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|Two-time USA Olympian, setter Courtney Thompson|
-photo by FIVB
By Jack Hamann, special to The Seattle Times
Alicia Glass sat in Hec Ed Pavilion’s bleachers and stared. On the court below, Ohio State had just scored a point against Washington in a 2006 NCAA volleyball playoff match. As a Buckeyes player retreated to the service line, Washington senior setter Courtney Thompson stood defiantly below the referee stand, debating the official’s previous call. She argued emphatically. Persistently. Long and loud enough to draw a yellow card.
Glass, then a freshman setter, was preparing to lead her Penn State team against Washington the next night for the right to advance to the 2006 Final Four. A decade later, she remembers how her coach, Russ Rose, reacted to Thompson’s tirade. “He says, ‘did you see that? That’s a leader right there. Do you see that passion? Do you see how she fires up her teammates? That’s how you need to be as a leader.’”
Three years earlier, in those same bleachers, a prized high school recruit out of San Diego named Carli Lloyd also stared in wonder. She, too, was a setter, and couldn’t keep her eyes off Thompson, then the freshman captain of the Huskies. The fierceness. The pumped fists. The guttural “Ayyyyyy!” after every winning point.
“It was the first time I had ever seen her play,” says Lloyd. “And I looked around and said to someone, I want to be her. Man, I just idolized her. How she played. The way she led her teammates. Her fire.”
On August 6, 2016, Thompson, Glass and Lloyd will all step onto the Summer Olympics volleyball court at Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracanãzinho Arena, each wearing the red, white and blue of the US National Team. The fact that USA’s 12-woman roster includes 3 who play setter is a source of pride for some—and controversy for others—as the world’s top-ranked team tries to win gold in the most volleyball-mad city on Earth.
And Seattle’s own Courtney Thompson will undoubtedly be a big part of the story, whether the US finally wins its first women’s volleyball Olympic gold, or—especially—if it does not.
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If you don’t know much about volleyball, you’re part of a shrinking crowd. In most states, more girls play volleyball than any other high school team sport. That’s particularly true in Washington and Oregon, where volleyball long ago surpassed girls’ basketball in the sheer number of participants, and has never been seriously challenged by girls’ soccer or softball.
According to the most recent National Federation of High Schools Participation Survey, volleyball has passed basketball in total female participants. Nationwide, 432,176 girls played high school volleyball in 2015, compared to 429,504 for basketball. In 19 states, volleyball is the most popular girls’ high school sport, followed by track & field with 17 and soccer with 8. If you take away track & field—where rosters usually accommodate far more athletes—then volleyball is most popular in 25 states. In Washington state, volleyball has long been #1 in total high school girls participation, and continues to widen the gap. Basketball is #4, trailing both #2 track and #3 soccer.
Since 2003, the University of Washington has built one of the nation’s elite college volleyball programs, drawing bigger home crowds than any UW sport except football and men’s basketball. During that span, volleyball’s haul of All-Americans, future professionals, future coaches, win-loss records and postseason success has been matched by no other Huskies program this side of men’s and women’s crew.
Courtney Thompson, who arrived at Washington in 2003, is arguably the most accomplished female athlete in UW’s storied history. As a two-time Olympian, longtime top international professional, multiple All-American, National Champion team captain and Honda Award Winner as the nation’s top volleyball player, she’s assembled a résumé that few Husky athletes, including males, have ever matched. Born and raised in Kent, Thompson may be the finest female athlete ever to come out of the state.
Courtney Thompson, who arrived at Washington in 2003, is arguably the most accomplished female athlete in UW’s storied history Born and raised in Kent, Thompson may be the finest female athlete ever to come out of the state.
More than 1,000 schools field NCAA women’s volleyball teams, including more than 300 in Division 1. All colleges carry two or more setters on their rosters. That means that, in the decade since Thompson graduated from Washington, at least 10,000 setters have played college ball. Many, it’s safe to assume, have had dreams of being an Olympian.
|Courtney Thompson cheers a USA point in a victory against the Netherlands in the 2014 World Championships|
-photo by FIVB
But of the dozens of setters who might—with hard work—develop world-class skills, only a few display enough talent and perseverance to earn a spot on professional teams overseas. Those who play pro return to Anaheim each summer to compete for one of perhaps thirty spots—including 4 to 6 setters—on the US National Team. For most major international tournaments, only 14 players make the US roster. For the Olympics, only 12 can go.
To say the odds were long Thompson would twice make the Olympic roster—2012 in London and 2016 in Rio—is even more an understatement when you consider the average height for world-class volleyball setters has risen dramatically the last decade. Thompson is exceedingly strong, fit and athletic, but she’s 5-8 tall in a game of 6-footers. And the past four years—and the past four months—have tested Thompson like never before.
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Thompson and Minnesota alum Lindsey Berg were the two setters on USA’s London Olympics roster. The team was packed with talent, and as it faced Brazil for the gold medal, the Americans hadn’t lost a single match the entire year. USA dominated the first set, but lost the second. Then the third. As Brazil continued its charge, key American players became frustrated. Eyes rolled. Stars sulked. Teammates were ignored.
