On Top of the World

Head coach Karch Kiraly hoists the World Championship trophy.

It was well past midnight in Milan. Pizza boxes and champagne corks littered the hotel conference room. As the celebration wound down, Karch Kiraly sat in the middle of it all, still grinning.

Just a few hours earlier, Kiraly stood on the sidelines as Kim Hill pounded match point, giving the U.S. a 3-1 victory over China for the 2014 FIVB Women’s World Championship title. As the ball hit the court, Kiraly arched his back and thrust his fists toward the arena ceiling. The man who had won numerous gold medals at major international volleyball competitions as an athlete had just won his first as head coach. And not just any gold: this was the first time the U.S. Women’s National Team had won gold at any of the big three competitions: the Olympics, World Cup, or World Championships. The first time ever, in over six decades of international competition.

It felt incredible, remembered Kiraly. It’s just as exhilarating to be a part of a group effort like that as a coach as it is a player.

That group effort, historic as it was, had come perilously close to falling short once again. Just three days earlier, two-time defending champion Russia had a chance to send the Americans packing if it could defeat host Italy 3-0 or 3-1. Several USA players remember that day, Oct. 10, the day after they finished their final pool play match, as the worst part of the tournament.

Courtney Thompson and I talked that morning, said team captain Christa Dietzen (ne Harmotto), and we were both just frustrated.

We were angry, said Thompson. Angry that wed put ourselves in that position.

That day was absolute torture, agreed Hill, the World Champs MVP. Knowing our future was in someone else’s hands was not a good feeling.

The Americans were facing this uncertain future because the immediate past had included an excruciating third-round loss to Italy, one of only two setbacks for the U.S. during the three-week tournament (the other a second-round loss to top-ranked Brazil). The morning of the Russia-Italy match, Kiraly gathered his team in the practice gym in what could have been the last time that group would be together as a team. But even as some of his players were anxious, Kiraly and his staff were making contingent plans for a semifinal rematch with Brazil.

We beat Russia twice in the tournamentnot once, but twice, said Kiraly. It would have been an absolute shame if they moved on and we didnt. There were no qualms or doubts, no misgivings about the fact that we absolutely deserved to be [in the semifinals].

Italy came through with a 3-1 victory over Russia, giving the Americans new life. Knowing how close we came to going home might have made us a little hungrier, said Thompson.

It was another lesson learned, said Dietzen. We had to hit the reset button.

Against archrival Brazil in the semifinals, USA pushed all the right buttons. Passinga bugaboo at the London Olympicswas vastly improved. It’s something we focus a lot on, said Kiraly. We feel like we have a competitive advantage in the passing department. But the real key, he said, was adjustments to the American serving strategy.

We askedand eventually toldsome people that they needed to get rid of their jump spin serves, said Kiraly. Nicole Fawcett. Kelly Murphy. Jordan Larson. Kelsey Robinson. They all, in just about a three-week period, developed very effective jump float serves. It shored up our serving significantly. Allowed us to serve in more, get the other team out of system more, and hit the right target more. We were able to break down opposing passers more consistently thanks to the greater accuracy of the jump float serve.

USA went up 2-0 against Brazil. Across the net, Brazilian shoulders slumped and players exchanged frustrated glances. Captain Dietzen noticed. I encouraged my teammates to push, just kept pushing them harder. It wasnt a moment to let off the gas pedal. Hitting on all cylinders, the Americans cruised to victory and a Sunday date with China, upset winners over Italy in the other semifinal.

The U.S. women have a pile of silvers won at major competitions, including three from the Olympics, two from the World Championships, and one from the World Cup. In his two years as national team head coach, Kiraly has been neither reluctant nor superstitious about addressing the gold deficit. Weve talked about it from day one, he said.

Every time we put a uniform on, we call itand it isa gold-medal match, he said. So this happened to be the 83rd gold-medal match of the last two years of this Olympic cycle.

The big mistake lots of teams make, he continued, is they get to the final, and they feel like they have to do something more, play better. So there was a huge emphasis on the fact that we have been doing this. We know how to do this. We will do this. Certainly no less than weve been doing, but absolutely no more. All we need is our daily good.

The daily good was good enough. The Chinese are young and athletic, but so are the Americans. Passing was steady, serving executed with pinpoint accuracy. In a match where the mental becomes more important than the physical or technical, Team USA was steady throughout.

Were creating an environment where we hold each other to much higher standards, Dietzen said. Were learning what our teammates need to play better during tough times. Were taking it beyond just the volleyball to how to help each other during critical moments.

It can be hard to stand on a podium while a rival team’s national anthem is playing. Hearing the Star-Spangled Banner, with gold around their necks and confetti in their hair, was a long-awaited triumph for the 14 Americans and their coaches and staff in Milan.

But if the victory was emotional and historic and dramatic, its celebration was short-lived. At the end of the national team season, athletes are contracted to join their professional clubs in Asia or Europe or South America. Some had to head out directly from Milan, others could grab just a precious few days at home while packing for their next seven-month overseas commitment. Pizza and champagne, spiced with toasts, tributes, and thanks, was all the celebrating they could do. The flights out of Italy departed at 7:30 the next morning.

We had essentially zero time to let it sink in, says Kiraly. Most everybody just stayed up all night, because it was only another three hours before the bus came to take us all away.


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