Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympics | Courtney Thompson: “Losing sucks”

Back in the USA, the Olympic setter talks about the gold medal match, her punch in the nose and her next volleyball assignment. A Volleyblog Seattle exclusive.

For a very long stretch, Courtney Thompson and her Olympic teammates knew nothing but winning.

A 2012 World Grand Prix championship after going undefeated in 14 matches across three continents. Winners of seven straight Olympic matches, dropping just two sets along the way.

Courtney Thompson with mother Linda and father Steve, after winning the Olympic silver medal
And then, at the worst possible time, a complete faceplant in the gold medal match against rival Brazil.

“Losing sucks, you know?” Thompson said, speaking with Volleyblog Seattle just hours after touching back down on US soil. “Everyone hates losing. And it was just unfortunate because we had such a great run; we had such a great four years.”

How bad did the gold medal loss hurt? Not a single one of the silver medal-winning Americans elected to attend Sunday’s closing ceremonies.

“We didn’t,” said Thompson. “None of our team went. We could have, but we all ended up just spending time with family and kind of doing our own thing.

“We did watch a little bit of the end on TV, though. And we could see the fireworks from the (Athletes’) Village.”

Clearly, the favored Americans were deeply disappointed. And with disappointment came exhaustion.

“It’s weird,” Thompson said. “We were all talking about how your body almost knows that you need to hang on until the last game. Mentally, physically, emotionally, it’s been a long summer.

“This tournament was amazing and emotional in so many ways. And stressful and fun. It’s just a lot. I don’t know, it’s a big letdown. Your body tends to signal that in different ways.

“I usually end up getting sick after a season. Especially after something like this. We’ll see.”

One body part that no longer hurts … is her nose. Last Tuesday, she and teammate Destinee Hooker collided on the final point of the quarterfinal match, sending Thompson to the floor, bleeding.

“I got hit really hard on the nose,” she remembers. “And it hurt! I heard the whistle blow, and I was like Please, please be on them! And I was very happy that we got the last point and we had won.

“It was nothin’. It was just a little sore the next day. It was no big deal.”

For Thompson, Sunday’s  gold medal match was especially complicated. As the Brazilians began to wreak havoc, head coach Hugh McCutcheon made several substitutions. Eventually, all but one of his 12 players got in the game.

All but Courtney Thompson.

“I never question Hugh,” Thompson says. That’s not my job to make those decisions. I know it’s a really, really tough job. My job is to be ready. I felt ready the whole game. And as a player, that’s all you can do.”

McCutcheon elected instead to stay with Lindsey Berg, his starting setter for most of the past four years. Before the Olympics, Berg told an interviewer that her knees ached all the time. She left the Turkey match with what turned out to be a moderate Achilles strain, and did not play in the quarterfinal match against Dominican Republic. When Berg was on the sidelines, Thompson ran the team flawlessly.

Could USA have defeated Brazil if McCutcheon had inserted Thompson in the third or fourth set?

“People have brought it up to me. But, I don’t know. It’s so off my radar to think like that, you know? My role on the team is, I want us to win. And it’s tough when we don’t, whether I play or not. If we win and I don’t play, I’m happy.

“Of course, I want to contribute and be where I can help the team. And it’s hard as a team to go through that, you know?

“But I support Hugh and everything he’s done.”

With the conclusion of the Olympics, the members of the team now go their separate ways. Some, like Berg, will retire. Most others will continue playing professional volleyball in Europe or Asia. As tired as she is, Thompson can’t imagine not playing her sport.

“It really is addictive,” she says.

Before the Olympics, Thompson signed a contract to play in the Polish Premiere League this fall, with an up-an-coming team nicknamed the “Boat Builders,” in the city of Łódź, in central Poland. She leaves for Europe in just a couple weeks.

“It’s cool to play this long and to keep learning. And to feel that, we’re at this level, yet there’s so much that I can be better at personally. As a setter. As a leader.”

And what about the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?

“The (USA) girls who want to come back (for Rio) are hungry,” says Thompson. “Especially now, the way it ended.

“When you get a taste of it, and you see what it’s like, it’s just incentive to get back there and to do it.

“And the closer you get to the ultimate goal, the more you want it.”

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