USA lost in four sets, earning silver medals. As the winners celebrated as only Brazilians can, Thompson and her teammates stood in shock. By many measures, the more talented team had lost.
“Talent took us far,” Thompson says, “But what we weren’t able to help each other in tough moments. “When we got pushed, we didn’t know how to have each other’s backs.”
|Courtney Thompson spent the winter of 2013-14 |
with the professional team in Lodz, Poland
That autumn, Thompson got an offer to play professionally in Łódź, Poland, a country almost as volleyball-crazy as Brazil. It was her fifth season overseas, following stints in Puerto Rico, Austria and Switzerland. But what should have been her next big step turned as cold and bleak as the Polish winter.
“My team wasn’t very good,” says Thompson. “My coach was in his first year. I had always been the underdog, always had a chip on my shoulder. But having just come from the Olympics, I felt like a lot of people’s expectations of me changed. I was the same person, but it was not an easy environment to get fired up.”
The following summer, she eagerly returned to the Women’s National Team gym, thrilled that Karch Kiraly had been elevated to head coach. Berg had retired, but there were new setters in the mix, and Thompson was left off the roster for almost every major 2013 international tournament. USA setter coach Tom Black recalls how Thompson grew increasingly anxious and unhappy.
“That was a huge blow for her,” says Black, “because she was hoping she had reached a certain status in the program.”
“It was gut-wrenching,” remembers Thompson. “It was so difficult to see your teammates doing something, and experiencing something, that you want so badly, and you’ve sacrificed so much for. I was really questioning: does this mean I should retire?”
One day, says Black, “Courtney was crying and frustrated and upset. So I took her into the cafeteria for lunch. I remember saying, Hey, Courtney, it’s NEVER gonna be easy for you. Ever. You don’t have anywhere near the physical gifts to think you can just cruise. If you’re gonna stay here, it’s gonna be hard. All the time. You gotta accept that.”
“I never thought I could just cruise in,” Thompson says, “but what Tom said was absolutely true. He reminded me that I’m a fighter, and that I gotta keep throwing punches.”
In the midst of her struggles, Thompson got a call from one of Europe’s top professional teams, a Swiss club called Volero. It was the perfect tonic. “Zurich is beautiful,” she says. “I love the mountains. The people are great.” And the volleyball was great, too, as Thompson led her team deep into the playoffs of several prestigious international tournaments. Her confidence began to return.
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In women’s international volleyball, the margins separating top teams are surprisingly thin. All have talent, size and experience. But as the London Olympics gold medal meltdown made clear, talent isn’t enough.
As the National Team reassembled in 2014, US women had still never won any of the three major quadrennial tournaments: World Championships, World Cup and Olympics. Kiraly took note of Thompson’s new determination and included her on several tournament rosters, culminating with the World Championships in Italy. After ten grueling preliminary matches, USA defeated Russia then Brazil then China to capture the title. It was, to that point, the biggest moment in the history of American women’s volleyball.
“The players,” says Thompson, “have a bond that will last forever because of that tournament. It was just so much damn fun.”
|At 5-8, Courtney Thompson is among the shortest--if most athletic--of the world's elite setters.|
-photo by FIVB
But the victory meant something else. Every coach of every team sport at every level preaches the need to put team above the individual. Kiraly, however, did more than preach, he made it a core requirement of his program. The World Championship seemed to validate that approach.
“I think it’s really hard for people to understand,” says Lloyd. “Because when you’re an athlete, you want the accolades, you want the gold medal. When you’re in the gym, you’re competing against the person next to you. To do that, you think you can’t be friends, they have to be your enemy. I get that, because we’re supposed to see it like that. But what we’re doing instead is trying to make the people around us be the best that they can be. And if they’re better, that makes us better.”
“We’re all competitive—super competitive,” says Thompson, “and we want to be out there on the court. But it’s so much bigger than that. There’s a different level of buy-in. It’s really not just about me.”
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Thompson headed back to Europe for another successful season in Zurich. Last summer, she was included on the roster when USA won the World Grand Prix. But she was left off the World Cup roster, and favored USA finished a disappointing third, behind China and Serbia.
Last fall, Thompson made her biggest professional move of all. Nowhere in the world are spectators more knowledgeable or passionate about volleyball than in Brazil. Bernardo Rezende, a legendary Brazilian Olympic coach, hired Thompson as the setter for Rio de Janeiro’s top club team, Rexona Ades. She was so popular with Brazilian fans that people would stop her on the street to talk volleyball. During home matches in Rio, the crowd chanted “USA! USA! USA!” whenever she stood at the service.
|Last season, Courtney Thompson (3) was the setter for Brazil's top professional team, Rexona Ades of Rio de Janiero|
“I was beyond stoked,” she says. “For my entire career, I’d dreamed of playing in Brazil. It ended up teaching me so much, re-centering me, lighting a fire.”
