Q&A with USA Volleyball board chair Lori Okimura

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Lori Okimura, far right, with the USA men's team at the 2015 World Cup. In the center is United States Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy/USAV photo, Lori Okimura

Lori Okimura is the chair of the USA Volleyball board of directors. She’s as intertwined in all aspect of volleyball in America as anyone and probably leads the sport in miles flown. Her board term expires in 2019, but she will still be involved with international beach, indoor and sitting volleyball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We caught up with her after she decompressed from two weeks in Rio for the 2016 Olympics in which she tried to keep pace with both our USA indoor teams and all the beach action.

VBM: Let’s start with the Olympics. General thoughts now that you’ve had time to reflect?

LO: It comes down to one word, and it’s from a quote I’m borrowing from (USA men’s coach) John Speraw, and it’s courage. I think about our teams that went down there and the coaches and the tasks they had and I’m thinking about the staffs. You had fewer staff and that had to cover more ground. And the word that comes to mind that sums everything up is courage. And I think about the Brazilian people, who took this on with having so many things happen in their country that don’t happen in other countries generationally and having to deal with all that at one time and still pull off what was basically a successful Olympic Games.

It was different from other Olympics I’ve been to, but the different made it kind of special. And I come back and think that our teams had a hell of a lot of courage to fight the way they fought.

VBM: So if I told you ahead of time, any of the four beach teams or the two indoor teams, OK, you’re going to get a bronze, would you take that now? None of them would have said yes, we want gold. But as it turned out bronze put a nice touch on the end of things.

LO: Yeah, one of the phrases I heard down there, whether it was the athletes or the coaches or the parents, is that hey, you end on a win with bronze. You kept hearing that bronze is the new gold or bronze is beautiful and I think it kind of is in this case. If you look at the whole week in review it didn’t look like there was going to be a real positive outcome in some cases. The men really struggled early on and the fact that they could re-group in that environment was really something. Even if you could have heard a pin drop, but I have to say this was one of the most aggressive sporting environments I’ve ever been in where people were outright booing and jeering and heckling the U.S. in particular. No matter who we were playing, the people from Brazil were cheering for the other team. And not just cheering for the other team, but it was the cheering against. And for me that makes it more special that our teams were able to fight back, and maintain their game plan, and maintain their professionalism and their composure and have an outcome where they ended on a win. They brought home a medal and ended on a win. I thought that was tremendous. The environment was so hostile.

VBM: Was that even for the beach teams?

LO: Yeah … There was this situation where every time Phil (Dalhausser) and Nick (Lucena) went back to serve there was this boo, but it transitioned into this “Boo-Zika.” This happened to a lot of the American teams, not just volleyball. But it was pretty surprising, because I have been to a lot of events in Brazil and I had not recalled the booing. I was surprised there was so much negative cheering.

VBM: One quick question about the nuts and bolts about our Olympic teams. The two indoor teams are truly teams. They may play independently throughout the year around the world, but they come together, they spend time together, they have a coaching staff, they’re all for one and one for all. The beach teams are more or less independent contractors who also seem to be part of a very convoluted selection system. Should there be more unity and should there be beach trials?

LO: That’s a good question and I’ve gotten asked that question quite a bit. Let me give some background. In the past, given the structure of beach volleyball, especially with the pro tours and FIVB system of qualification and the calendar being so populated, it was not a favored thing by many of the athletes to have trials. Olympic Trials to me are very important. I could see the argument and understood what the sport could accept and accommodate. But the last few years my opinion is changing and after seeing Rio — and I’m not talking about the results on our side, because I think it’s tremendous that Kerri and April came away with the bronze — but the level of play was so high from the quarterfinals on. And that’s why I’m changing my opinion. I look at some of the other countries that have adopted trials. They still allow for the individual of a two-person team, but they’ve adopted more a national beach-team concept. You can look at them and know, that’s the delegation from Germany. That’s the delegation from Brazil. And that’s the delegation from The Netherlands. And note that those three countries did quite well. Same thing with the Italians. While the Italians manage their teams individually, they all answer to the federation and the federation has responsibilities to them for support. It’s a two-way street.

So coming out of Rio I still see that because the beach game is so different than indoor that there can be separation of the two-person teams and them having their own trainer and having their own coach and some additional personnel. But looking ahead to Tokyo I also feel like there’s been some transition to the mindset of full national beach team. It’s never going to be what the indoor teams are because the sport is not exactly the same, but there has been some recognition that there is a benefit to having a delegation for support, for data, for the technical aspects, for the logistics alone. I think it was more difficult for our beach team leader Sean Scott because he had to manage four teams that had their own logistics. It was very difficult and did as good a job as anyone could have, considering sets of schedules for eight different athletes. So there should be more discussion of what a trial system would look like in the United States … There has to be some commitment to it early so the athletes need to know how to prepare and there have to be dollars put into it.

United States Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy with Lori Okimura/USAV photo, Lori Okimura
United States Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy with Lori Okimura/USAV photo, Lori Okimura

VBM: USA Volleyball has to hire a new leader with Doug Beal retiring. Please share some insight.

LO: I can’t. I would and when the moment comes when I can I will. But there is an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) for the search committee. What I can tell you is that the search has been ongoing since February and it’s gone through different stages and it’s now getting to where it will now be turned over to an executive search firm to finalize the last few names we are considering. I don’t have a timeline. The ultimate decision will be made by the board of directors by vote. The goal that has been expressed not only by the members of the search committee but the board that we are looking for a person with business expertise primarily and volleyball IQ that can either be cultivated through folks that person will surround themselves or in other ways, but we’re looking primarily for a person with a business background with financial expertise.

(Note: Okimura stated again that she has not applied for nor is she a candidate, although her name has often been associated with the opening).

From left, Andre Trottier of Canada, Lori Okimura, Geir Dahle of Norway, (both FIVB referee delegates in Rio overseeing the beach volleyball competition), and Nathan Trodahl/USAV, Lori Okimura
From left, Andre Trottier of Canada, Lori Okimura, Geir Dahle of Norway, (both FIVB referee delegates in Rio overseeing the beach volleyball competition), and Nathan Trodahl/USAV photo, Lori Okimura

VBM: And finally, best meal in Rio?

LO: Oh, my gosh, that is a no-brainer. It was with a bunch of FIVB friends and it was an all-you-can eat Brazilian barbecue and seafood. Marius, on the beach. A lot of people know it. It is the most god-awful tacky place you’ve ever seen. Weird stuff on the walls and ceilings but it was great. I have never seen people eat so much food in my life! And it was the best meal I’ve had in a long time.

This interview was edited for clarity and content.

Follow Lori Okimura on Twitter @LoriOki

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