Editor’s note: When Olympian Courtney Thompson got hired as an assistant at Stanford, we knew we wanted a story. And knowing of the connection she had with her friend and ours,Tim Toy, it seemed logical to ask him if wanted to write about it. He jumped at the chance. We think it’s a great hire for Stanford, Thompson, and Toy.
How can I summarize the connection between Courtney and me in just a few paragraphs?
I could tell you how I first remember enjoying this fiery, headband-wearing setter from the University of Washington during its run to the 2005 NCAA championship..
Or how amazing it was to watch her shine when she replaced Lindsey Berg in the 2012 London Olympics.
I can recall how cool it was to see her again in the pictures sent back to us from Serbia when my late wife Ellen was asked to “cyber-coach” from our living room in 2013, when Ellen was feeling particularly low after five rounds of chemo.
Then celebrating a world championship in that same living room in 2014, with Courtney becoming an integral part of it all, while Ellen’s battle with gastric cancer raged on. I could add how our two foundations, my We Serve First and her Give it Back, have collaborated to help deserving young women get Olympic-level training despite financial hardships.
But Courtney often talks about being big in all the moments, and she walks the walk.
I reached out to her as Ellen’s 55th birthday approached, knowing it was quite possible that she wouldn’t get to celebrate it. Her condition worsened, and time was running short. Leadership isn’t just about what happens inside that 60×30 rectangle.
All the moments …
Courtney marshaled her teammates, who happened to be scattered all over the world for their club seasons. They sent Ellen a video love letter, and Happy Birthday wishes on February 20. It truly was one last great memory before Ellen slipped away from us.
She passed on February 22.
So, when I found out Courtney made the roster for the 2016 Rio Olympics, I decided to tag along. It was my first international trip and I wrote about it for VolleyballMag.com (the links to those stories follow).
Courtney’s parents, Steve and Linda, took me in, knowing what an emotional pilgrimage this would be. Being amongst the parents and families of our USA team, watching the world’s greatest volleyball tournament, it all just made sense.
I had completed the circle.
What I didn’t know was that all the while I was learning from this champion and her team. I learned about adversity, and how to overcome it. I learned about the “imposter voice” inside my head, and how to quiet him, and I learned about presence, and living in the moment. Lessons I needed to heal, and thrive in my own hostile environment.
Thank you, Courtney Thompson. Thank you for being my friend.
And now on to Courtney Thompson, the new assistant coach at Stanford.
Is something up with the power grid that surrounds the campus at Stanford?
A number of people close to the situation have used terms like energy, positivity, and connection. No doubt there has been a surge recently, specifically inside Maples Pavilion and the meeting rooms of the Cardinal volleyball team. The new season always brings excitement inside this storied program, but this year it’s fueled by the addition of a familiar face in the Pac-12 Conference, new assistant coach Courtney Thompson.
“I always knew I wanted to coach, but for a long time I couldn’t feel the energy to do what is required at this level,” Thompson admitted.
She talked with other coaches about opportunities, but just didn’t feel like the time was right. In November, something changed and she felt she was ready to be in the trenches with people every day again.
“I missed committing day to day and being in it and investing at that level,” she said. “It just finally lined up and got clear for me.”
And, timing being the key to life, about a month later she got a call from Stanford coach Kevin Hambly.
Thompson replaced her old Olympic teammate Alisha Glass-Childress. Glass-Childress and Thompson provided a one-two punch as a double-sub option during the USA’s run to the World Championship in 2014.
“One of the first things I told Kevin was ‘Look, I’ve been subbing in for Alisha for a long time, I think this is going to be OK.’ We had a good laugh and Alisha made fun of me, but it’s true.”
Thompson is managing the Stanford offense and training the setters. In Stanford’s case, the includes junior Selina Xu, sophomore Malia Tufuga, and freshmen Kami Miner and Kalissa Greene.
