Editor’s note: Emma Schieck, is an outside hitter from Statesville, North Carolina. She is just 20 years old, but the product of South Iredell High School just had the most amazing experience of her young life at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. We asked the University of North Carolina junior to write about it:
Hi, my name is Emma Schieck, and I am a Paralympic gold medalist. That may seem like an abrupt introduction, but consider it my way of promising you that this long story has a happy ending.
My volleyball career began when I was 7 years old and first fell in love with the standing version of the sport. Volleyball was not always easy for me, mostly because of my physical disability. Due to complications at birth, I have from a Brachial Plexus Injury (BPI). My BPI affects my left arm and means that I cannot straighten or rotate my arm and it does not go behind my back. My limited strength and range of motion meant I had to work harder just to keep up with the other girls.
Nine years into my volleyball career I met Elliot Blake, the coordinator for USA Volleyball’s Developmental Sitting Volleyball Program and he introduced me to sitting volleyball. I was hesitant at first because of how difficult the sport is. My arm doesn’t reach the floor, so I struggled to move to the ball and that made everything else about the sport even more difficult. As hard as it was, I loved the challenge and began to get the hang of it. After a long standing volleyball career, I was shocked to find a sport that I loved even more.
Sitting volleyball was a faster and more condensed version of the sport I had spent years playing, and it wasn’t long until I was hooked. I would play at home with my able-bodied volleyball teammates, and they were also surprised at the difficulty of the sport but had fun trying it with me. My first training camp with the USA Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team was in 2017, only six months after my introduction to sitting volleyball. It was incredible to be surrounded by other athletes with physical disabilities who were as passionate as myself. In January 2019, I learned that I had been named to the team and my next goal became making the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Roster.
That became a reality this summer. Earlier this month, I got back from a two-week adventure in Tokyo where I was competing alongside my team in the Paralympics. Since being home, many people have asked me about my time in Tokyo and often I can’t help but laugh and say it was the most indescribable experience I could ever imagine, but here is my best attempt at putting it into words.
For the entire first week and a half of July this year, I walked around with my phone attached to my hip. I knew that any day my head coach, Bill Hamiter, would be calling to let me know whether I had been named to the Tokyo Paralympic roster. Nervous does not even begin to describe how I was feeling. We have 17 national-team athletes, but only 12 are named to the roster for each event that we go to. Our group of 17 is incredibly strong and capable, so there was really no point in even trying to guess what our roster would look like.
I was sitting on my bed in the second week of July after what felt like years of waiting, and my phone rang.
It was Bill.
Immediately, my heart started pounding, I felt my voice getting shaky, and I even think my vision started to go out a bit. Usually, I am quite the talker, but I couldn’t muster up the words for small talk. After a minute or two, he told me that I had made the roster and would be heading to Tokyo with the team in just over a month.
I couldn’t stop smiling and I yelled, “BILL! THIS IS THE BEST NEWS EVER!” He said, “Well, I don’t know about ever,” and it wasn’t until a few weeks later, after we had won gold, that I realized he was right. Being able to go to Tokyo was not the best news ever, being able to help my team win gold was.
After getting off the phone with Bill, I told my parents I was going to Tokyo, and they could not have been more excited. My mom’s face was filled with tears of joy and my dad couldn’t stop smiling. None of us had any idea what the next few weeks would have in store for me and my team. The day after my phone call with Bill, I was on a flight to Oklahoma so that I could spend the month leading up to the Games training full-time with my team. Although we had been preparing for these Games for years, focus and precision were really going to be key over the next few weeks.
My teammate, Bethany Zummo (who was named Best Receiver in the Paralympics), picked me up from the airport and we were both beyond excited about the fast-approaching Paralympics. Bethany is our libero and was instrumental in the team’s first gold medal victory in 2016.
Bethany and I were two of the athletes who were living in team housing in Edmond, Oklahoma. We would spend our mornings training and our afternoons recovering and watching game film. We would sit in her apartment as she crocheted and I worked as a remote intern for USA Triathlon. As we sat, she would tell me about her 2016 Rio experience and give me packing tips for Tokyo. My conversations with Bethany and other teammates led to building anticipation leading up to the Games.
After a month of talk and preparation, I headed home to North Carolina to quarantine for a week before our Tokyo departure. We were set to leave on August 15 and were required to submit two negative COVID tests before then. One test would be 96 hours before departure and the other 72 hours before departure. To be safe, I had decided to isolate myself at my apartment in Chapel Hill with my boyfriend, Dante, who had been quarantined for a week before I came home. As my nerves began to build about my upcoming COVID test, we would do puzzles and packed my bags to pass the time.
On August 11I took my 96-hour test and after 30 minutes of waiting, I received a negative result. Thrilled with my negative test, Dante and I decided to go to a secluded lake the next day where we could be away from people but still get outside. Our plan was to get back to my apartment in time for me to take the 72-hour test, but I checked my phone to see an urgent email. Our coaching staff called a meeting in regards to our trip. Unable to make it back to my apartment in time, I logged on to the Zoom call from my car in a parking lot.
I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t imagine what could be so important that we were having an emergency meeting. I kept wondering, were the Games canceled? I had just unenrolled from school for the semester, was that a mistake?
Then they told us we had two positives on our team. One of our staff and one of our athletes had tested positive. Then the bad news got worse. Eight of our rostered athletes had been deemed close contact and needed to start a 14-day quarantine. Lucky for us, our first game wasn’t until August 27, which meant that the close contacts would still be able to compete, as long as they never tested positive. After a moment of initial shock, my worries went away.
