How did we do it? Emotionally and mentally, we channeled every amount of heart, determination, and belief we had accumulated over the 8 years most of us had been together. We cumulatively brought all this to the Olympics and harnessed it into an amazing run of matches.
Technically, we won 8 matches in a row to win the gold. That is not an easy feat. Most previous major tournaments, including the World League where we won gold just two weeks before the Olympics, there had been a match or two where we stumbled. The Olympic Games was a different story all together.
Part of the reason it was different was because not very many people thought we could pull it off. Men's volleyball had become a crowded event, with the top 15 teams in the world all dangerous, and the top 5 teams really good. On any given day, any of the top 5 teams could be the best. Also, we were certainly not favorites for gold over a Brazilian team that had dominated the sport for the past 6 years, winning every international tournament along the way.
None of the Olympic prognostications mattered in the end. We did it because we were the best for the two weeks of the Olympic Games. We were certainly riding a big wave of momentum having won the World League two weeks before. Yet ultimately, we came together at the right time, under the right conditions both physically and mentally. And it was plain to see, we did it under some unusually emotional conditions.
Part of the story that set this team apart was the conditions surrounding our team during the event. It is no secret that a tragedy struck our coach, Hugh McCutcheon, and his wife Elizabeth, during the first days of the Olympic Games. What most people could only imagine is how it affected our team. We were mostly deeply saddened. We felt not only for our coach, but for his wife. Many of us, myself especially, knew Wiz and had befriended her over years of playing volleyball together. I was mourning inside for her loss, while also the cruelty of our modern world. Simply put, we were all taken aback by the unfair and unrelenting lack of reason in life.
Through all these immediately rough moments, we knew we still had to play volleyball. Certainly we would continue to channel our love and support to our coach and his family. Yet it seemed that our coach not being there under such troubling circumstances further galvanized our dedication. As a team we also seemed to channel all these tough emotions into playing volleyball really well. Guys focused even harder. We played with our hearts on our sleeves.
No one may have noticed at the time, but we were out there on the court playing free. Free from any worries of failure, of pressure to medal, of our own personal expectations. We were free to play because we had earned the right to do just that over four years, and because we were gravely aware now more than ever, that we have to take advantage of special moments to do great things in life. Our coach, over a sad conference call from the hospital where he was immediately after the event, led us like the leader we all know. He reminded us, with emotions that resonated in his voice, that we had invested our whole lives into this endeavor, and that we had to play.
Our first match before the tragedy occurred was against Venezuela, who we had to fight to beat 3-2. It was the first match of the tournament and we showed that with a little rust on our game. Then the tragedy... Italy was first to follow. Boom, 3-1 and it was over. Bulgaria was next. Another win 3-1. We could not be stopped against the first three teams in our pool. The momentum was building and it seemed like it would not stop. Then our leader returned to join our team again on the sidelines. Unfortunately for China, that meant a convincing win 3-0. Finally to cap off our pool we made quick work of Japan, winning again 3-0 to finish out our pool 1st with a perfect 5-0 record.
Our quarterfinal match would prove to be the true first test of our conviction. Serbia was a strong team who beat us earlier in World League. We did win convincingly in the finals 3-1 of that same tournament, but we knew they were dangerous. It was a tough match to watch given that it was the Olympics and our team knew everything was on the line. We won 3-2 with a gut wrenching 5th set. We passed our first true test, which moved us to the semi-finals vs. Russia.
A little history lesson first. USA had not beat Russia in the Olympics for somewhere over 20 years. In fact, Russia was playing like the other best team in the world all summer. We knew they would be tough as ever on this world stage that was the Olympics.
Russia fell to the floor, while we jumped for joy, after the final point landed with us winning 3-2, close right down to the last moment. There was no doubt to all of us that this was a huge win for our team. No words could describe how happy we all were following this match. Moving into an automatic medal was the reward.
The question soon became which medal would we win? No doubt that everyone felt the gold was the best idea. We looked more determined than ever, and more confident that this was our time. We took that energy and belief, that freedom, and played a near perfect final match, winning the gold vs. a depleted Brazil team 3-1.
So how does it feel? I felt like we all deserved it. From the coaches to the players, from the staff at USA volleyball to the fans and sponsors supporting our sport all these years, to the great players who built the tradition and gave us something to work towards and believe in, we all deserved this gold. We had all been through many ups and downs together, a ton of victories and defeats (both on and off the court), and challenged constantly to believe in ourselves and USA volleyball. In the end, we did just that and we got it....the gold medal. Oh, how sweet it is.