BY JACK HAMANN
Courtney Thompson and her USA Volleyball teammates stood on the podium Sunday in Milan, Italy, flowers in their arms and medals around their necks. At the World Championships awards ceremony, they turned in unison for the raising of the colors. But, for the first time in one of the three major international women’s volleyball competitions — Olympics, World Cup and World Championships — the flag and anthem were from the USA.
“It was surreal,” says Thompson. “Gold medals and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.”
Although volleyball was invented in America — and although American men have won several golds at their three international majors — the women had been frustrated for more than 50 years. They’d won plenty of silvers, including at the past two Olympics. Thompson, a former Washington All-American setter and captain of the 2005 NCAA championship team, has been on the USA roster since 2006. She was one of those who stood on the silver medal platform in London. The U.S. ended that competition listening to the Brazilian national anthem — again.
But not Sunday in Milan. “After the ceremony,” Thompson said, “we all went to the hotel and ordered pizza, lots of pizza. We were there for hours, all night long, toasting our teammates and coaches, telling stories, listening to music, dancing like crazy. Over and over, we talked about how humbling it was to be the first to get the gold. I mean, so many incredible athletes came before us and never had this chance.”
Assistant coach Marv Dunphy, a volleyball legend whose long resume includes coaching the 1988 men’s gold medal team in Seoul, gave the toast that moved Thompson most.
“Marv told us that those of us in that room now have a bond that we’ll never lose the rest of our lives,” she said. “He said many of us will go on to other great things, but there will never be a volleyball experience as special as that pizza all-nighter with those who know best how hard it was to get there.”
How hard was it? Despite winning its first seven matches of this 24-team, three-week tournament, USA lost to host Italy and Brazil, and was headed home unless the Italians could beat two-time defending champion Russia.
“It was the weirdest day ever,” Thompson remembers. “I was angry and frustrated that we put ourselves in that position.” Although the team had the match on TV at the hotel, Thompson couldn’t bear to watch, even as Italy prevailed.
But that “weird” day might have been key.
“Coming that close to being eliminated made us hungrier,” says Thompson. “I’m sure that was a big part of why we put it all together beating Brazil (in the semifinals) and China (in the finals).”
Thompson is back in Seattle, but for just a quiet day or two with family. That’s because volleyball is a full-time job. Like about two dozen former Washington players, she’s paid to play professionally overseas. Her entire team, Volero Zurich, drove to Milan to watch her win the gold. She’ll rejoin them in Switzerland early next week for a season that stretches to the next USA National Team season in June.
The next big test? That would be the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Does Thompson expect the Brazilians to be fired up after losing to USA this week?
“I certainly hope so,” she says, chuckling. “We’ll be fired up, for sure. And what athlete doesn’t want to play their best when the competition is also playing their best?
“I can’t wait.”
Jack Hamann is a former volleyball coach, journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. Hamann, who previously worked at KING-5 TV, CNN and PBS, is the correspondent for a volleyball Website, Volleyblogseattle.com
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