RAROTONGA, Cook Islands – We sat in the car in silence, and it wasn’t the awkward type of silence after a fight or argument, but the type where no words needed to be said because, really, what words could be said?
Adam Roberts and I had just blown a 20-17 lead in the second set of our semifinal of the Cook Islands one-star against New Zealand’s Sam O’Dea and Griffin Muller. Then we blew leads of 7-3, 11-6, 12-8, 14-13, and 16-15 in the third.
What words can you think of that could do that justice?
Right. Me neither.
So we rode in our little Toyota Rasich in silence, with the clearish-teal ocean on our right, the type of color that is reserved mostly for postcards or honeymoons. And when we got to our hotel, we ate lunch in mostly silence and then retreated to our room, where we sat in silence there, too, until I drifted off to a nap, with a little more than two hours until our bronze medal match against Japan.
A little more than two years ago, Kerri Walsh Jennings told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that she was prouder of her bronze medal at the Rio Olympics than she was of any of her three golds. At the time, I thought this was just Kerri doing her Kerri thing: 6-feet of sunshine spinning straw into gold, making lemonade.
I will not pretend to compare myself to Kerri Walsh Jennings. The Cook Islands one-star was not the Rio Olympics. I have not won three gold medals. I will win zero Olympic gold medals. But in that three-hour gap between our semifinal – that dreaded, choke-job of a semifinal where both of us had multiple opportunities to end the match – I knew exactly what Kerri meant when she said that.
Nobody wants to play for bronze. And nobody especially wants to play for bronze after whiffing on no less than 10 match points in the semifinal.
“The hardest match to play in sports,” Walsh Jennings told Plaschke then. “Talked to myself all night long. So hard to get up for this match.”
And yet her and April Ross played for bronze, because that’s just what you do on the FIVB. And Adam Roberts and I, we were going to play for bronze, and we were going to have to figure out a way to make it work, because the only thing worse than not getting the medal of the proper color is returning home without a medal at all.
So Adam and I rallied. We rallied against a really fun Japanese team that had the best ball control in the tournament and maybe the tournament’s most athletic player in Takashi Tsuchiya. We controlled the first set and won, 21-18.
And then it was happening again. Errors compounded. Mistakes stacked upon one another like the worst game of beach volleyball jenga, and our tower was precariously close to collapsing. Down 12-9 we went, then 15-13, until we flipped the script, served Tsuchiya, took him by surprise and picked up a few. Suddenly, we were up 18-17, 19-17, 20-18.
All week long, Adam and I had talked about elite athletes. What separates a Michael Jordan from every other 6-foot-6 shooting guard? Shaq from other big men? Kobe? Tiger? Federer? Nadal? Phelps?
They’re killers. When they need a point, a putt, an ace, a time, they hit it when it matters. At that point in the tournament, we had been as much of a killer as the puppies that strolled the beaches of Rarotonga all week. Three times that tournament we had thrown away sets we had no business losing, giving away points at the end like we were gosh darn Oprah.
“Australia gets a set! Canada gets a set! New Zealand gets a set! Everybody gets a set!”
Japan sided out to make it 20-19, and as we went back into serve receive, I reminded Adam of our conversation, that we needed to finally, finally, finally be killers.
We gave the next one away, our umpteenth match point we had tossed into the garbage. I’d be lying if the first thought that crossed my mind wasn’t “Oh, God, it’s happening again.”
Only it didn’t. Adam sided out the next ball, and then made a phenomenal dig down the line on the ensuing play, putting away a pretty awful bump set from yours truly to scoop the bronze medal that neither he nor I, just a few hours earlier, had wanted any part of.
They’re a funny thing, bronze medals: You never want them, but when you win one, goodness gracious does it feel good. It feels good because there are few bigger mental wins than those, the kind that make you search and search and search for just that one piece of desire left to go win one more match.
Rest assured, I’d be mighty proud if the first FIVB medal of my career was of the golden variety, and when I look at my international resume – six tournaments played, four medals won – I think it’ll come.
But I do love this bronze, for all the reasons Walsh Jennings told Plaschke after Rio. It was about gumption, getting back on your feet, sucking it up, and then doing what you traveled a few thousand miles to do.