“We’re watching the best setters in the world, briefly, and then we’re going to train, rinse and repeat, then we’re competing, getting after it and fortunately the setters here are incredible people that want to learn and are hungry,” Thompson said. “I get little zings of excitement like 90 times a day, which is fun.”
Recruiting eventually will be part of her job, and that new frontier excites her as well.
“This is new, so I’m going to bring all of my experiences and all of me to the moment just like we talk about in volleyball and then let’s figure it out.”
Thompson is also quick to point out what makes recruiting at Stanford different.
“Stanford is a very special place and unique,” she said. “The type of person that wants to come here is someone who wants to see what life is all about out on the edges, who wants to be the best athlete and the best student they can be and have all of these experiences. That, to me, is super fun and that’s the kind of person I want to be around. People that want to go for it, knowing that it’s going to be challenging and also very beautiful. That part of it has been nothing but fun for me.”
Thompson’s journey from Kentlake High School near Seattle to Stanford wasn’t as easy as a scenic ride down the Pacific coast. Her many stops along the way have provided her with a wealth of life experiences, mindfulness, and of course volleyball knowledge.
The Washington State Player of the Year (2002) and three-time state champion parlayed her talents into a marvelous four years at University of Washington, including that aforementioned 2005 NCAA title.
Thompson made the USA national team in 2007 and over the course of her pro career silver in the 2012 London Olympics, gold at the World Championships in 2014, and bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Interspersed among those championships was a professional career that had her traveling all over the world, with stops in Puerto Rico, Poland, Switzerland, and Brazil, where she was an integral part of Rexona Ades Rio’s run to the Brazilian Superliga Championship.
After the Rio Olympics, Thompson retired from international play. Playing with the national team, the training didn’t afford her the time to travel and explore different things.
Being a consultant for the last five years allowed her to decompress.
“It took a long time for me to feel like I was ready to dive into something completely again,” she said.
Her consulting job is with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Dr. Michael Gervais at “Finding Mastery” (formerly Compete to Create), which has brought mindfulness and advanced human performance practices to teams and corporations.
Dr. Gervais sees potential in elite athletes and recognizes the same in Thompson: “Courtney makes every room she enters better. She has done the required internal work to live with passion and resilience toward her life purpose: helping others become their very best. At Finding Mastery, Inc. she is the heartbeat of authenticity, high standards and performance excellence.”
For a Seattle kid, working with Gervais and Carroll has been surreal.
“Pete is everything you see him to be on TV. I’ve never walked into a building with him in it where I didn’t want to just be better,” Thompson said. “He talks about leadership, finding the good in people, and celebrating people for who they are and he models that.”
She first worked with Gervais when he filled the role of team psychologist with USA Volleyball during the four-year quad leading into the Rio Olympics.
“Mike has taught me so much about understanding the human experience,” Thompson said. He’s challenged me to work through my own inner game so I can show up more present and more fully in all the moments, and I don’t know if there’s a bigger gift.”
The pandemic, of course, forced everyone into a new way of living for a while, but Thompson spent it seeking new challenges and exploring what has value. She discovered new hobbies including a newfound obsession with mountain biking, and a love for reading and cooking. She spent time with family and people she cares about.
“We had reminders of what is most important … how can I use these important moments to impact the people that I care about?”
A return to some level of normalcy is what we all crave, and for Thompson it would mean the possibility of getting the crew back together for the Give It Back Foundation’s annual summer camp.
Give It Back was the brainchild of Thompson, along with fellow national-team members Tama Miyashiro (also her teammate at Washington) and Christa Dietzen. It brings former and current national-team players together for a two-day camp that also serves as a fundraiser for a charity close to the host member’s heart. The first camp in Thompson’s hometown of Kent, Washington, was in 2016, followed by camps in Hawai’i, Anaheim, and Pittsburgh (where I live).
Thompson thinks next summer would provide an amazing opportunity to support another charity and pigtail off of the USA’s popularity after its gold-medal run. She emphasized that the Olympics world stage is an incredible opportunity to present role models for young women everywhere:.
