U.S. Beats Brazil for First Gold in Women’s Volleyball

TOKYO – Every trip to the top of the Olympic Mountain brings with it a number of incidents that seem meticulously planned with hindsight, but in reality were just dice rolls that paid off.

Take the United States volleyball team. It first qualified for the 1980 Olympic tournament but missed those games due to an American-led boycott. Since then it has been chasing an Olympic title.

Despite a collegial infrastructure that produces volleyball talents on the assembly line, the US women never won the gold medal. They came close twice, winning bronze in Beijing in 2008 and again at the 2012 and 2016 London Games in Rio, before reaching the top tier 3-0 against Brazil in Tokyo on Sunday.

The turning point for the current team’s success most likely has its roots in two coaching decisions more than a decade ago.

After the 2008 Olympics, Hugh McCutcheon resigned from coaching the U.S. men’s team after leading them to the gold medal and agreed to take over the women’s program.

This created an opening on the men’s side. One of the candidates for the job was Karch Kiraly, America’s first true volleyball star. As a player, Kiraly had led UCLA to national championships and was the heart of the US team for the gold medal in 1984. He later contributed to the popularization of professional beach volleyball, in which he also became a master.

It would have been completely understandable if Kiraly had felt that his fame would have entitled him to the men’s job. He did not. In fact, he said he felt unqualified and said the same to the leaders of US volleyball.

A few weeks later he was on a plane next to McCutcheon. McCutcheon had an idea. Come on, be my assistant on the women’s team, he said to Kiraly. Gain experience and then take over when I leave.

And that’s exactly what Kiraly did.

“I can’t imagine coaching any other team,” Kiraly said earlier this week as the United States headed for Sunday’s gold medal game. “I love her to death.”

A graduate of UCLA, Kiraly is familiar with the teachings of John Wooden, the university’s legendary basketball coach, and Wooden’s idea that paying for a team gives you the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself.

His assistant coach Marv Dunphy is also fluent in Wooden’s methods; before his death in 2010, he spent hours interviewing the coach. move quickly but also take time; the willingness to enjoy small gestures and the recognition that athletes are humans and not robots.


Aug 8, 2021, 3:19 p.m. ET

Kiraly barely mentioned his team’s talent and athleticism when discussing it at the games. Instead, he has spoken with pride of the atmosphere of “trust, accountability and democracy” that women have created for themselves.

Foluke Akinradewo, a veteran remedial blocker, said the team had made a conscious decision over the past few months to verbalize their emotions about the tensions inherent with their search for gold rather than running away from them.

“We’re taking the liberty of saying to each other, ‘I’m nervous,'” said Akinradewo after the Americans beat the Dominican Republic in the quarter-finals. “We say we’re nervous and then we do it.”

The team’s run to the Tokyo 2020 final began long before summer. Back in the spring, the United States brought its best players to the Volleyball Nations League in Italy, an annual competition among the best volleyball players.

Several countries have chosen to rest their top players this year; Kiraly used it as a sort of attempt to get 18 players and then get his roster into the top 12 that he would take to Tokyo. The United States won the competition and has not let up since then.

On the way to the gold medal game, the team lost many points, seven sets and even a game, a 3-0 victory by the Russian team. And they rolled away with everything.

However, on Sunday they ended their journey to their first gold with a win over Brazil (25-21, 25-20, 25-14), which they beat in the 2008 and 2012 finals. Andrea Drews had 15 points and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley added 14.

Serbia won bronze.

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