No other country has won more Olympic medals in women’s volleyball without winning a gold. Could Larson and Akinradewo, in what will be their last Olympics, snap Team USA’s unlucky run and finally clinch the gold?
The United States women’s volleyball team have just one thing on their mind: Olympic gold.
In the last three Olympics, they’ve come achingly close but the hardware they’ve walked away with has always been not quite the colour they were after.
In Beijing 2008 it was silver; in London 2012 it was silver again; then Rio 2016, it was bronze.
In Tokyo 2020, a medal is guaranteed. Team USA put on a classy display in the semi-finals on Friday (7 June) to oust early medal favourites Serbia, led by the indomitable Tijana Bosokovic, 25-19, 25-15, 25-23.
It was something of a revenge act as Serbia denied the Americans a chance at an elusive gold in Rio after they advanced to the gold medal match leaving Team USA with only bronze to fight for.
The U.S. put on a performance both that was both swift and deft. It was carefully masterminded by coach Karch Kiraly and executed perfectly by his hungry players.
In his ranks, there are perhaps two stars that are justifiably hungrier than most.
For Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson and Jordan Larson Olympic gold is no longer just a dream – it’s also personal.
The two volleyball veterans have been with the U.S. Olympic team since 2012 – they know all too well what medal heartache feels like.
But now the time has come to leave the hurt behind; now the final awaits.
Like warning shot loaded with intent, 34-year-old Larson was clear after their semi-final conquest how she and her teammates were planning to approach their medal match.
“People say we’re going to be under so much pressure because we’ve never won the gold medal. But we’re under no pressure because we’ve never done it.”
“Why not go out swinging?”
Foluke Akinradewo: the fight for first ever volleyball gold
For Akinradewo Gunderson victory on court in Tokyo would have an extra taste of sweetness to it.
Just getting to her third Olympic Games required immense strength and resilience.
In November 2019, the 33-year-old gave birth to her first child, Olukayode; it had long since been a dream of Akinradewo Gunderson to be both a professional athlete and a mother.
But soon it was apparent that pregnancy had taken its toll on her body. When she got back into the gym in early January of 2020, she found she had developed diastasis - the separation of the rectus abdominis.
Overcoming the diastasis required hard work and physical therapy all of which was complicated by the arrival of a global pandemic in early March.
“I was just in my garage working out for months by myself with Zoom,” Akinradewo Gunderson shared with Olympics.com ahead of the Games. “It was July when I first came back to the gym with the coaches.”
The middle blocker is nonetheless grateful for the experience motherhood has given her, and credits it for explaining how she was able to make it Tokyo:
“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.”
Jordan Larson: captain fantastic hunting gold
For Larson, who made her debut for the U.S. national volleyball team back in 2009, Olympic gold would mark the perfect climax to a long and illustrious career.
The 34-year-old, who took on the mantle of captaincy in 2017, has felt the highest of highs with Team USA and the lowest of lows.
Larson was compelled to emotionally navigate winning the world championship in 2014 with her national to then fall painfully short of gold in Brazil two years later.
“It just gives me chills thinking about it now.”
“That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people?”
“We had just put in so much work that was just heart breaking.”
With the woes of Rio now definitively behind her, the U.S. will be hoping that their captain will be firing on all four cylinders come the Olympic final.
As of Friday 6 August, the outside hitter is currently the highest ranked American in the top player rankings with 64 points, nine blocks and six serves. She sits fifth overall in the table with Boskovic in the top spot.
Three-time gold medallist Karch Kiraly reveals the characteristics and attributes needed to be the perfect volleyball player.
U.S. coach Karch Kiraly
The U.S. women’s team have one asset in the corner that has only been accruing in value over time: their coach Karch Kiraly.
The 60-year-old is the only player ever to have won Olympic gold medals in both the indoor and beach volleyball competitions.
After winning back-to-back golds in Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988, the American switched to beach to come away from Atlanta 1996 victorious on the sand.
When the U.S. won bronze in Rio 2016, Kiraly became part of an esteemed club of ex-player coaches to win an Olympic medal, but now like his two veterans, he too wants the gold:
“Our goal is always to do something that has not been done before."
"We will keep hurling ourselves at that door until we break it down."
Kiraly’s tactical genius is something his players have benefitted greatly from. On her coach’s abilities Akinradewo Gunderson shared:
“He reads the game… I would say probably better than anyone in the world.”
“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 realise it. And so, I think his knowledge of the game that he's instilled in all of us has elevated our play.
Women's Volleyball Final: schedule, preview and how to watch
Here's how Larson, Akinradewo and the rest of Team USA progressed through the women's volleyball tournament:
Women's Preliminary Round - Pool B
United States 3-0 Argentina
United States 3-0 People's Republic of China
United States 3-2 Turkey
United States 0-3 ROC
United States 3-2 Italy
United States 3-0 Dominican Republic
United States 3-0 Serbia
How to watch
To find out where you can watch the women's volley ball final on Sunday 8 August at 13:30 JST click here.
You can follow all the action from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on our Live Blog here.