Arigato Gozaimasu

By Lori Okimura | Sept. 16, 2017, 2:50 p.m. (ET)

One of the longest walks any athlete can ever take is the walk to the locker room after a hard-fought, leave-it-on-the-court battle that ends in a loss. There’s always a winner, and a loser. On this day in Osaka, it was heartbreaking to watch our U.S. Men’s National Team perform so well against Brazil, one of the top teams in the world, and battle back and forth in five sets only to come out on the short end in a loss to the Olympic Champions ... and then walk slowly behind them as they made their way to the locker room.

The U.S. men's national team makes its way to the the locker room at Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium after a tough 5-set loss to Brazil.

Let’s be clear, both of these teams are outstanding. They are well-coached, well-conditioned, smart and strong. They are solid programs with some of the best players in the world in any given lineup. And today they showed off their entire arsenal firing back-and-forth at each other in an exciting and important match. Pole position for first place was at stake today, with merely a .078 set differential in favor of the USA. This tournament is anyone’s for the taking. As with the women’s edition of the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, it all comes down to the last day, and the very last match as Brazil faces Japan.

Despite the immediate post-match disappointment, Matt Anderson, as he always does, made a detour to come over and say hi and share a big hug as he came out of the locker room. Usually we are sharing a celebratory hug after some pretty big wins like 2015 FIVB World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medal. What a huge heart this guy has to make a point to say thanks for the support at a time when I'm sure it's not easy to do so. As we were walking back to the bus, one of our staff members commented it would take a while to let this loss pass. He was absolutely right. But, there is a huge difference between letting a loss like this consume you rather than motivate you to get right back on the court and fight another day. Our guys will find their way back to the court and fight as hard as they can on the last day against Italy to reach a spot on the podium. I have total faith in this team.

On the bus ride home, it was so quiet. Not because anyone was hanging their heads, but because they were already figuring out how to overcome such disappointment. I know they are disappointed, I can see it in their faces. But they are also quite determined not to let that loss, or any others, define their work at this tournament. They are digging in deep tonight, studying film, doing laundry, and even confirming alternative travel schedules as typhoon Tallim approaches Japan. They are taking care of business. As much as I hurt for them watching match point drop, I am also incredibly proud of this team and I respect their process.

There is a typhoon heading for Japan, and because of the potential impact on travel plans, I need to leave before the tournament is finished. It’s absolutely killing me that I have to miss the last match. I will be watching online as I fly back to the USA, and I will take this opportunity to apologize to my fellow passengers for my outbursts of cheers for big plays! I was so torn about having to leave early, but family comes first and I need to get home to care for mine. On the bus ride home, I was thinking about how much I appreciate how hard our national teams work to always represent us to the best of their abilities. Beach, indoor and sitting national teams & staff are on point and we are fortunate to have such amazing ambassadors of our sport representing USA Volleyball.

Before we got off the bus (and greeted all the fans who mysteriously made their way to the hotel to greet us), John Speraw allowed me to share a private moment with the guys. That meant a lot to me because it gave me an opportunity to say thank you to our team and give each one of them a big hug. Arigato gozaimasu. I’ve traveled with the team a few times, with the goal of learning what it takes behind the scenes to support their efforts. I have seen firsthand the amount of work that goes into the preparation, the daily grind, and recognized early on the importance of the “team behind the team.” I told the guys how much I appreciated their hard work, and the steps they take to be on Team USA. How much the work of the coaching staff is appreciated in terms of defining and then managing our competitive excellence. I appreciate the athletes, whose training often takes priority over their personal lives. The sacrifice is significant with most returning to pro leagues in places like Russia, Italy, Poland, Brazil and Japan. Most of our women’s national team players departed Japan directly for their pro teams around the world since the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup was the last competition for their 2017 season. Before everyone heads overseas for the long grind of a 5-8 month season, the men will gather one last time in Colorado Springs for the NORCECA Men’s World Championship Qualifier, Sept. 26 to Oct. 1. I look forward to meeting up with them there to watch them one last time in 2017.

Before leaving Osaka, I returned one last time to the Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium to say thank you to my friends and colleagues from the global community of volleyball and to watch the Japan national team play Iran. I had the chance to sit for a while with a good friend of mine, Denny Cespedes, who is one of the international referees here in Osaka representing our confederation of NORCECA (Pati Rolf was our representative during the women's tournament). I watched DJ Stari (Michael Staribacher) and Mark Schuermann making their magic happen as part of the FIVB’s entertainment machine. I said my farewells to friends from Osaka beach volleyball association, with a pledge to return again to work together as we have done for almost 20 years. I came to Japan to help shore up resources for USA Volleyball for Tokyo 2020. I am leaving with a commitment to help Japan beach, indoor and sitting volleyball with their efforts as they have committed to supporting the USA. Building that global volleyball community takes a lot of work, but we are in this together and together we will achieve unbelievable greatness.

I thought about my friend Darya from Iran who would have loved watching her team play inside the stadium, something she cannot do in Iran. I was humbled beyond words at meeting some women here in Osaka, and in Nagoya and Tokyo at the beginning of my trip. Some are, working with the Japan Volleyball Association, the men’s national team, and professional teams in Japan who have been following my blogs since the FIVB World Cup in 2015. A few of them approached me, some nervously, and they have all been so nice to meet. Some ask how I got my “job” and when I tell them I am a volunteer for USA Volleyball, they can’t believe it. One woman was so kind, she saw me sitting with our coaches as our team was warming up. She introduced herself and told me she follows me online and recognized me from afar. She wanted to say that she works for her national federation and would like to keep in touch to find ways for us to help each other. Absolutely we will do what we can to help each other, to support others trying to do the same.

To be honest, I’m never sure if anyone reads these blogs. If you do, I hope they give you a glimpse into the world of USA Volleyball and encourage you to get involved. I hope that if we meet somewhere around the world, you will stop me to say hi and share your story. And to everyone including the FIVB staff from Switzerland, to all the volunteers, staff and officials from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka who has helped make the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup in Japan such a huge success…from me to you, Arigato Gozaimasu!

Arigato gozaimasu, Yoshie Takeuchi, manager of Japan men's national team.

Arigato gozaimasu, FIVB International Referee & longtime friend, Denny Cespedes.

Arigato gozaimasu to all the volunteers, and the staff who managed more than 200 court personnel throughout the entire FIVB World Grand Champions Cup.

Arigato gozaimasu to all the JVA national referees like Kaori Kawai, beach and indoor official.

Arigato gozaimasu to all our friends & colleagues from beach, indoor & sitting volleyball in Japan as we work together to make the Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics a huge success!