal), and in a few weeks we will learn whether Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico or Guatemala will earn the last two bids from our zone to represent NORCECA at the World Championship.

Of course, the USA women are the defending WORLD CHAMPIONS and thus have already qualified for their tournament taking place next September & October in Japan. They will be joined by Canada and Cuba from our zone, as we await the final two teams to qualify. Our beach teams qualified the full allocation of eight teams this past summer in Vienna, and April Ross (already a World Champion) & Lauren Fendrick brought home the silver medal! And, let's not forget that our women's sitting national team are PARALYMPIC GOLD MEDALISTS!!!

NORCECA Continental GOLD medalists from USA

NORCECA Continental SILVER medalists from Dominican Republic

NORCECA Continental BRONZE medalists from Canada

For those who have not visited the U.S. Olympic Training Center, it's a must-see if you happen to find yourself in Colorado Springs. It's an inspiring place, especially when athletes are in-residence. During the week of volleyball competition, it was great to see gymnasts, swimmers, shooters, boxers and other aspiring Olympians & Paralympians peek their heads into the Sport Center gym to support their fellow TEAM USA hopefuls. It was fun hearing their conversations with sports performance trainers and coaches, watching them interact at the dining hall, and seeing them sneak across the street for an occasional Starbucks, Taco Bell or pizza run. There is something about putting world-class athletes together, from any sport, that allows you to contrast the unique training element of each sport, yet demonstrates their similarities in mental toughness, athletic training and their shared drive for competitive excellence.

USAV staff with the U.S. Men's National Team

From left to right, Sue Mailhot (USAV Board, NORCECA referee commission), Lori Okimura (USAV Board, President of NORCECA marketing commission), Melissa Weymouth (USAV director of national team events & sponsorship, NORCECA sports organizing commission) & Angela Lattimer (USAV coordinator of national team events, NORCECA local organizing committee).

USAV staff, Patty Fadum (left) & Irina Damy (center) helped out at classification matches during the week.

Sue Mailhot confers with NORCECA referees as a member of the referee sub-committee for the World Championship Qualifier.

Having the national team in town also gave our USAV staff a chance to see them play live. About 65 of our staff work in the Colorado Springs headquarters, including CEO Jamie Davis. Since our national indoor teams train in Anaheim, California, our beach teams throughout Southern California, and sitting teams in Oklahoma City, having an opportunity to host matches in Colorado enabled many of our staff, their family and friends to watch in person. But they didn't just watch, all week long, many of the USAV staff volunteered to help at the tournament which gave them a chance to interact with the teams, coaches and staff from our other three training locations.

One of the big changes USAV has undergone in a reorganization by Jamie is to realign our departments to be more inclusive of all three disciplines of volleyball that we govern: beach, indoor and sitting. We are proud to be the national governing body of Olympic & Paralympic volleyball, and watching the integration of all three disciplines into a new department structure has been very encouraging towards redefining the future of USA Volleyball. Sitting on the bench for TEAM USA in Colorado Springs was not one, but two national team head coaches - with indoor men's head coach, John Speraw, leading the charge and enlisting the help of sitting men's head coach, Greg Walker, to serve as a consultant coach for the NORCECA tournament. Like Speraw, Walker is also a collegiate head coach, and like the entire coaching staff, they bring a very strong spectrum of expertise to the USA national team department.

Monica Paul, the executive director of the Dallas Sports Commission, is also a member of the NORCECA VIS commission. Joined by men's Paralympic team assistant coach Joe Skinner (NORCECA VIS sub-committee), and head coach Greg Walker serving as a consultant coach for the U.S. Men's National Team.

One of the best moments of the tournament was the semifinal between Canada and the USA. Although most thought these two world-ranked teams would meet in the finals, an anomaly to the competition format and a one-point differential resulted in a head-to-head match up in the semifinal, with Mexico facing the Dominican Republic in the first of two semifinals.

Canada's team is quite impressive, as is their coaching staff, and shows all the signs of getting better and better heading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. They've had the advantage over us the last few times we've met, and that may have been the reason why the energy of our men was at an all-time high. They played flawless volleyball resulting in a 3-0 sweep of our neighbors to the North.

The Sport Center was full of cheering fans, standing room only --- club teams traveled as long as three hours to get to the matches, and we were even joined by Tom Hilbert and his Colorado State women's team who had finished a match at the Air Force Academy earlier that day.

One thing that caught my eye was the number of young boys in the stands. What an amazing opportunity for the boys to see their heroes from Team USA, and gain some encouragement to play themselves. Boys' volleyball is on the rise, and we will keep supporting new programs and promoting new opportunities to play.

Thanks to the "team behind the team!" #teamUSAV

USAV staff watching the matches, including Heath and Tori Hoke, June Sander and Sarah Young

David Smith's Family

The visual of our team playing at the Olympic Training Center, on our new "USA Flag" edition Sport Court was a proud moment. Some of you have seen the court that debuted during the USAV Cup in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and Anaheim. It was especially fun to catch a glimpse of USAV's graphic designer, Barbara Grice, standing on the court she helped design. Another way the "team behind the team" helps it all come together.

Another great moment was to see many of our national team families who made the trip to Colorado. Our men's team travels with an entourage wherever they go it seems. As most of you already know, our national team athletes spend up to six months overseas playing in professional leagues around the world. It's a huge sacrifice for them to spend so much time away from family and friends. It's much like our beach athletes having to qualify for the Olympics by flying hundreds of thousands of miles around the world playing in tournaments away from home all year-long. Same story for our sitting teams whose international competitions are all held outside the USA, including qualifying for the Paralympics.

