Team USA’s final Olympic gold, and U.S. women’s volleyball’s first, is the ultimate story of persistence

TOKYO — Jordan Larson is in an “elders group chat.” The members list is a who’s who of American volleyball excellence. And in the weeks, days, even hours leading into Sunday’s Olympic gold medal match, as Larson, 34, cried more than ever before, struck by the emotion of the moment, her group chat buzzed with excitement. Larson’s former teammates, she said, “were having a little pregame party” as they prepared to watch her, the captain of the 2021 team, chase the Olympic gold that none of them had.

They had come close. Oh, so close. Some of them had ripped apart Brazil in the opening set of the 2012 Olympic final, only to drop the next three.

Some had been crushed by a five-set, two-point loss to Serbia four years later.

Many had since left the sport, and left a program that still, six decades after volleyball’s Olympic debut, had never stood atop a podium.

Larson thought about them this week. “The people that have come before us,” she said. And it was as if she carried them with her when, at 2:58 p.m. here at the Ariake Arena, with the U.S. leading 24-14 in Sunday's third set, she gathered and rose. She swung her right arm, as she has thousands of times over a storied career. She spiked a yellow-and-blue Olympic-ringed ball toward earth, and cued the celebration.

Larson collapsed to the floor, first to her knees, then with her face in hands, the euphoria of gold overwhelming.

Teammates met her on the floor, their elastic limbs creating a messy sea of hugs and human happiness.

Coaches threw their arms around one another, and Karch Kiraly, the leader of them all, gradually crumbled into tears. They were tears of persistence, persistence of individuals but also of a program that finally had its crowning moment.

"It tastes sweeter when you come close and suffer some really painful losses," Kiraly said.

And it wasn’t just a victory for those who got to taste it. This, Kiraly said, was also for the pioneers and former stars on whose shoulders this team stands.

USA Volleyball's 'trailblazers and path-creators'

Jordan Larson (10), Foluke Akinradewo and USA women's volleyball finally captured an elusive Olympic gold medal. (Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Jordan Larson (10), Foluke Akinradewo and USA women's volleyball finally captured an elusive Olympic gold medal. (Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. women’s volleyball qualified for each of the first two Olympic competitions, in 1964 and 1968. They won a grand total of one match at those Games, then failed to qualify in ‘72 and ‘76. They sputtered in those early years, succumbing to Asian and European powers.

This was a bit before Kiraly’s time, but he knows the history well. “We were just assembling groups of all-star teams for two weeks before the Olympics,” he explained, and expecting but failing to compete for medals.

The group that changed everything arrived on the scene in the late '70s. They organized training camps year-round, and qualified for the 1980 Games, and … never got to compete, either. The U.S. boycotted those Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Some of the members of that team, whom Kiraly called “trailblazers and path-creators,” never got to see an Olympics, much less a medal ceremony.

Some of them also gathered in Colorado Springs last month for a 40-plus-one-year reunion, and they communicated regularly with this year’s team. The connection to the past, to the “people [who] had to sacrifice a lot for us to be here,” as Larson said, wasn’t just symbolic. It was tangible. The 1980 Olympians recorded videos and sent them to current stars. The current stars reciprocated.

“We felt a really special bond with that group,” Kiraly said.

He and his players went to Tokyo to play for them, and for many who followed. A majority of the 2021 roster were first-time Olympians, in their 20s, but they knew the history; the silver medal in 1984, then the 24-year Olympic final drought.

The NCAA volleyball pipeline churned out pro after pro in the 1990s and 2000s, and the U.S. men and women have qualified, often with ease, for every Olympics since 1980. The men, once led by Kiraly as a player, have won three golds.

But the women couldn’t quite surmount that final hurdle.

“We had come so close,” said Kiraly, who joined the program in 2008 after it had won silver, then became the head coach after another silver in 2012. “And suffered some really gut-wrenching, soul-crushing losses.”

Doubts, fears and persistence

Jordan Larson and Foluke Akinradewo were there for two of those losses, the only two that the U.S. women suffered in Olympic competition in the 2010s. They were on that 2012 team. They were two of four who made it back to 2016, with dreams of gold, only to be stunned by Serbia in the semis.

They were the only two of the 2012 crew who continued on another five years, and along the way, were there doubts that Sunday’s moment would ever materialize?

“For sure. I would be lying if I [said I] didn't think that,” Larson said. “There were times. Yeah.”

Especially for Akinradewo, who in 2019 gave birth to her first child. In the aftermath, she battled severe diastasis recti, or abdominal separation. The pregnancy left a 9-centimeter gap, big enough for a fist to fit through, in her stomach muscles. To this day, her core strength hasn’t fully recovered.

Head coach Karch Kiraly helped lead USA women's volleyball to the top of the Olympic podium at long last. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Head coach Karch Kiraly helped lead USA women's volleyball to the top of the Olympic podium at long last. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

She missed years of national team games before and after giving birth, and of course she doubted whether she’d make it to Tokyo. But she persisted. She clung to a determined outlook, in part because she “wanted other moms to know that it’s possible.”

Around Larson and Akinwadero, Kiraly filled the roster with youth. "Kids," as Larson called them, who brought "fearlessness." But even they doubted.

“Oh, yes,” said Haleigh Washington, a 25-year-old middle blocker. “Anytime you work for something big, for something that has yet to be obtained, you're constantly flooded with doubts, with fears, with worry.”

They spiked during the pandemic. It gave Larson time to reflect, and she asked herself, ahead of her final Olympics: Hey, if you don't get the gold medal, are you gonna be OK?

“And at the end of the day, I was,” she said. “I was gonna be OK.”

But of course she wanted it. They all wanted it. And they’d learned how to confront the doubts, the fears, the worry. Washington and 24-year-old setter Jordyn Poulter talked about that Saturday night.

“There's an underlying peace,” Washington said. “A trust. An understanding that we have put in the work, and we're gonna go out there and put it all on the floor.”

A 'circle of gratitude' and a gold

On Sunday morning, the 12 women who’d faced those fears, and who’d moved to within three sets of ending this infinite drought, huddled for a “circle of gratitude.”

They’ve been doing it for years now, before almost every match. They hold hands, and take turns speaking. They often cry.

Sunday was no different. And as they went around the circle, a common thread emerged.

Washington had gone to sleep the night before thinking: “I want to win this gold medal for Jordan Larson.”

Larson, at the circle of gratitude, said she was going to play for Kim Hill, a 2016 and 2021 teammate who, Larson later said, is “gonna step away from the sport today.”

Poulter, when asked later what her message was, looked toward Larson, and began tearing up.

“I have watched all of these people in their entire careers, and different phases, at different levels,” Poulter said, her voice weak. “And just to be able to stand beside them, and go to battle with them, to do something that we've never done ... I'm so grateful to be a part of this program.”

They bore history and the weight of it by playing for one another. They came to Tokyo, Kiraly said, to “out-team” every opponent, and that’s what they did. The 12 players, he proclaimed, “add up to more like 16 or 17.” They all rushed to the court after Larson’s golden winner, and cried ugly tears in one another's arms.

“It was not cute,” Washington said with a laugh.

And then, later, they thought back in time, about how they were not just 12, or 17, but rather hundreds. Kiraly thought about “how many great players, great coaches, and great teams have been a part of this program over the years.”

“The work that those people who came before did counts,” he said. “So we're standing on their shoulders. They're sending us many messages about how proud they are that we are carrying their legacy forward.”

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