Okimura Blog: Inspired by the Women at the FIVB Grand Champions Cup

By Lori Okimura | Sept. 06, 2017, 1:15 p.m. (ET)

Blog by Lori Okimura, USA Volleyball Board of Directors chair

Walking around the Shinjuku area of Tokyo this morning while a light rain fell was somewhat of a reset moment. I was inspired by the smell of fresh rain against the backdrop of massive skyscrapers amidst an occasional humble shrine marking the history of Japan. Making my way back to the team hotel, I couldn't help but notice all the posters and signs advertising the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup. At one point, a few young kids coming from the train station stopped and giggled "Team America" and bowed. I wondered how they knew and then I noticed I was wearing my new adidas shield t-shirt featuring our distinctive USA Volleyball logo. Marketing 101. And yes, they probably thought I was the team's translator (or somebody's mother).

It's remarkable that I remembered how to get to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium from our hotel by train. The Japan Rail system is one of the most efficient in the world. It's on time, every time, down to the minute. Even during the dreaded rush hour, the commute is on time albeit with about a thousand more riders on the platform. I was feeling pretty sassy with myself having found the correct entrance to the massive Shinjuku train station which houses 3 rail lines plus the Narita Airport Express and the Shinkansen (bullet train) stations. My moment of sassy ended pretty quickly when I realized I had boarded the train going in the wrong direction. JR Rail 1; Lori 0. A quick exit at the next station, followed by a massive human wave crossing over to the correct platform had me going in the right direction back towards Shinjuku, then Yoyogi (home of the 1964 Olympic volleyball stadium) and then my final destination at Sendagaya Station where I made a quick exit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

A few blocks in the opposite direction is the headquarters of the Japan Volleyball Association. Japan Volleyball is one of the most respected among the 221 national federations in the FIVB. Indoor Olympic volleyball was first played at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and will again reign supreme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Volleyball is a national pastime in Japan. The players are heroes, the coaches are legends. The fans are some of the most generous with their praise and loyalty to favorite players. They are well educated in the sport of volleyball and it shows. And, volleyball is a lifetime passion for them.

Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, site of the FIVB Grand Champions Cup.

Volleyball has been a lifetime passion for me since my grandmother first introduced me to it back home in Hawaii. I draw inspiration daily from the lessons learned through my involvement in beach, indoor and sitting volleyball through USA Volleyball. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about our USA national teams, because I see them for more than just players on the court. They are truly ambassadors of the sport that has given them as much as they try to give back. One way I love to see players give back is when they spend time with the young kids just starting their journey. Tonight I met some of the youngest volleyball players in Japan as they prepared to help introduce the women's teams for the final match. Their volleyball uniforms were so teeny tiny small, I didn't even know that uniforms came in such a small size? In a word, they were "kawaii," meaning "so-cute-I-want-to-take-them-all-home-with-me!" I saw them practicing with their sensei and I had to stop and share some USA Volleyball stickers and tattoos. They were working so hard to make sure they presented the national teams properly. Inspired.

Tokyo-area junior players gathered to help introduce the teams.

One of my favorite moments of the matches comes at the beginning, when the team stands hands on hearts to hear the playing of our national anthem. It gives me goose bumps. I love to see our Team USAV compete, execute the game plan, and emerge victorious. Today the USA's first victory came against a very strong Korean team. The sight of Lauren Gibbemeyer clamping down the "Monster Block" and then leaping into the air with a look of pure joy on her face was priceless. Watching Rachael Adams defy gravity again and again to make the plays that put points on the board was so exciting. Seeing Jordan Larson power through the Korean block scoring point after point, kill after kill had everyone cheering. At the post-game press conference, both team captain Carli Lloyd and head coach Karch Kiraly referred to how "patient" they had to play in order to defeat such a strong defensive Korean team. I thought to myself that I would also use the word "disciplined" to describe how our women played. They took their cues from assistant coach and Olympic silver medalist, Tama Miyashiro. I just love the sight of Tama on the USA bench during the matches and in the gym training the team. Her fire and energy as a player is translating so well as a coach. As I watched the team today, I couldn't help but think how thankful I am to our coaches and these women - these strong, beautiful and intelligent women who represent the United States of America on and off the court. Inspired.

U.S. Women's National Team after defeating Korea at the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup

The U.S. Women were a blocking machine against Korea as shown by Annie Drews (11), Lauren Gibbemeyer (8) and Kim Hill (15) putting up a triple block

Rachael Adams was a major offensive threat for the second match in a row from her middle position

After the USA match ended, I stayed around to wait with 2,500 of my new Japanese friends until the last match of the day featuring Russia playing the host country Japan. I ran out of yen before I could buy my noise makers and commemorative key chains of Vabo-Chan (think fuzzy volleyball shaped doll with big feet). But I did pick up my official FIVB Grand Champions Cup hand towel because as many times as I have been to Japan, I always forget that the restrooms do NOT have paper towel because people bring their own. I am now the proud owner of yet another hand towel from Japan which will go nicely with my collection of neon colored, Vabo-Chan logoed hand towels. I even have one in the shape of a team jersey that one day will make its way to eBay along with my original Karch "pink hat," and pay for my retirement. And like most volleyball fans, I watch warm ups. I watched a little more closely this time because for the first time I believe in the history of its existence, the Japan women's national team has a female head coach. Three-time Olympian and bronze medalist, Kumi Nakada, takes control of Team Japan after a successful career as a player, volleyball commentator and now coach. Nakada-san is in a very high profile role for a woman in Japan, especially considering the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon. She will coach in her home country's Olympic Games before millions of young girls and women who for the first time will see a woman coaching the women's national team. Inspired.

At the Rio Olympics, the FIVB made history for women with an all-female officiating team for the women's gold-medal match. One of our American referees was part of that history-making team. Her name is Pati Rolf, and here at the FIVB Grand Champions Cup Pati is the only female referee. Pati travels the world working at various tournaments, and helping educate and train other referees. She is a former collegiate women's volleyball coach in the USA, and continues to work in many areas of our sport including NORCECA and FIVB, in whatever capacity allows her to give back. Inspired.

FIVB International Referee Pati Rolf

The last match of the day between Russia and Japan provided me with an opportunity to reflect on yet another woman's contributions to our sport. Elizaveta Bracht-Tishchenko is one of the key marketing staff at FIVB working behind the scenes to help bring these world-class events to life. But before that, she was a three-time Olympian and two-time silver medalist, who came back from major knee surgery to play in the finals of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where she won a silver medal. I was watching her as she soaked in the atmosphere of Russia playing Japan. When you are an athlete of that caliber who reaches such success, sometimes it's impossible to lose the desire to be back on the court and feel that same energy. It's remarkable when an athlete of such legendary status finds another way to give back. Inspired.

Elizaveta Bracht Tishchenko, pictured far right with FIVB President Dr. Ary Graça (center) and members of the FIVB's Athlete Advisory Commission.

Tomorrow the teams make their way on the famous Japanese Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Nagoya for the final round of the women's FIVB Grand Champions Cup. Team USAV will face off against Russia, then host country Japan before a rematch with Brazil. I will be packing up my USA Volleyball banners, pins and my trusty American flag that has traveled more air miles than I can count in the past four years, and has been draped over some of our athletes as they celebrated those special wins. Come to think of it, the last of our USA national teams who wore this particular flag was Olympian Lauren Fendrick and Olympic silver and bronze medalist April Ross after they won the silver medal at the 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships. Inspired!