A golden puzzle: How pre-match crosswords and team chemistry could help U.S. to volleyball triumph at Tokyo 2020

Team USA veterans Kimberly Hill and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson speak to Olympics.com on their special team chemistry, pandemic challenges, serving as role models for young girls and more. 
By Nick McCarvel

This four-letter word represents greatness – and can also be found on top of the Olympic podium.

You guessed it: G-O-L-D.

Gold is the goal for the U.S. women’s volleyball team come the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the squad having gone silver-silver-bronze at the last three Olympics.

And their tool for relaxing and bonding as a team before big-time matches? Solving crossword puzzles together.

“When we were traveling, someone on our team started doing crosswords on their phone, and we all would kind of join in to help with the clues and do it all together,” explained outside hitter Kimberly Hill, a bronze medallist at Rio 2016. “And it was super fun.”

“We'll be on on the bus, yelling, like, ‘What do you think this one is?!’” adds two-time medallist Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, breaking into a smile.

If winning Olympic gold is the ultimate puzzle, then Hill and Akinradewo Gunderson represent two of the answers to complete the team’s quest and win the nation’s first-ever Olympic gold in indoor volleyball amid a talented field that includes favourites China, Serbia and Italy.

“Definitely [our] hopes and goal for this [Olympics] is a gold in Tokyo,” Hill said in a recent exclusive interview. “We've missed out on that in the past couple of Olympics. We've come really, really close. ... This Olympics will be really, really tough. There are three teams in particular that are extremely strong. So it's going to be difficult, but that's our goal for sure. And we won't be happy with anything less, to be honest.”

Foluke’s fight: Back on team after baby

The past 16 months have no doubt been a challenging time for so many, but in particular for Akinradewo Gunderson, who in November of 2019 gave birth to her first child, Kayode.

Back in the gym by early January of 2020, she faced a series of setbacks, most notably the development of diastasis, the separation of the rectus abdominis; her core felt “empty,” she said. With rehab and physical therapy helping her to get stronger, her first day back in the gym jump training was due to be in mid-March, right as the pandemic hit in the U.S.

“I was just in my garage working out for months by myself with Zoom,” Akinradewo Gunderson said. “It was July when I first came back to the gym with the coaches.”

July 2020 was meant to be the original date of the Games, but Foluke insists she would have found a way to be fit to go to her third Olympics, a member of the U.S. national team for some 15 years now.

“I think the work ethic that moms have to have, female athletes have to have to come back is a lot,” she said. “[With the] diastasis, I had no core strength whatsoever. And so it's just been battling back from that and trying to gain strength. It's been a journey.”

She also feels a sort of focus around her training – and everyday life – that she didn’t have before becoming a mother.

“As an athlete before, if I was done with practice... it's a day off; I need to just veg on the couch and recover,” said the 33 year old. “But that's impossible to do with a toddler. You're on the go. Once I get home, I'm ‘mum’ now.”

“I feel like I've become more of a feminist through this process of becoming a mom and just knowing that women are badasses,” Akinradewo Gunderson said. “I'm just encouraged every day and I'm so happy that there are people who have pioneered this. ... There's so many [women] who have gone through it before and so many who will come through after me as well. I'm just happy to be part of it.”

Hill: Learning through lockdown in Italy

Hill, herself, faced a different kind of challenge in the last year: She lives part of the year in the northern Italian city of Congeliano, where she plays professionally for Iomoco Valley. As the pandemic descended on Italy with brutal force, Hill and her teammates were locked down – but together.

“Italy got hit really hard. And it was to the point, like other countries in Europe, where we were locked down in an apartment and you couldn't even go outside,” Hill remembered. “It was really intense and in a little bit scary, too. But I was in a really great situation where my whole team lived in the same building. And so we each had our own apartment, but we were all together. So we were able to quarantine together. Otherwise, I wouldn't have survived it [mentally].”

Iomoco Valley would go on to capture the Women’s CEV Champions League title in 2021, and Hill believes the kind of bonding they did (some half of the players are on powerhouse Team Italy) is akin to what Team USA has been trying to create since its 2016 bronze at the Olympics.

A stronger team unit, she believes, is going to be the champion come Tokyo.

