RIO DE JANEIRO – Tijana Boskovic was in tears.
“We still can’t believe what we did,” she said, staring off towards the volleyball court at Maracanãzinho, where the Rio Olympics women’s semifinal had just ended.
“In the last set, they had three points more than us. But we believed we could win,” said the 19-year-old, 6-foot-4 Serbian, referencing the 8-3 run of points her team had in the fifth set. “We put everything we had into it. And we won.”
A few feet away from a sobbing and smiling Boskovic, Kayla Banwarth was also in tears.
“That was probably the best match Serbia’s ever played, so props to them,” said the American Libero, whose team just lost a crushing five-set match, sending them to the bronze medal match in Rio. “It’s the journey that matters … not the outcome.”
Team USA was ranked No. 1 in the world entering the Rio Games under new coach Karch Kiraly, himself a former gold medalist. The program had captured consecutive silver medals in London and Beijing, and was seeking the first U.S. gold in the 52-year history of the Olympic event.
The odds were good that they would capture it, especially when host Brazil – which didn’t lose a set during pool play – was upended in the quarterfinals by China. Those odds only increased when Serbia, No. 6 in the world and a 3-1 loser to the U.S. in pool play, ousted a strong Russian team in the quarters as well.
But the Americans will have to settle for bronze after the 3-2 (20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13) upset by Serbia. The quest for a medal continues. Pride attempted to quell disappointment.
“We’re incredibly proud of how we battled through some real adversity today. Going down 2-1 and all the other things that were going on,” said Kiraly.
The “other things” the Americans faced were a hostile Brazilian crowd actively rooting against them – even a guy dressed as Captain America was booed on the Jumbotron – and a Serbian team that had learned a few lessons from their first meeting with the U.S. in group play.
“Serbia was doing a nice job creating problems for us,” said Kiraly. “There were a whole slew of things we were trying to solve. We adjusted our lineup. We adjusted it again. We adjusted it again.”
But the biggest lineup adjustment came in the second set, when American standout Foluke Akinradewo injured her left leg. The setter was a huge loss to the lineup, and her status for Saturday’s bronze medal match is uncertain.
“We were distracted for a second, just because we care so much for her,” captain Christa Harmotto Dietzen said, before leaning back in her press conference chair and going silent.
Then, Dietzen was in tears, too.
“Obviously, we wanted to turn this around. For her. For everybody in this program,” said Dietzen.
“This one stings, for sure. But we had a great example set for us. Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross responded well after their semifinal loss. For the next hour, there’s some grieving. But we’re going after the bronze. That’s the next goal.”
With pain comes progress, even if it won’t look like it on paper. The Americans will go from two straight appearances in a gold medal match to battling for third. But the program’s consistent rise won’t be slowed by a vexing upset.
“We’ve built something special over the years. This program has a history. Top finishes at the international level,” said Kiraly.
“There’s one thing we want to accomplish. It’s not going to happen this month. I don’t know if it’ll happen four years from now or 52 years from now, but our job is to make an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. program. And the fight continues.”
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