Before they took the court and won bronze, they gathered in the locker room one final time. Each player on the U.S. women’s volleyball took a turn to speak.
Jordan Larson told her teammates she loved them and would fight for every one of them.
Former Penn State All-American Alisha Glass made sure they all knew there was nowhere she’d rather be now than right here in Rio.
Captain Christa Dietzen? She didn’t need an Olympic medal. The ex-Nittany Lion standout already understood what this tight-knit team was all about, and she also knew it sure would be nice to wear one home as she heads into retirement and prepares to start a family. They thanked one another for the time and effort over four hard years.
Beach star Kerri Walsh Jennings sent a note of her own: Go get a bronze. Just as Walsh Jennings and April Ross did.
“I’m just really proud to be a part of this program,” Larson said. “It’s come a long way. I’m just really happy because there are a lot of good people who deserve this. A lot of people just gave their hearts and soul to this.”
Player-turned-coach Karch Kiraly, the only person to win Olympic volleyball gold as a beach and indoor player, addressed each woman. He spoke of his admiration and acknowledged those players back home who didn’t make the cut.
Just by stepping on the court Saturday, Foluke Akinradewo showed how this squad stuck together. She returned from an injury to her left leg that forced her out early in the semifinal loss to Serbia. The star middle blocker matched Larson and Kim Hill with 13 kills each and took charge as the top-ranked Americans bounced back two days later to beat the Netherlands 25-23, 25-27, 25-22, 25-19 on Saturday.
After Hill’s ace on match point, her fourth of the day, the U.S. women fell into an embrace. Kiraly hugged his coaches and brought the women into a huddle for one last cheer.
“In a way, selfishly, I wanted a gold medal to almost prove the way this culture is, or the way the culture has grown and the foundation that we’ve built, almost to prove it right — that the way we did it was right,” said Dietzen, who played a few points in the third set. “A medal’s not going to prove that. A medal doesn’t define this team. It will never define this team.”
Reserve setter Courtney Thompson, the Americans’ inspirational motivator, joined Dietzen in announcing immediately after the match that her volleyball days are done. Then they joked about meeting for a crack-of-dawn spin class later in the week.
“I have a whole new respect for everyone that wins a bronze medal,” Thompson said. “It’s not easy, 48 hours later.”
This group leaves the Olympics again without the big prize. The last three games went this way: Beijing 2008, silver; London 2012, silver; and Rio de Janeiro 2016, bronze.
“Our team dealt with some real pain and heartache, heartbreak, a couple of days ago,” said Kiraly, who thanked Walsh Jennings for her gesture. “I’m incredibly proud of how within hours they were preparing, carrying that heartbreak, but preparing to be good and to finish strong. I also never had any understanding of how good a bronze medal could feel, and it feels incredible right now. We’re so happy to finish this tournament on this note.”
Glass guided the offense to a .367 hitting day, giving out 45 running sets to go with three digs, a block and an ace. Rachel Adams had five of the team’s 13 blocks.
The Netherlands shined, playing in its first Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Dutch pushed the U.S. to five sets in pool play on Aug. 8 and put women’s volleyball on the map at home with a gutsy, never-give-up style.
Now, the Americans are left to try again in Tokyo 2020 for the program’s first gold, with certain new leaders emerging to guide that run: Hill, Kelsey Robinson, Kayla Banwarth.
Thompson and Carli Lloyd wrapped themselves together with an American flag. Banwarth lifted the Stars and Stripes above her head.
These women plan to build on this even if it wasn’t the result they planned for all along. Still, it was far better than departing South America empty-handed.
’’There’s been a lot of tears the past couple days,” Hill said. “And not just tears of sadness before this match, tears of gratitude and just joy at this experience these past four years, in this tournament and being with this group of people, this special group. It’s been such an amazing ride.”