Spending the Summer with USA Volleyball

By Lori Okimura | Sept. 01, 2017, 3:43 p.m. (ET)

Blog by Lori Okimura, USA Volleyball Board of Directors chair

Another busy summer for USA Volleyball comes to a close. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank our new CEO, Jamie Davis, and his team of staff, coaches, athletes, volunteers and sports medicine providers who have been representing "Team USA" all around the globe this season. Some people watch only the matches, but I watch the people behind the scenes too and marvel at their dedication and how important they are to the process.

This summer, I visited with our staff at the USA Volleyball High Performance Championships held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Fort Lauderdale is an amazing partner for USA Volleyball, and has hosted an event in just about every discipline of volleyball there is. My last visit here was for the Swatch Majors Fort Lauderdale event in early February, the start of the FIVB World Tour. Returning for the "HPCs" was exciting because I had never been able to attend the event in the past. A year ago, I was so excited following the action online I told my "boss" Sam Hubbard, from the USAV High Performance department, that I would volunteer to work with him this year.

Now, let's be real, the USAV staff did all the work. I hung some banners, stuffed some gift bags, and got to see just how hard the staff works behind the scenes to make it all look so easy. The Hoke family had registration wired, down to a science. Very impressive. I did sell one ticket alongside June Sander, but she and Valencia Lanier from our finance department were really the ones to hold down the fort in the box office all week. I mopped a few floors, including the fancy new Sport Court that was commissioned by adidas and provided an awesome centerpiece to the event. I had the chance to attend the Opening Ceremony where the team from New Zealand performed their traditional 'Haka,' 1984 Olympic gold medalist Aldis Berzins gave a riveting keynote speech that included a vintage pair of 1984 team shorts (oh the cheers for him to try them on), and a massive wave of USAV High Performance teams booed me for being from the Southern California Volleyball Association (SCVA). Competitive atmosphere for sure! It's a great environment for learning and really illustrates the "pipeline" that you often hear about.

The USAV HP teams get an inside look at what it means to be part of Team USA, learning directly from those in our USA national team network, like Aldis (Los Angeles 1984, gold medal), his son Kris, Gary Sato (Seoul 1988 gold, Barcelona 1992 bronze), Molly Kreklow, our men's sitting team head coach Greg Walker (Rio 2016), Tom Sorenson (Atlanta 1996) and others. Many of our alumni were on the benches of USAV and region teams, including David Hunt (Rio 2016) for SCVA, and Dexter Rogers for the Florida Region. Everyone pitches in to share their experiences and also take good care of the teams from start to finish. Where else can you play where you are greeted at the airport by a "nice man" who just happened to be Aldis, an Olympic gold medalist who was assigned to greet incoming teams? Amazing.

Photo of adidas courts at USA Volleyball High Performance Championships

Gary Sato, 1988/1992/2012 Olympic assistant coach & Southern California men's assistant coach, worked with USA HP teams.

David Hunt, 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Team assistant coach & Pepperdine men's head coach, coached the SCVA region team at the HP Championships.

(L-R) 1984 Olympic gold medalist Aldis Berzins (USAV HP), national team alumni Dexter Rogers (Team Florida) and Olympian Tom Sorensen (USAV HP) were among many national team alumni coaching at the HP Championships.

One unique aspect of the HPCs was the region teams playing among the USAV and international teams. Bermuda, Australia, Canada, New Zealand. It was fun to watch the all-star teams battle it out, and to see players from the same region but different clubs being able to compete together. Often times, the players may not even realize what region they are from, they only know their club. But at the HPCs it was great to arrive at the airport and see the t-shirts and jackets with "GEVA, SCVA, Lakeshore Region, Badger Region, NCVA," and others. Which brings me to "Texoma." What region is that you ask? At first I thought it was a small country from the international division, but I soon learned that the Texoma boys team was a joint effort among the North Texas, Oklahoma and Lone Star Regions to help grow boys' volleyball in those areas. What a great idea!

Amazing new USAV gear from adidas! #3stripelife

After spending a small fortune at the adidas booth to load up on the new USAV apparel, I packed my bags and continued on to Vienna, Austria with eight of our USA national beach teams. This isn't a riddle, but what do Imperial horses, zip lines, climbing walls, ice baths, ski jumps, Swatch watches, schnitzel, Smart cars and Red Bull have in common? They were all part of the 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships, presented by A1 and organized by Beach Majors. Let me first say that I have seen and worked at my fair share of beach volleyball tournaments over the years. What Hannes Jagerhofer and Beach Majors produced in Vienna was nothing short of spectacular. I have never seen anything quite like it, even at the Olympic Games. They deserve a huge round of applause for raising the bar.