We are trying to change that by bringing more international beach, indoor and sitting events to the USA, and with a new approach to establishing a professional indoor volleyball league in the U.S. When the Board was searching for USA Volleyball's CEO, establishing a pro league was one of the top items on the to do list. Jamie Davis has jumped in with a crash course in models used or attempted in the past, demographics, financial planning and consulting with coaches, athletes and business consultants with experience in professional league infrastructure.

It's not as easy as you'd think to put together the business plan that works. It's not as simple as finding someone who is willing to invest money, as well as time, resources and business oversight. It's not as simple as choosing a roster or dream team, and then trying to figure out how to pay for their salaries. There are different models used around the world, and not all are compatible with the pro sports models found in the U.S.

Hearing some of the athletes share their thoughts, it's obvious there are many common themes. Living away from home for 6-9 months out of the year can be as exciting as it is stressful for some, especially those with families, kids or who are planning to settle down find the prospect of playing at home quite attractive. USA Volleyball transfers nearly 500 athletes per year to foreign professional teams around the world, some athletes even playing for two or three teams per season.

Many of the pro beach athletes of today also spent a few years playing professionally overseas, like April Ross and Tri Bourne. Thankfully, there are FIVB World Tour events, like Swatch Majors Fort Lauderdale, and the AVP domestic tour for our U.S. athletes to compete on home soil. But much like their fellow national team athletes on indoor & sitting teams, the majority of competition is still held overseas.

We will continue to work hard to add more options in the United States, and Jamie has the full support of the Board to pursue bringing more international competition to the U.S. for home court advantage. The athletes' help is invaluable; they realize we have to help each other. And, they are doing their part by gathering information, sharing their experiences, giving of their time to help shape what a pro league should look like in the U.S.

Members of the U.S. Men's National Team discuss their input for a professional indoor league on American soil.

And after a great NORCECA victory over the Dominican Republic to qualify for the World Championships next year, it was such a thrill to have an opportunity to present the gold medals to the USA. It really never gets old to have that moment to not only hang the medal but to also say 'Thank you" (sorry to everyone whose noses I nailed in the process, you are all a lot taller than me!). We had a quick huddle once all the medals were awarded, and that was a moment to wish everyone a safe journey and to thank them one last time in 2017.

But then I was off to hit the dining hall at the Olympic Training Center one last time and see if I could beat the Costa Rican team to the soft serve ice cream machine before they emptied it and ate all the Oreo cookie crumbles!

For the athletes, it was time for a short celebration with friends and family before most of the players packed up and made the early morning airport shuttle run for destinations around the world. Some went directly to Europe and may even have had their first pro club practice upon arrival. Some returned to California on my flight, for a brief few days to wrap up business, pack the storage lockers, turn in keys and prepare for cold Siberian winters (sorry, Matt, pretend it's Buffalo!).

As we flew across the Rocky Mountains and back into the desert of Southern California, I couldn't help but feel a little protective of the team hoping they would all be safe and sound overseas. (I was also hoping that none of them snapped a picture of me snoozing. You know you trust a group of people if you can fall asleep in front of them with the potential of drooling on your shoulder.) I feel that way about all our teams, especially when they spend extended time out of the country.

Most of the women are already back with their club teams, and will be back in Anaheim next spring to begin their campaign to defend the FIVB World Championship Title. Now is the time for the beach national teams to spend a few weeks at home with family before starting the training for 2018, and eventually the Tokyo Olympic Qualification. Our sitting teams are just starting their competitive stretch, preparing for Zonals in Canada by hosting a number of training camps at their national team center at the University of Central Oklahoma. And, as the collegiate women's season comes to a crescendo, it is also time for the juniors to head back to the gym for another club season leading to the USAV Junior National Championships and High Performance Championship.

It's always funny to me when people ask me how I got this "job." I share with them that I don't actually work for USA Volleyball; my position is a volunteer one as is all the other members of the Board of Directors. In fact, all the positions I hold with the FIVB beach commission, or as the President of the NORCECA marketing commission are non-compensated. I give back as a volunteer because this sport means a lot to me, and meant a lot to me as a young juniors player growing up. Volunteering for USA Volleyball is my way of giving back. I don't get paid a salary, and I use my own relationships and resources to help where I can, especially my many years of international volleyball experience.

My response stuns most people. "You mean, you don't get paid?" We don't do this for the money, we do this to help a sport that in some way has meant something to us, or has given us something in return so we want to give back. Tom Jaeschke asked me what I do when the guys are away for the Winter (I didn't have the heart to tell him I go into a deep depression if my online streaming of their matches doesn't work). Matt asked me the same, curious how I got my experience. And it was then I realized that most of them don't know if I have a real job? Well, I have had a successful career outside of USA Volleyball, and my profession just happens to allow me to work in sports and I choose to work in volleyball to do my part to "Grow the Game" as they say. In some way I'm hoping it helps to use my contacts and resources gathered over the years to help put USA Volleyball in a better position after I leave.

What can you do to help? Follow all of our USA national team athletes on their social media accounts, and when you can, send your words of encouragement. (I myself will be scanning their social media to make sure there's no airplane sleepy picture of me posted). It means a lot away from home, and it will also give you an inside look as to what they all do to keep in top playing condition so when they return home to represent the USA, they are at their best.

Use the hashtag #teamUSAV and post your own tips and photos to share news about your high school, club, college or league. Bring a friend to practice and see if he or she loves the game as much as you do? Better yet, bring a friend to watch volleyball in person at your local college, nearby beach, or when the national teams are in town. Keep playing, keep sharing, and keep learning ways you can get better and share the sport with others.

And thanks for continuing to be part of the "team behind the team" that makes the USA so great among our global volleyball community. GO USA!