Okimura Blog: Sitting Volleyball World Championships Highlight Diversity & Inclusion

By Lori Okimura | July 23, 2018, 6:12 p.m. (ET)

Bill Hamiter coaching the U.S. Women's Sitting Team to silver at World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships
U.S. Women's Sitting Team Head Coach Bill Hamiter helped the Americans finish with the silver medal at the 2018 ParaVolleyball Sitting Volleyball World Championships

Every part of me wanted to be in the Netherlands this week with our sitting national teams as they battled in the World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships. It was really hard not to afford to make this trip. But like many others, I watched from afar juggling back-and-forth from one live stream to another to watch the teams from around the world compete at the highest level for a chance to earn bids to the Tokyo Paralympics. I'd like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to all my neighbors in Greater Los Angeles for my midnight chants of "U-S-A" and early morning cheering as I tried to follow the action in the Netherlands from my location in California in real time. At least it gave the neighbors a preview as to what things will be like in our city in 2028.

The U.S. Women's National Sitting Team are the reigning Paralympic gold medalists, and they are amazing to watch. If you've never seen sitting volleyball, especially at this level, I encourage you to follow the World ParaVolley social media where there are live streams and clips of unbelievable rallies. I've been following sitting volleyball since I saw an exhibition played in the early 2000s and fell totally under the spell of fast-paced rallies and ball-handling skills of these athletes who may be missing limbs, but you'd never guess by watching them play. They are heading home with a silver medal as the World Championship runner-up, but more importantly, they are heading home having QUALIFIED for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

You may be surprised to learn that they have "day jobs" too, not just training to play top-level volleyball. Nicky Nieves just started her own non-profit foundation, Limitless People, to support bringing sitting volleyball to underserved communities while at the same time raising awareness that people with disabilities can create opportunities without limits. Team captain Katie Holloway works full-time for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Northern California, and is also the vice chair of the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council, an important leadership role within the Olympic and Paralympic world. Nichole Millage works as an environmental sustainability specialist for the City of Champlain, Illinois. Kaleo (Kanahele) Maclay works full-time for her son, Duke, and still finds time to channel an entrepreneurial spirit as a small business owner of a cookie company, part-time wedding florist and student. Study the roster carefully and you will see that these women mean "business," literally.

U.S. Women's Sitting Team at World Championships

U.S. Men's Sitting Team at World Championships

We are just about two years from the next Paralympic Games, and already the excitement is stirring in Japan, and around the world as disabled sports increase sponsorship revenue, attendance, and build anticipation. Great job by the USA women in bringing home a medal and qualifying for the games, and for always being such incredible sitting volleyball ambassadors on behalf of USA Volleyball!

The U.S. Men's National Sitting Team returns from The Hague with an eighth-place finish, its highest-ever at a World Championship. They introduced some new faces on the World Championships roster, combined with the experience of our core Paralympians. They established a solid platform from which to build as they seek Tokyo qualification, and proved that this team is changing the way they approach the game. They are showing us some new things, and gained a lot of good experience at the World Championships. They will return and regroup to continue their Road to Tokyo.

 

And just as the women, the men of Team USA keep busy between training camps with a diverse line-up of professional careers. For example, team captain Eric Duda is the head coach of the first-ever men's volleyball team at Life University in Marietta, Georgia. Travis Ricks is the associate director of programs and athlete development at the Challenged Athletes Foundation. And, Chris Seilkop, a four-time Paralympian, is the CEO of the YMCA in Victoria, Texas, the elected representative of USA Volleyball to the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council and chair of the World ParaVolley standing beach commission. Keep an eye on these men, they are destined for greatness.

Nicki Nieves celebrating at World Championships

The Sitting Volleyball World Championships was the first chance for our USA teams to qualify, but beyond that, it was a major opportunity to showcase sitting volleyball against some amazing venue backdrops in Dutch cities whose fans know and appreciate good volleyball. And that's exactly what they got this week in Venlo, Eindhoven, Arnhem, Rotterdam and The Hague. World ParaVolley does a fantastic job promoting sitting volleyball through a vast network of its continental partners like ParaVolley Europe, ParaVolley Malta, and ParaVolley Pan America who share images and video of teams and venues. This sport is very visual, and once you see it, you are mesmerized.