Fans waiting to enter the Red Bull Beach Arena at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna

Unbelievable energy at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships

Record heat was eclipsed by record crowds with an estimated 12,000 fans per day on center court leaving thousands others to enjoy the action from viewing stations in the sponsor village.

I watched the Beach Majors staff throughout the entire event giving their very best efforts to welcome the players, officials, fans, families and an A-list of international sports notables. Job well done!

It's safe to say that Austria may still be recovering from the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships. From the 10-days of record heat, to the sold out crowds, nighttime "Silent Disco" (I'm still not altogether certain what that is?), and some of the most spectacular beach volleyball courtesy of the amazing athletes who came ready to compete! The USA sent a full delegation of eight teams. This is quite an accomplishment given the high level of competition that exists on the FIVB World Tour, and the number of countries who have upped their game on the beach. American flag in hand, I met up with my good friend, Peter Diamond from NBC Olympics and we made it somehow to each of the USA's preliminary round matches before passing out somewhere between the zip line, A1 charging station, and the Weiner Wasser filling station (yes, you read that last one right). It was our only shared day in Vienna so we made the most of it and Team USA gave us a great show.

NBC Olympics' chief Peter Diamond with USA's Sara Hughes after a preliminary round win at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships Vienna.

I was eventually joined in Vienna by our new CEO, Jamie, and together we ran from end-to-end of the Red Bull Beach Arena, sponsor village and Vienna side courts to squeeze our way into the teeny, tiny areas of shaded seating before we melted from 100+ degree heat. Nevermind us, the players were literally walking around the venue with huge bags of ice on their heads. Thank goodness for our sports medicine team, who put in extra hours to find clever ways to keep our athletes cool and well hydrated in the hottest conditions.

Some of the teams may be embarrassed by my flag waving or USA Volleyball banner flying. I've been known to let an occasional "USA, USA, USA" chant come forth from my lips, along with a raised arm from time to time. But let me tell you, I have met my match in Jamie Davis! We were sitting behind a particularly rambunctious group of Ukranian fans watching their team play Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat. With each serve they chanted "Ace, Ace, Ace," so we jumped on in and started the chant as Brooke went back to the line until they unknowingly joined in our enthusiasm. Only after she landed an "Ace" and we started cheering did they realize they were cheering for the USA! Jamie learned all the moves from DJ Stari (Michael Staribacher), the best beach volleyball DJ in the world and the man behind the music & entertainment you enjoyed during the Olympics and at all Swatch Majors events. He genuinely enjoys watching our teams, and learning about the sport from the people who play. And it brings forth some creative ideas on how to shape the business decisions to support our competitive excellence.

Team USA returned from Vienna with a silver medal, courtesy of Olympic silver and bronze medalist April Ross and Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick. For them and all the USA athletes who competed, we have to say a huge thanks to the folks behind the scenes of Team USA who worked so hard to help our athletes with their training, preparation, recovery and carried all those buckets of ice water up and down the Danube walkways to keep them cool. If ever the phrase "It takes a village" applies, it does here.

Olympic silver & bronze medalist April Ross and Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick gave TEAM USA a silver medal finish at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.

USAV Sports Medicine behind the scenes.

After burning my luggage post-Vienna, I was in need of more cool USAV adidas gear. Fortunately, I was able to load up again at the USAV Cup in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where the U.S. Men played the end of their exhibition series with Brazil. The USAV Cup marked the return of some Rio 2016 bronze medalists to the roster, including Max Holt and Matt Anderson. What fun to see the guys back on the court, the gorgeous USA flag designed Sport Court that debuted in the Sears Centre Arena. This court is amazing. Special thanks to Danny Lahr who helped piece it all together, literally.

The crowd in Hoffman Estates was among the best I've seen in the USA. And for once, they were cheering for our team! The inside joke is the last time Team USA played in the Sears Centre Arena was against Poland in FIVB World League 2016 and it was a complete sell out. The only problem was that the entire crowd were fans of Poland due to a huge immigrant population in the Chicago area. I could count on one hand the number of fans in the arena then who were cheering for the USA. This time the fans were waving American flags and USA Volleyball banners, and with the support of the FIVB we integrated some of their entertainment program into our matches. Thanks to Rob on the Mic (Rob Espero) and DJ Fidel (Fidel Akemon) joined by the Chicago Bulls' Bucket Boys who kept the fans flowing in back-to-back sold out nights. Lots of American flags, hands waving in the air, and that gold old "USA, USA, USA" cheer.

I had to blink my eyes when I saw a cheering section of what may have been close to 100 people someone told me were all related to Thomas Jaeschke. Raised nearby, he really delivered for the hometown fans in Hoffman Estates. There were a few times I could actually feel the ground beneath me shake after Ben Patch crushed one down the line. Unreal power, unleashed. And there were a few "Monster Blocks" by Matt Anderson that I swear left a hole in the beautiful Sport Court. He doesn't look like he took any time off, he's a powerhouse!