“We've learned a lot and I think grown a lot as a team, which is great," Hill, 31, said. "There's no exact recipe for the gold medal; I think it goes to a strong team that has a great tournament and other things come together well. So we're going to put together as much as good of a tournament as we can and kind of hope for the best, I guess."

Along with middle blocker Akinradewo Gunderson, outside hitter Jordan Larson is making her third Olympic appearance, as well, while fellow outside hitter Kelsey Robinson joins Hill in making her second Games. Otherwise, the U.S. team is full of newcomers.

“I think we're firing best and playing our best when we're the most connected,” Hill said. “And as a team, I think these other teams have big one big star player and we don't really have that. We are 12 strong. So when we're all connected and all six of us on court are firing, that's when we're playing well. It's hard to arrive to that point... any professional athlete would tell you it's hard for especially all six players to be in the flow and playing their best game. But that's what we're aiming for.”

Added Akinradewo Gunderson: “Everyone's always gunning to beat Team USA. And that's just how it goes for us. We've always had a target on our back, but we've always welcomed that as well. And we've never won an Olympic gold medal... we've come so close [a number] of times and we haven't gotten it yet. We're really hungry for it. And we've put a lot into this.”

‘Standing tall’ with pride

Ten of the 12 U.S. team members are above six feet tall (182cm), and Hill (6-foot-4) and Akinradewo Gunderson (6-foot-3) know a thing or two about being the “tall one” in life, especially coming up as young athletes.

They hope they can be examples of strong, proud women for younger girls to look up to.

“Growing up I was gangly, of course, like I am now, but even more extreme, which is hard to imagine,” said Hill, laughing. “But with sports, with volleyball, this was my comfort zone: It was a place where your height made sense and where it was useful and where there were other girls your height. It all felt normal. And I think that gave me confidence to know that I had a reason for being so tall, that I could put it to use and take advantage of it.

“It’s really been amazing for me. Of course, it wasn't easy when I was young, but I'm grateful for it now for sure.”

Akinradewo Gunderson feels much the same, and also seeks to lead through strength as an American who is proud of her Nigerian heritage and roots.

“I'm so proud to be Nigerian and also to be American and to represent so many people who look like me,” she said. “And I'm not necessarily a good vocal leader, but I hope that everything I do, my actions and how I interact with people and who I am and what I stand for encourages others as well.”

“My parents were born and raised in Nigeria and they've just instilled so much in me in terms of hard work. And I think in everything I do, I try and honor the sacrifices that they've made for us. They left their family to come to North America to give us a better life and to give us more opportunity.”

Hill and Akinradewo Gunderson at the closing ceremony, Rio 2016
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Passion for the game – and an encouraging leader

While Hill has been playing international ball in Italy, Akinradewo Gunderson has been spending her time on a team in Japan. Both see the global support of the game, and are driven by a beauty they feel like on volleyball holds.

“I just volleyball is the coolest sport ever,” a smiling Hill said. “Any time I can encourage young girls to play, I do, because I think it's one of the greatest team sports. You're so, so, so dependent on your teammates and every touch, even though other sports like soccer and basketball.”

Having not started in volleyball until she was a sophomore in high school, Akinradewo Gunderson was late to the game – but appreciates it just the same.

“What drew me to the sport is probably what draws others to volleyball: Just the team aspect of it and the togetherness,” said Gunderson. “It's just exciting. And fast-paced. There's never a dull moment. I feel like there isn't a single corner of the globe where someone isn't playing volleyball and someone isn't really excellent at it. And so, I think we're all playing with other people from different nationalities and club teams. I think that just elevates the play and allows us to be better.”

What has allowed the U.S. women to be better, too, is head coach Karch Kiraly, who won Olympic gold in both beach and indoor volleyball – the only player to ever do so.

He helped the U.S. team to a world title in 2014, as well as their bronze at Rio 2016.

“He reads the game, I would say probably better than anyone in the world,” said Gunderson. “And so it's funny because sometimes when we're playing in a match, he'll read the sets – dumping or tipping or whatever is happening – before we even realize it. And so I think his knowledge of the game that he's instilled in all of us has elevated our play. And then I think also just the team culture. I think for him it's important who you are and what you represent and your actions. I think ultimately that's made us all better and our team better and healthier than it's been.”