Few American Olympians in any sport have as much recent Rio experience as Courtney Thompson: she lived there from last fall through this spring while competing professionally for Rio’s top club team, Rexona-Ades. Amid almost deadly headlines about health and safety concerns in the tightly-packed metropolis of more than 6 million people, Thompson says she gets a lot of questions about what athletes and their visiting families might expect in Brazil. The Zika virus, says Thompson, “seems really out of our control. It is what it is. It’s not gonna stop us.” Thompson says personal safety can be a concern, however, and cites a time earlier this year when a would-be mugger grabbed her arm and tried to take her cellphone. “Fortunately,” she says, “I had tennis shoes on, and I was in better shape than him. So I threw my arm up, got his hand off of me, then ran in the opposite direction and outran him. And kept my phone.” That said, she expects her team to love the Rio experience. “I tell them how wonderful the people are. It’s fun. There’s a real sense of community.”
But as summer 2016 began, there seemed just as many reasons Kiraly might include Thompson on the Rio roster as arguments he should not. The American offense uses two setters: one to start, and one as part of a crucial double-substitution roughly two-thirds through each game. USA’s starting setter, Alicia Glass, had been battling back from injury, providing openings for Carli Lloyd and for a young setter out of Missouri named Molly Kreklow. As June turned to July, it was clear that Glass was once again healthy, and that Lloyd was coming on strong. During the round-the-globe, month-long World Grand Prix, Thompson was on the roster, but stayed mostly on the bench.
And yet, Thompson on the bench is a sight to behold. After nearly every rally, she leads the other five players not currently on the court in raucous cheers. During timeouts, she offers advice to her fellow setters, then focuses on a player or two for a quick pep talk, pat on the butt and/or high-five. She’s been on the Women’s National Team for 149 matches (what the soccer world calls “caps”,) and, at age 31, is the oldest player on the roster.
“I’ve done the work,” says Thompson, “and I’ve prepared in a way that I feel like any moment I could be on the court and competing and helping our team win the next point. I also know that, if I’m not on the court, there’s an opportunity to impact our team. And that’s a huge part of what I bring. That’s me. And that’s what this team needs from me.”
|USA Olympic setters Courtney Thompson and Alicia Glass. Carli Lloyd is the third USA Olympic setter.|
-photo by FIVB
Even so, more than a few eyebrows were raised when Kiraly decided that one of the precious dozen slots on this year’s Olympic roster should go to a third setter instead of a second libero or a fourth outside hitter. Volleyball chat sites complained that Thompson was little more than a cheerleader, and that Kiraly could end up regretting his decision. But Thompson’s teammates and coaches want no part of that affront.
“Courtney is a world-class setter,” says Black. “She’s an incredible leader. Everybody leans on her and wants to learn from her.”
“She is a force to be reckoned with,” says Glass. “She has a positive effect on everyone. Her hard work, her passion, her energy and her fire are absolutely necessary to this program.”
“Courtney,” says Kiraly, “galvanizes this team.”
Court & Spark, an hour-long documentary about Courtney Thompson, and featuring many of her current Olympic teammates and coaches, has just been made available on Amazon and iTunes. (full disclosure: Court & Spark was co-produced by Jack & Leslie Hamann). All proceeds from the rental and sale of the documentary go to the Puget Sound Region of USA Volleyball, a nonprofit serving youth, adults, indoor, sand and sitting volleyball, both female and male.
When Kiraly told Lloyd she had made the Olympic cut, Lloyd shed tears of joy. When Kiraly then asked if she had any questions, “the only question I had for Karch was, ‘what does this mean for Courtney?’ Because I couldn’t imagine this team without her. She’s so much more than a volleyball player to all of us. She’s like a light, and she spreads it everywhere she goes.”
About a year ago, Thompson decided she’d retire after these Olympics, whether or not she made the roster, whether or not the team, at last, wins gold. That said, she fully expects victory in Rio. But after her long career, she expects something more.
“If there’s anything I hope people see when we compete,” says Thompson, “it’s the joy that we’re playing with and how present we are, despite what’s going on around us. We know who we are, we know what we stand for. When you are fortunate enough to win while doing that, it’s just so special. But the winning’s really a bonus. It’s just so much bigger than that.”
In Brazil, soccer is king. Men’s soccer. The most popular women’s sport (and second-most popular men’s sport) is volleyball. Olympic matches will be held at iconic Maracanãzinho Arena, where Rio Organizers say tickets went fast. Crowds for even the least-desirable matchups are expected to exceed 90% of arena capacity.
USA women’s volleyball Olympic schedule (all times Pacific)
- Aug 06, 1:05PM vs. Puerto Rico
- Aug 08, 11:00AM vs. Netherlands
- Aug 10, 11:00AM vs. Serbia
- Aug 12, 11:00AM vs. Italy
- Aug 14, 1:05PM vs. China
- Aug 16 Quarterfinals
- Aug 18 Semifinals
- Aug 20 Medal Finals