Although we lost both matches to Brazil, you could see the fire burning in the USA men. There is something brewing. Many have just returned to the team after a short break coming off a long, long Olympic quad and professional season. Aaron Brock, USAV's director of sports medicine, was hard at work with USOC strength and conditioning coach, Tim Pelot, to keep the guys healthy, strong, and injury-free. The coaches used the USAV Cup series to ease the veterans back into the lineup, as well as to give newcomers a chance to prepare for the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup in September. This will mark the first return of Team USA to Japan since 2015 when they WON THE WORLD CUP (never gets old) and QUALIFIED FOR THE RIO OLYMPICS (bronze medalists!!!). This team can do some exciting things so stay tuned, they are just getting started. FIVB World Grand Champions Cup begins for the men on September 12th In Nagoya as they face host Japan and Iran, before heading to Osaka to meet up with France and a re-match with Brazil.

And before all the wheels on my suitcase fell off, I made it back to Southern California for the USAV Cup matches in Anaheim where the U.S. Women faced Brazil in the official host city of the USA national teams. The USA national team training center is in Anaheim, but believe it or not, this marked the first time the women competed in major competition within city limits. A stone's throw away from the Magic Kingdom, Team USA took the floor with a new roster. It was great to see the veterans back on the court, joined by newcomers who are already making their mark. And thanks to all the fans who stood in long lines for hours at the Anaheim Arena. Your presence is felt by all our teams. Dustin Watten from our men's team once told me that when the players hear the fans cheering, they can feel the energy around them and it makes a difference. Let's keep that going!

The USAV Cup Anaheim gave us a chance to connect with many of the USAV national team alumni and friends of USA Volleyball. We were joined by many members of the 2016 Rio bronze medal teams, including Olympic silver and bronze medalist April Ross from the beach national team. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic bronze medal indoor teams and welcomed back alumni like Carlos Briceno, Nick Becker, Elaina Oden, Eric Sato, Gary Sato, Paula Weishoff, and Scott Fortune who is now the chair of the USA Volleyball Foundation. We were joined by our dear friend, Sir Bruno Serato, owner of The Anaheim White House and a CNN Hero. Earlier in 2017, Sir Bruno's beloved restaurant burned down. He's fed Team USA at The Anaheim White House since our arrival in 2009, and started Caterina's Club there to feed the motel kids of Anaheim. Despite the setback, Sir Bruno has continued the efforts of Caterina's Club to feed close to 3,000 kids in Anaheim and Huntington Beach through his pasta dinner charity named after his late mother and her philanthropic spirit. Team USA has a special connection with Sir Bruno, and many of our athletes have contributed money, pasta and their time to his efforts to continue feeding the kids, and rebuilding The Anaheim White House for the future.

Sir Bruno Serato with the U.S. Men's National Team.

1992 Barcelona bronze medalists L-R Eric Sato (1988 gold), Scott Fortune (1988 gold), Carlos Briceno, Paula Weishoff (1984 silver), Gary Sato (1988 gold), Nick Becker, Jeff Stork (1988 gold).

Another special moment at the USAV Cup was a chance to honor outgoing Board member, Bill Barnum. Bill has served USAV as an Independent Director to the Board for the past eight years. His advice and counsel during that time helped shape the new business direction we have taken under the leadership of Jamie as CEO. Bill has contributed his time and resources to USAV over the past eight years, and remains a true champion of the national teams. April and Kawika Shoji, joined by other Board members like two-time Olympic silver medalist Tayyiba Haneef-Park and North Texas Region Commissioner Andy Reitinger, Matt Anderson, Erik Shoji and the rest of the men's team, beach national team's Sara Hughes and others paid tribute to him at the USAV Cup with a special jersey from the Rio Olympics where Bill and his family gathered to cheer on Team USA to bronze medals in beach, and indoor volleyball.

Team USA with outgoing USAV Board Member Bill Barnum at the USAV Cup.

Special thanks to all of our USA national teams in beach, indoor and sitting volleyball who have been training & competing this summer all over the world. The coaches, players, staff, friends and family have been very busy and we appreciate all of their efforts to represent the United States of America. And THANK YOU to our sponsors and all of the volunteers who gave us their time and helped out at the various events. It's been a productive summer for USA Volleyball, and we wish everyone well as they return to their college, club, high school and professional teams! Next up for TEAM USA is the FIVB Grand Champions Cup in Japan where the women compete from Sept 5-10 and the men from Sept 12-17. Please follow them on social media and show your support with messages, posts, and photos! Your support means a lot to them as they prepare for Tokyo 2020. USA Volleyball will share information about the results, viewing opportunities and stories from the competition on our social media platforms. Thanks for all your support, and Go USA!