Kayla Banwarth: Bronze isn’t gold, but USA was golden

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Kayla Banwarth exults after the USA beat the Netherlands in pool play/FIVB photo

USA libero Kayla Banwarth admitted it took a while to decompress after the Rio Olympics. Now that she has, the product of Dubuque, Iowa, a former Nebraska star, wrote this insightful and touching piece about what the team went through after losing in the semifinals to winning the bronze medal.

You heard it. Bronze is the new gold.

OK, no, it isn’t. Bronze is bronze and gold is gold. I stood on the podium next to my teammates, the ladies who had become my sisters, my best friends, and received my bronze medal.

I was filled with emotion.

Mixed emotion.

Tears welled in my eyes. I was extremely proud to have a medal hanging from my neck, but at the same time saddened that it wasn’t gold. I watched the platter of gold medals walk right past me, destined for the Chinese, and all I could think was “15-13.”

Two points. Two points that separated the bronze from the gold.

Kayla Banwarth celebrates an Olympic point with teammates Kelsey Robinson, left, Rachael Adams and Karsta Lowe/FIVB photo
Kayla Banwarth celebrates an Olympic point with teammates Kelsey Robinson, left, Rachael Adams and Karsta Lowe/FIVB photo

Don’t get me wrong. I am honored to have brought an Olympic bronze medal back to America. I have a newfound respect for all those that compete in bronze-medal matches. Having to rebound from a devastating semifinal loss was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I know I can say the same for some of my teammates.

After the fifth set slipped away from us in the Olympic semifinals against Serbia, we were destroyed. Everything that we had worked for, everything we invested in, the foundation we had built for ourselves, was crumbling beneath us, and we were left frantically trying to pick up the pieces.

We couldn’t stop the tears.

I found myself sobbing uncontrollably, and I looked up to see my teammates were in the same boat I was. How were we going to rebound from this?

That night, Karch called a team meeting. The tears were still flowing. The wound was still fresh. But we had to move on. The bronze was still within our reach. One of the hallmarks of this team was our ability to respond to adversity. Well, adversity just punched us in the face. How were we going to respond?

Everyone had an opportunity to speak if they wanted to. We were reminded what this team was about. Family, fun, fast, fortitude, and ferocity. One of the most powerful messages of that meeting came from our captain, Christa Dietzen. She said, “Medals don’t define us. They don’t define this team or the culture we created. We are so much more than that.” Together that night we resolved to come back stronger than before.

All in.

Training the next day was not easy, either. While we were in Rio we trained at the Brazilian Navy School every day. It was located right next to the water with a beautiful view of Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer. It was absolutely majestic. It was a sunny day as we headed into the gym, a little bit tired, a little bit weary. It was obvious that everyone was making an effort to pick themselves back up. But it was easier said than done. We trained for about an hour. The movement seemed to come harder than normal. My body felt just a little heavier than the day before.

Normally after we got done practicing at the Navy School, a lot of us would take advantage of the beautiful scenery and the normally gorgeous weather and we sat outside in the sun, soaking in the Vitamin D. Well, on this particular day, several of us decided to take advantage of the pool that was located on the school campus. We taught Kim Hill how to dive and practiced our synchronized-swimming routines. We laughed uncontrollably and had a ton of fun.

Oh, how we needed that! It was so refreshing and revitalizing. And after a difficult day/morning, it was nice to be reminded to have fun.

The next morning, the day started off just like any other game day. We ate breakfast at the hotel, got ready for the match, got taped and loaded the bus to head to the gym. Whether we were ready or not, we needed to find a way to compete for a bronze medal. Once in the locker room, we turned on our normal pregame music, laced up our shoes, taped our fingers, and we were ready to hear from Karch. He didn’t even talk to us about game plan. He talked to us about what this team is about. He went around the room and thanked each one of us for our contribution to the USA Volleyball program. He acknowledged that we had all dealt with a great deal of adversity and that we were going to battle the only way we knew how: together. 

