TOKYO — The morning of the Olympic ladies’s volleyball semifinal on Friday right here on the Tokyo Video games, Foluke Akinradewo, a three-time Olympian and center blocker for the U.S. group, had a premonition: the USA was going to have an ideal match.
In opposition to Serbia that afternoon, the Individuals can be environment friendly and medical and each participant would execute the sport plan excellent — she may see it unfold in her thoughts. And simply 20 months after Akinradewo gave beginning to a son, Kayode, her squad would beat Serbia to advance to the gold medal sport on Sunday.
Whereas strolling to breakfast, Akinradewo shared her imaginative and prescient with Jordan Larson, the group captain, additionally at her third Olympics. Larson, an outdoor hitter, mentioned she had the identical feeling.
“I don’t know if you wish to communicate that into existence, however yeah, OK!” Larson recalled saying.
The premonition was proper. Going through a tricky Serbian group, the USA received in straight units, 25-19, 25-15 and 25-23.
Tijana Boskovic was Serbia’s high scorer, with 19 factors, whereas Annie Drews led the Individuals with 17.
“Ms. Boskovic is simply one of many world’s nice, nice gamers,” Karch Kiraly, the U.S. group’s coach, mentioned. “Going into right this moment, she was in all probability essentially the most deadly participant within the match, however we held her.”
Kiraly, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in indoor volleyball and likewise a gold medal winner in seaside volleyball, praised Akinradewo for her half in maintaining Boskovic in examine by main the group’s “very good blocking from begin to end.”
The Individuals’ win introduced each pleasure and aid for the group, which misplaced to the Serbians 5 years in the past within the semifinal on the 2016 Rio Video games. That loss harm as a result of the U.S. group had been doing so nicely at these Olympics, with the gold medal inside attain, and Kiraly can’t neglect it.
He mentioned it was “an absolute soul crusher” to lose in that semifinal match as a result of it was the Individuals’ solely loss in Rio and was so shut: It got here all the way down to the fifth set, with the Serbians successful, 15-13.
The group in Tokyo now could have an opportunity to redeem itself from that loss when it performs Brazil within the gold medal sport on Sunday. The US might be prepared for something, and any group, Kiraly mentioned, partly as a result of all through the coronavirus pandemic it has spent a lot time engaged on group chemistry.
The Individuals vary in age from 24 to 34, and have a mixture of expertise. Solely 4 of them have performed at an Olympics, whereas eight of them are new to the Summer time Video games.
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Aug. 6, 2021, 5:23 p.m. ET
When the pandemic hit, Kiraly determined to strive one thing new to get the teammates to jell. As an alternative of utilizing the group’s common sports activities psychologist, he went the unconventional route of enlisting the previous U.C.L.A. softball coach Sue Enquist as “a pure psychological efficiency coach.”
Enquist, a motivational speaker who has additionally coached the U.S. softball group, was the primary of a number of visitor audio system Kiraly organized for the group as soon as they started coaching aside due to Covid-19. Different sports activities figures adopted, together with Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck, who’re former captains of the U.S. ladies’s soccer group, and the tennis legend Billie Jean King, who despatched Kiraly and the U.S. group an encouraging textual content after Friday’s win.
On the gamers’ request, Enquist returned to guide player-only Zoom conferences. They mentioned motivational books or movies, and the way the group, at occasions unfold internationally, may talk higher as a gaggle whereas every participant skilled alone.
Larson, for instance, labored out at residence in California, in her storage on her Peloton and with weights. It was a lonely existence. At one level, she mentioned, virtually three months glided by with out her touching a volleyball as a result of she had nobody to hit it again to her. She had additionally stopped leaping for 2 months. And when she did begin once more, she wore a bald patch in her yard grass as a result of she practiced her strategy to the web so many occasions in a single spot.
Larson, who’s 34 and the oldest participant on the group, mentioned Enquist helped join the gamers once they wanted it essentially the most.
“She got here on and we have been type of functioning as a bunch of people; I feel all of us had our personal private agenda,” Larson mentioned, explaining that Enquist helped them “work out methods to be on the identical web page.”
Their objective, nonetheless, has at all times been the identical: to win the primary Olympic volleyball gold medal for the U.S. ladies. At current Olympics, the group had come so shut. It received silver medals on the 2008 Beijing Video games and the 2012 London Video games, and it received bronze in 2016.
Drews, who’s competing at her first Olympics, mentioned successful the gold in Tokyo has been the group’s “entire pursuit.”
“That objective has influenced each determination we’ve made,” she mentioned.
Getting again to the gold medal match was motivation for Akinradewo to return after having a child boy late in 2019, regardless of enduring a tough being pregnant. She remains to be combating a extreme case of diastasis recti, which is the separation of the belly muscle tissues and impacts her core energy.
But she labored out at residence all through the lockdown and juggled motherhood and breastfeeding along with her job as an athlete. In all, she missed three years of enjoying for the nationwide group earlier than returning to the squad in Could. Even then, she labored out individually from the group for more often than not so she may defend her son from presumably being uncovered to the coronavirus.
It was particularly necessary for her to maintain urgent forward, Akinradewo mentioned, for extra than simply an opportunity at a gold medal.
“There was a journey to get again, however I used to be decided to do it,” she mentioned. “A part of my need to do it was I simply needed different mothers to know that it’s doable. So I simply needed to do it for them.”
On Friday morning, she additionally felt that she and her group may win the semifinal for all of the mothers.
“I awoke and I used to be like, ‘We’re going to do that, and we’re going to get it carried out,’” she mentioned. “And I’m glad that got here to fruition.”