Our first day of competition in Osaka had a very Olympic feel to it. It's been great to soak in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic & Paralympic vibe here in Japan. The FIVB World Grand Champions Cup is one of the previews to the Games, and it has lived up to every expectation. The level of organization is so detailed. The enthusiasm of the fans is uplifting. The afternoon began with Olympic champions, Brazil, handing Iran a convincing 3-0 defeat. That set the stage for the next match between the USA and France, one with perhaps more Olympic significance now that Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 have been confirmed as the next in the line of Olympic & Paralympic succession.
Hearing the national anthems of France and the United States took on a bit more significance to those of us in the international sports world. For the first time, two Olympic & Paralympic Games were awarded at the same time. I want to congratulate our friends at Fédération Française de Volley and especially my very dear friend, Karim Levy. France is a strong volleyball country, and Paris will be an amazing backdrop for the Games. I am also very proud of the City of Los Angeles and Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has championed the diverse and inclusive bid that will bring the Games back to Los Angeles for a record third time. I remember back to attending my first of what would be many Los Angeles City Council meetings to witness the work being done by the LA2028 bid committee and the City of Los Angeles. Speaking on behalf of USA Volleyball, I shared that our national governing body is one of a handful that oversees Olympic & Paralympic sport and that we are proud of that fact. I shared that beach volleyball had enjoyed a resurgence in worldwide popularity when the NCAA added women's volleyball as their 90th championship sport. I shared that USA Volleyball was eager to revisit its Olympic gold-medal glory from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the work that had been done by national team players, coaches, officials and the 40 regions of USA Volleyball to develop the sport since that win. And, I was very pleased to share that sitting volleyball was experiencing an increase in participation and heightened awareness, including multiple Paralympic medals leading up to gold for the women's national team in Rio. Los Angeles is ready to use the next 11 years to work with the international sports world to produce an amazing event.
We are lucky to have a large group of friends and families traveling with the men's team in Osaka. Yesterday I was sitting up in team seating, which is about as far from the court as one could be seated, when I heard the familiar cheers of Dave & Mary Shoji coming from below! I quickly made my way down to the floor seating and joined them as we kept one eye glued to whether or not security was going to bounce us any minute! There are two players on this team wearing Shoji on their uniforms, but Dave & Mary consider all the guys on the team to be 'ohana. They are often seen courtside around the world supporting this team (and sometimes Dave even gives Mary a day to pack), and Dave was our parent liaison for the Rio Olympics. His cheering in particular is educational, and provided a deja vu moment to his 42-years on the sidelines as the head coach of the University of Hawaii women's volleyball team.
Dave & Mary Shoji with sons Erik (22) and Kawika (7) and friend Keiko.
Micah Christenson wins the award for most family members in Osaka. His wife, Brooke, and members from all sides of the family made the trip to Nagoya and Osaka to support the team. They always bring it big to the cheering section, and Micah's performance in the tournament thus far has given them and all USA fans a reason to cheer. At the post-match press conference, head coach John Speraw received an interesting question from a Japanese magazine reporter. "What is Micah Christenson's character like and what is your plan for him in the future?" There was no hesitation in John's voice when he replied that first and foremost, Micah is a good person on and off the court, of the highest moral character and integrity. And, that his exemplary volleyball abilities combined with the talent of the players on this team give the USA plenty of options to consider as they prepare for Tokyo 2020.
Micah Christenson & his 'ohana.
Dustin Watten's father and brother are making their first trip to Japan, and have been navigating the railways, enjoying the musubi rice balls, and soaking in the unique atmosphere of volleyball in Japan. Dustin is like a spark plug on this team on and off the court. He makes things happen and his positive attitude and never-say-quit mindset makes him a terrific role model for his 60,000+ followers on Instagram. He had the crowd clapping every time the USA players went back to the service line, and his kanji-inspired haircut displaying the characters for "strong" has piqued the interest of volleyball fans worldwide.
The guys played great. Taylor Sander and Aaron Russell had some "Super Spikes" that queued the FIVB's iconic sound effects, and Erik Shoji was all over the back court making plays happen and digging balls you swear were going to drop only to see him speedy-kine make the dig. Kawika Shoji entered the match with a few aces and heads up plays as a serving specialist. Micah, solid as ever. Max and David in the middle were so commanding, that one of the reporters commented if it was a strategy of the USA to always give them the ball because they were so successful. Taylor Averill made his contribution as a serving specialist and in the middle in the last few points. And, Matt Anderson with a match-high 17 kills (more than double any other player on both teams) led the way with "Super Spikes, Monster Blocks, and a HUGE Ace, Ace!" for match point. (Note to self: Self, propose the new stat lines for those names...). It's unreal how good he is.
The 3-0 win against France reshuffled the deck and now it's anyone's tournament. There's a .078 differential between the USA and Brazil for the lead, and in this round robin format anything goes. Olympic Champion Brazil is our next opponent, and they are as strong as any team here. There are no matches that can be taken for granted. It's a battle every time they step on the court. The level of play is so high, it really does feel like the Tokyo Olympics are already here!