After Karch left, we continued with our normal pregame routine. Before matches, we always circled up together in the locker room and one by one told each other what we were fighting for that particular match. It could’ve been anything, for example, “I’m fighting for passion,” “I’m fighting for our process,” “I’m fighting to be aggressive,” “I’m fighting for one point at a time.”

On this day, there was a theme. We told each other we were fighting for each other. We told each other how much we loved each other. And we told each other how grateful we were to be here. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Carli Lloyd was to my left. Rachael Adams was to my right. Our fingers were interlaced and I could feel their love pulsing through me. There in that locker room, probably the last time we would all be together, we cried together, we laughed together, and we prepared for battle together one last time.

Netherlands is a great team. They are, without a doubt, the most improved team of this quadrennial. We have a lot of respect for them and we knew they would come at us with everything they had. We weren’t wrong. The match was an intense battle. We came out strong and won the first. They pushed back and won the second. The whole match was like that: back and forth. Both teams were battling with everything they had left. Only until the end of the fourth set were we really in control.

And then the bronze was ours.

Kayla Banwarth was front and center for the celebration photo after the USA won the bronze medal/FIVB photo
Kayla Banwarth was front and center for the celebration photo after the USA won the bronze medal/FIVB photo

It wasn’t the fact that we had won bronze that made it so amazing. It was the fact that we did it together. We had battled through great adversity, both individually and as a group, and we ended our journey with a win.

We did everything we could have done to win a gold medal. We did things the right way: with love, discipline, hard work and respect. Every single person invested 100 percent in this program, in their teammates, and in our journey.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience, and am still learning, is that we are worth so much more than a gold medal or a bronze medal. It’s hard to remember sometimes. But, we have to keep reminding ourselves. This team is special. This team is successful. And this team’s legacy will live forever. We may not have gold medals, but this team is golden.

Follow Kayla on Twitter @kaybanwarth2 and at Instagram at kaylabanwarth

5 COMMENTS

  1. Kayla
    I really enjoyed reading this article. You did an excellent job relating what went on after the semifinal loss. I knew that loss had to be very difficult to handle. It is wonderful how you and your teammates came together and played for each other in the last match. I have so much respect for you and your teammates. I am so proud of you!!! I know that the rest of Husker Nation feels the same way. I wish you the very best of luck in the future.

  2. Two points separated your bronze metal from silver, not gold. Geez, talk about sore losers. It’s precisely this kind of entitled unpreparedness that lost you the semi-final and would have lost you the final too. China beat Brazil at their home court. China beat Netherlands after they lost to them in the pool play. They were fully prepared and had nerves of steel. You, the U.S. Team, easily crumbled under the pressure of a semi-final, thought the gold was yours for the taking if only you hadn’t lost by two points? Ask the Brazilians how that turned out.

    – A Chinese volleyball fan

  3. By saying “Two points that separated the bronze from the gold”, you assume that in the final, your team would have win China for sure. Really? After weeks, you still have not got it: all your coach as well as your team assume there would be only Brazil may stop you from the Gold. After China beats Brazil, none can stop you then. This is exactly what went wrong for USA – did not pay enough attention to other teams. And, the battle between USA and Serbia was terrible. Both had huge number of errors. Serbia won only because your team was worse. Playing in so bad in a semifinal, how could you assume you could have done better in the final?

  4. Wow, J Wang & Brooke…if I were a Chinese player, I’d be ashamed of having you both for fans. How nasty you two sound. It’s clear that when Kayla says, “Two points that separated the bronze from the gold,” she meant THE OPPORTUNITY FOR gold. Nobody, least of all the USAVWNT, believes the Chinese to be a rollover team. How graceless you both are.

  5. Wow, so many people butt hurt over the “Two points that separated the bronze from the gold” comment. What did you expect her mindset to be? Beat Serbia, make the Finals and then be content with a Silver? If she’s thinking about what ifs, she might as well have gone all in, which she did.

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