Much like beach volleyball being played in what used to be considered "unorthodox" venues like tennis stadiums or football fields, sitting volleyball can be played literally almost anywhere. Case in point, many of the venues used for this World Championship were theaters where courts were carefully placed on the stage in front of an amphitheater of fans. Looking at some of the venues this week made me think of what's to come with the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics. Courts on stage at the Microsoft Theater? Or in the middle of LA Live? That reminds me to call our friend Clayton Frech at the Angel City Games in Los Angeles (www.angelcitygames.org) to start brainstorming about some ideas for a clinic. I'm going to have some time on my hands pretty soon. How many sitting volleyball courts can we fit in the UCLA Pauley Pavilion or USC Galen Center? I bet we can do a lot at the LBSU Walter Pyramid too?

Last December, the NCAA showed us just how easy it is to fit sitting volleyball into a national championship final. Many of our Paralympic gold medalists, led by head coach Bill Hamiter, gave a fast-paced glimpse of sitting volleyball to nearly 18,000 fans at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and to a million more viewers around the country on ESPN2. It was all done during a simple break in sets. Seeing and hearing the reaction from the floor was terrific. It felt like the Paralympics. It was the first-time I can remember that sitting volleyball was given such a prominent showcase in the United States, in front of a full-house and live on broadcast television. Let's keep it going.

World ParaVolley World Championships venue

World ParaVolley World Championships venue

Since USA Volleyball formally became the National Governing Body (NGB) for sitting volleyball in the United States back in 2014, there has been a steady increase in opportunities where we can include sitting volleyball into event programming of existing beach and indoor volleyball events. Much of this inclusion was already in place by our Regional Volleyball Associations around the country who early on identified the benefit of establishing sitting volleyball as a core program. The USA Volleyball Open National Championships offers a sitting volleyball division for all athletes. One misperception about sitting volleyball is that only disabled athletes can play. While that is true mostly at the international and Paralympic level, where athletes are classified by level of disability, at an event like the USA Volleyball Open National Championships, there are athletes of all abilities, skill level, size and shape who participate on sitting volleyball teams. Kelly Claes, a member of the USA Volleyball beach national team program, shared her experience playing on a sitting team this year in a blog post and on her social media. And I'm pretty sure from the look of the smile on her face in every photo and video clip, she's a fan for life now. USA Volleyball Board Member Brent Rasmussen was Team USA captain of the 2004 Paralympic Games, a gold medalist at the Parapan Games, and competed for eight-years on the men's sitting team before resuming his professional life as president of Mortgage Specialists, LLC, a small local company based in Omaha he started in May 2004. Brent still puts a team together each year to compete at the U.S. Open, and he takes it just as seriously as the Paralympic Games!

Barry Couzner, Parsons and Joe Campbell

Sitting volleyball plays a vital role within USA Volleyball. As the sport continues to grow in participation, my hope is that the lessons learned from the diversity of our athletes, options to showcase the sport in new and exciting venues, and opportunities to compete on the international stage increase, we will be able to do more in this area of sport. I am energized by the inclusion of more veterans, adaptive athletes from other sports, and identifying more disabled athletes who have been competing alongside their student-athlete peers in the NCAA.

I applaud the work that our staff and coaches are doing with the teams, Hamiter on the women's side and Greg Walker on the men's side. I appreciate people like USA Volleyball's John Kessel, and ParaVolley Pan America President, Joe Campbell, who continue to work with Hamiter on the World ParaVolley Board and among their leadership. And I would be remiss not to mention the great work being done by a long-time dear friend, Barry Couzner, the president of the World ParaVolley Board. Under Barry's watch, and with the help of those in his leadership like Denis Le Breuilly, Wayne Hellquist, Phil Allen and others, World ParaVolley and it's dynamic and dedicated team of leaders have achieved major milestones in the Paralympic movement. Barry has brought on new sponsors, strengthened the sport's relationship with Paralympic executive leaders, created new event opportunities, and put together a team of sitting volleyball technical delegates & officials from around the world like Weiping Tu of Australia who have raised the profile of sitting volleyball through their professionalism and goal of recognizing diversity and striving for inclusion. The global scope of sitting volleyball is one of the most diverse in international sport with countries like Iran, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Egypt, Russia and China in the forefront, and where women participate equally with men. The range of countries represented in sitting volleyball covers Rwanda to Russia, the United States to the U.A.E. This is the norm for sitting volleyball, to focus on coming together through our similarities, not push apart because of our differences. Well done World ParaVolley, and thank you!

Women's Sitting World Championship
GOLD - Russia
SILVER - USA
BRONZE - China

Men's Sitting World Championship
GOLD - Iran
SILVER - Bosnia and Herzegovina
BRONZE - Brazil