Lori Okimura Blogs from Japan

By Lori Okimura | Sept. 05, 2017, 3:02 p.m. (ET)

The signs are everywhere. Tokyo 2020 is on everyone's mind here in Japan.

Blog by Lori Okimura, USA Volleyball Board of Directors chair

There are 1056 days left until the international sports world gathers in Tokyo for the Olympic & Paralympic Games. Tokyo 2020 organizers are making steady progress. I know I've said this many times before, but the Tokyo Olympics really will be the "Volleyball Olympics." In 1964, Tokyo hosted the first-ever volleyball Olympic competition. A few years ago, Linda Murphy and I were talking about it. After all she was there representing TEAM USA. She told me how the women saved money to buy their uniforms, and then had to alter the clothing themselves. For some, she said boarding that flight to Tokyo was the first time a few had been on an airplane. Once on the ground, the USA women trained with the Japanese and marveled at the defensive expertise that was iconic of Japanese volleyball. In 1056 days, Japan will again host Olympic volleyball. And for the first time will welcome the Paralympics to the country where they have only recently begun embracing disabled sports.

Today's TEAM USA travels with a full delegation of coaches, a sports medicine team, nutritionist, strength & conditioning coach and technical staff. They are lucky to have an apparel & footwear supplier like adidas that provides top-of-the-line Team USAV gear and accessories. A sponsor in Molten, headquartered here in Japan, that provides equipment, expertise, financial resources and authentic volleyball IQ. We train with technology that allows us to evaluate, improve, and analyze thanks to companies like VolleyMetrics and VERT. And we host events like the USAV Cup thanks to our equipment suppliers like Sports Imports and Sport Court. The support from these and all USA Volleyball sponsors is what allows us to compete at major international competitions like the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup in Japan where our indoor women's and men's national teams will spend most of this month.

The FIVB World Grand Champions Cup is played every four years and features six of the best teams in the world in each of the women's and men's competitions. In this seventh edition of the tournament, the women play in Tokyo and Nagoya from September 5-10 followed by the men in Nagoya and Osaka from September 12-17. The women started play Tuesday in Tokyo against China. This heated rivalry goes back and forth and Tuesday night was China's night as the USA women dropped a four-set match (25-18, 18-25, 14-25, 17-25). USA faces Korea next in Tokyo before moving on to Nagoya to face Russia, host Japan and Brazil.

It's taking me a while to learn all of the new names and faces on Team USAV. There are quite a few. The ones I don't know yet likely think I'm a Japanese fan, or someone's Mom? A few may think I work at Starbucks' because when we were in Anaheim at the USAV Cup, I was going to call from Starbucks' to see if anyone wanted anything but quickly saw the flaw in my plan after glancing at the long line behind me, and instead opted for gift cards they could use on their own. When I arrived at the hotel in Tokyo, dragging my suitcase behind me from the train station, the team had just returned from a practice session and as we piled into the elevator the only familiar face was that of Jordan Larson. This morning I saw another familiar face of Rachael Adams, come to think of it that was in the elevator too. I am learning that the elevators are fast becoming the place to see and be seen. Unless, of course, you find yourself jammed into the corner when Team Japan decided to set a world record for how many among their 11 coaches and 14 players could fit into an elevator made for 6. (I would have snapped a "selfie" but my phone was in my pocket and my hands were pinned down to my sides.)

Getting off the elevator and back to Team USAV, the combination of rookies and returning players is exciting. There is the enthusiasm of the newcomers, some of whom are making their first trip to Japan, and the hungry look in their eyes as they step onto the court for the first time in a major international competition. Make no mistake, the rookies have come to compete. Then there is the quiet confidence of the veterans, the experience that last quad produced a World Championship, World Grand Prix Championship and an Olympic bronze medal. This afternoon, I watched Olympian Carli Lloyd take a bump in set 3 that had the entire arena gasping for a breath as she fell to the ground. The trainer and team doctor went straight to work evaluating her quickly and quietly and helping her back into the line up. I've watched Carli play since she was in college. She impresses me with her tenacity and her outright physical and mental strength. Olympians Rachael, Jordan and Foluke Akinradewo were our top scorers on the stat sheet, and their experience was invaluable in facing a China team stacked with veterans coming off Olympic Gold. I just love to watch them play. They just keep getting better and better.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this team develops and what they can do. I have total confidence in them as they find their way. Tokyo will welcome them back a few more times this quad.

Marv Dunphy, consultant coach & 1988 Olympic gold medal men's head coach, with Olympic silver & bronze medalist Jordan Larson during a technical timeout.

Earlier in the day I had the chance to meet with some personal contacts at Tokyo 2020 to discuss the beach, indoor and sitting volleyball. Japan has a long history of excellence in indoor volleyball, both competitive and organizational. The events run with such precision, and the attention to detail is impressive. The fans wait patiently for hours before the doors open, passing around blank poster boards to write messages and greetings to the players. The matches are always sold out with tickets priced at $100 in some areas. Thousands pack the arenas pounding thunder sticks that in any other country would be handed out for free to raucous crowds. But here in Japan, the fans are so loyal and respectful, not only do they buy those thunder sticks for 300-yen each, but they also use them to cheer as vigorously for a good play from an opponent. Respect.

Fans lined up at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium for day 1 of the FIVB Women's Grand Champions Cup.

300-yen will buy you some souvenir thunder sticks but only while supplies last

I have no idea what these people were selling, but everyone was buying it.

Fans learning the FIVB cheers.

In beach volleyball, the history in Japan has come mostly from the Osaka area that for years promoted FIVB World Tour events. In fact, Osaka was one of the original sites on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Series (now the FIVB World Tour). They have a beach volleyball stadium on an actual natural beach. They have sites within city limits at rail stations, in parks, and in major metropolitan Osaka. Back in my days as an FIVB technical supervisor, I was honored to work several beach events with Japan Volleyball Association, Osaka Volleyball Association, and my very dear friend, Masato Miyamura who championed the early days of beach volleyball in Osaka as the event's promoter. I will draw on those years of experience to help support Tokyo 2020's efforts to put their very best ideas into action and make an unforgettable beach volleyball Olympic experience. I want the athletes from all countries to know how special volleyball and beach volleyball is in Japan. For those of us who have worked in volleyball, Japan plays a very special part in our experience.

With Takahiro Fujino and Tak Naito of Tokyo 2020 Olympic & Paralympic Organizing Committee.

Takahiro Fujino (Tokyo 2020), FIVB President Dr Ary Graça at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

And for the first time, Japan will host a Paralympic Games. More on this in future blogs, as I am sure our sitting national teams will make a visit here this Quad. I will be making a visit to the site of the sitting volleyball competition and look forward to imagining what the competition hall will look like once the Games have begun. World ParaVolley has increased its presence in Asia and as the Tokyo Paralympics draws near, I wait in eager anticipation to watch our USA women defend their PARALYMPIC GOLD MEDAL (still give me goose bumps).

With four offices in Tokyo, and close to 800 full-time employees, Tokyo 2020 is a fast-moving machine. They have all sorts of plans in place and ideas in motion. Can't share too much here yet, but suffice to say that Tokyo's Olympics and Paralympics will be impressive.

But for now, I need to hang up my USAV scarf, air out my American flag, refill my bag with USA Volleyball stickers, pins, and chocolates from Maui I brought with me as "omiyage" for the hundreds of volunteers who do their very best to provide a warm smile and kind hospitality for the teams, visitors and fans of the FIVB Grand Champions Cup. Tomorrow is another day and Team USAV will be focused and ready.