Okimura Blog: The Fighting Spirit

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | Sept. 10, 2017, 12:16 a.m. (ET)

Friends and family back in the USA were probably just waking up when match point happened inside the Nippon Gaishi Arena, courtesy of Jordan Larson's kill to end a five-set thriller against a very strong Team Japan. This match could have honestly gone either way. But I will tell you that I was up on my feet elated that it went our way! The USA was back in action at the FIVB Women's Grand Champions Cup Saturday night in Nagoya against host country Japan, a team that redefines the term "home crowd." At times, the chanting and cheering from the fans was deafening. And oddly exhilarating. For decades, the Japanese have created an electric energy in their volleyball arenas that is unlike anything I've seen. They have marketed their national teams and pro players so well that most people walking down the street can tell you who their favorite players are and the stat line from the last match. They have slogans, mascots, official pop bands of the tournaments with very interesting names and special theme songs that I swear stick in your head for four years at a time. I am still humming the theme song from the 2007 FIVB World Cup Olympic Qualifier, which was the same in 2011, and again in 2015. "Cha-cha-cha...CHAM-PI-ON!!!"

You can read all about the match results here

Though most of the Nippon Gaishi Arena were for Team Japan, they respect good volleyball and are generous with their cheering to all teams.

In the post-match press conference, USA head coach Karch Kiraly and team captain, Olympic bronze medalist Carli Lloyd, both referred to Japan as a team with a unique "fighting spirit." It struck me as so appropriate to describe Team Japan. The night before we played them, I watched them win a five-set match against the defending champions from Brazil using sheer will and grit. They never give up. But it can also be said that Karch and his team have that same fighting spirit. They displayed it in Rio at the Olympic Games, and before that as they won the World Championship. And though the players on each roster have changed, the one thing these women all have in common is they each possess that unique fighting spirit deep down inside.

USA team captain Carli Lloyd spoke about her deep respect & appreciation for the atmosphere created at the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup.

USA head coach Karch Kiraly gave credit to Team Japan's strong fighting spirit.

I have to say that tonight I was awestruck by the fighting spirit of one particular member of Team USAV. The FIVB Grand Champions Cup marked the return to Japan of Tori Dixon. She is loved here, evidenced by the fans waiting for her autograph after the match. Tori was part of the roster that won the World Championship in 2014, and helped the USA qualify for the Rio Olympics by winning the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in early January of 2016. Later that month, Tori was playing professionally in Japan for the Torray Arrows in the V-League. She suffered a season-ending ACL tear which required surgery and months of rehabilitation. Two things that didn't accommodate the timetable of the fast approaching Rio Olympic Games.

Lots of respect between Japan and the USA.

Fans were lined up for Team Japan, and Tori Dixon from the USA who played for Toray Arrows in the Japanese V-League.

USA setter & team captain Carli Lloyd and middle Tori Dixon both possess an undying fighting spirit.

Fast forward to last night, and Tori returned to Japan and fought hard to help Team USA score over-and-over again. The entire team contributed, it is always amazing to see what these women can do to succeed. I swear I blinked and in that time, Justine Wong-Orantes came flying across the entire width of the court and dug a ball that was on its way to making a huge hole in the floor. I'm really impressed by this entire team, but it was definitely a highlight to see Tori back on the court in Japan knowing what she sacrificed in 2016, and how hard she worked to make it back on the court. Welcome back, Tori!

Before the match, I had a chance to meet with another group of young volleyball players from two local clubs in the Nagoya/Aichi area. They were chosen that night to accompany the "senshu" during player introductions. I shared some of our USA Volleyball stickers with them and not to my surprise, they each had PERFECT ENGLISH as they politely said "thank you." One little guy who may have been about six-years old even went so far as to say, "I love USA." But when the sensei explained I was from HAWAII, as we say at home "all kine shakas" came out!

"Shakas" from the junior club players.

On this early Sunday morning in Japan, we prepare to watch the USA women in their final match of the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, against Brazil. I hear a rumor that the men's team will be coming today to support them. I really appreciate when our teams have the chance to play in the same city, because they always do their best to support each other. I see that a lot with our sitting and beach teams who often play international events in the same locations, and although there are fewer chances indoors when the men and women cross paths, TEAM USAV always does it best to show their support. It's just part of their fighting spirit.