“Everything that team has come to represent are the things we want to pass along to the next generation,” Thompson said. “That you can be the best at what you do, be the best you can be, and also have a blast.”
Stanford had a remarkable four-year run with the group of Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, and Audriana Fitzmorris. They won it all as freshmen in what turned out to be the last year of John Dunning’s coaching career. Hambly came in and Stanford lost in the national semifinals in 2017, and then won it all in 2018 and 2019.
Last year was tough, a season marred both before and during by COVID in so many ways. The Cardinal played just 10 matches and finished 2-8, all in the Pac-12.
The new season approaches and Stanford’s early non-conference schedule is packed with potential top10 match-ups.
After opening on the road in Philadelphia, playing Villanova and Temple on successive afternoons (August 27-28). Then the Cardinal flies home to face Florida. Then it’s three straight road matches, at Texas on September 5, and then Minnesota and Penn State in Eugene, Oregon, on September 10-11.
Nebraska comes to the Maples Center on September 14 and then Stanford closes out non-conference play on September 19 in Lexington against Kentucky.
It could be brutal, right?
“You mean amazing! I could not be more excited,” Thompson said. “We are going to learn a lot, we’re going to be exposed and it’s so good.”
“I always want to play a tough schedule,” he said. “We don’t want to go into the Pac-12 or especially not go into the NCAA tournament not knowing our weaknesses.”
By all accounts Stanford should be very good this season.
“We’ll probably take some lumps. I’d be shocked if we didn’t lose a couple matches. I hope not, but I’ve never scheduled to go undefeated,” Hambly said. “We’re scheduling to grow and get better.”
And that’s where Thompson fits in.
“I think the first thing that stands out when you are around her is her energy,” he said. “That’s not the first thing I was looking for, but it’s definitely a bonus. Her energy, enthusiasm, and positivity are unmatched.”
Former teammate Miyashiro: “The first thing that jumps out at me is her excitement and passion, as well as a great energy around the sport. She also has an ability to connect and empower athletes and help them become the best they can be.”
Hambly also sees Thompson as a “learner and a teacher.”
Thompson credits a vast and diverse group of former coaches for compiling and completing her “Coaching DNA.”
“I have so many to choose from, I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve played for the best coaches in the world, and that’s not tongue in cheek, it’s legit.”
Indeed, her club coach, Dawn Colston, still gets the occasional call for advice. She lists former Washington coach Jim McLaughlin and current Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon (the 2012 USA Olympics coach) as master communicators and teachers.
“Karch obviously, we’ve been through a lot together, how he shows up authentically and is unapologetically himself,” Thompson said. “That guy would do anything, and I feel like I’d run through a wall for him still.”
She has traveled the country with Chris McGown doing clinics for Gold Medal Squared. She speaks glowingly about her time spent with Pepperdine legend Marv Dunphy, an assistant to Kiraly in Tokyo.
“Everyone who knows Marv has a story about how he made them feel special and seen and cared about,” Thompson said.
Things should get interesting when Stanford faces Pac-12 rival Washington on October 24, with Thompson’s familiar No. 3 jersey hanging in the rafters at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Miyashiro, Thompson’s best friend, can’t wait.
“Stanford has always had good athletes and a good coaching staff, but college sports just got a little better with Courtney in it,” Miyashiro said.
“And even though they will be competing in the same conference that we played in, go Court!”
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Here are links to some Tim Toy’s stories he wrote for us at the 2016 Rio Olympics:
Tim Toy: The beauty of the USA’s depth and great subs
Tim Toy: Living the high life at the Rio Olympics
Tim Toy: In tough times, “champions rise
Obrigado from Tim Toy as Rio adventure ends
Tim also wrote for us when he welcomed the volleyball world to his town, Pittsburgh, for the 2019 AVCA Convention and NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.