Peter Vint, the Chief of Sport for USA Volleyball, assured our team that USAV and the USOPC were going to do everything they could to ensure our team could compete, and I believed him.
The first group of us were then headed to Tokyo on August 20. That included myself, Katie Holloway, Jillian (Jill) Coffee, and Lora Webster. We were the four athletes who were at home and hadn’t been around anyone who tested positive. After another week of quarantining and 29 hours of travel, I arrived at the Paralympic village. About four of those hours were spent in an airport in Japan while the four of us anxiously awaited an on-site COVID test, and, thankfully we all tested negative for.
For Katie and Lora, this was their fourth and fifth Paralympic Games, respectively, but Jill and I were making our Paralympic debut in Tokyo. While you may have expected us to be tired after 29 hours of travel and the stress of more COVID tests, we instead were wide awake and awestruck by the village. That night we made our first trip to the dining hall, took videos of our village entry, and began going through all of our new USA gear.
We woke up the next morning eager for our Ralph Lauren fitting where our opening and colosing ceremonies outfits were being tailored. That fitting was the first time I felt like I could begin to enjoy the Paralympic experience. I was being measured in my closing-ceremony jacket when my phone buzzed and I saw a GroupMe notification from a teammate. We had another positive test.
I called for my teammates who were in the other room, also getting fitted, and we all stood there in shock. We were unsure what this would mean going forward. Were we all being sent home? Would there be more positive tests? Will we name alternate athletes?
That day we also were set to have our first practice as a group of four. Before practice, Bill sat the four of us down to talk about the news and what this meant for our team. Two alternates, Nichole Millage and Annie Flood, would be flying out with the rest of the team on August 20.
While we were sad for our sick teammates, we were also excited that Annie and Nichole would be able to join us in Tokyo. The next few days were difficult as we prepared for our first match against Rwanda while awaiting the rest of our team. Because of COVID, the four of us who had made it to Tokyo already decided to forego attending the opening ceremony. After the stress of the last few weeks, we decided that it would be best to avoid any more COVID risks.
Since this was Jill’s and my first Paralympics, we instead spent the day with Katie and Lora exploring the village. We got our hair and nails done (I even got a gold accent nail for good luck) and spent a few hours in the village plaza. We had spent the past few weeks on edge about the Games and all really needed a day of fun and relaxation. This day put us in a much more positive headspace and put fresh smiles on our faces at the most perfect time.
Two days later, we had grown to a team of 11 with everyone except Bethany Zummo arriving. Bethany’s quarantine started a day later than everyone else’s, so she was set to come in the next day. Lucky for us, Bethany and the rest of our team remained COVID-free, and we became a full group of 12 about 15 hours before our first match.
Many teams had been in Japan for weeks before the first match, and we were only going to have a few hours together before taking the court against Rwanda. Jetlagged, yet filled with excitement, I remember walking into the venue for our first game. We walked out of the tunnel to see bright lights, lots of cameras, and thousands of empty seats. I couldn’t believe this was really happening. It felt like the match, which we won 3-0, was over in the blink of an eye. It was special to me not only because it was my Paralympic debut, but this was the first of many times I had been put in to serve for Katie Holloway.
Serving is my favorite part of sitting volleyball and I loved my role on the team. One of the differences between standing and sitting volleyball is that in sitting volleyball you can block the serve. This adds a layer of strategy to the game that I love to think about. Serving is also the only skill in sitting volleyball that you have complete control over. You can control your toss, your contact, and your placement. You don’t have the same control over what kind of ball the other team is going to give you or what your block will do to it.
We felt good to have gotten our first game out of the way, but we knew that we were just getting started. That night we returned to our competition venue so that we could watch Russia, one of our biggest competitors, play China. China had only ever lost one Paralympic match since the sport’s introduction in 2004, and that match was the 2016 gold-medal match against the USA. We all expected a tight match but China dominated and swept the Russians.
We spent the next two days reassuring each other and reminding ourselves that we had beaten China before and could do it again. We had a strong practice, but China swept us too. Our locker room was silent after the match. Everyone’s heads were filled with doubt. Could we really defend our title? We had no choice but to quickly shift our focus to our Russia match which was in two days.
There were only two options. We either had to win against Russia or say goodbye to any chance at medaling. The pressure was on, but if we had learned anything in the previous two weeks, it was that when things get tough, our team gets tougher.
We were very fortunate to have an incredible sports psychologist, Adam O’Neill, who set up a meeting for us following our China match. In his meeting, we addressed the loss, how it felt, and what it meant, but although it may sound surprising, that was not the focus of our conversation. We talked about our team, what we had been through the last few weeks, and what we all had going on outside of volleyball. We came together as a group, and that is where things began to turn around for us.
Going into our match against Russia, there is no denying that tensions were high, but Russia is a team that we are all familiar with. Everything came together on the court and we won 3-0. Walking into the locker room after that match was a completely different experience than it was after our China match. Everyone was talking with excitement, and we began to feel like we were back on track.
The next day we immediately began to shift into preparation for our semifinals match against Brazil. We were in a must-win scenario
Bethany Zummo, our Libero who I mentioned earlier, is recently married to Fabricio Da Silva Pinto, who is the captain of Brazil’s men’s sitting volleyball team. Their relationship has led to friendships between many athletes on both the men’s and women’s teams from Brazil and the USA. Our relationship with the Brazilian team made this even more exciting for us.
We swept again and that guaranteed us a spot on the podium. After our match was over, we stayed to watch the first two sets of the other semifinal match as China swept Canada, and that meant the USA would be heading into a rematch against China for the fourth straight Paralympics.
The night before our China match, which was on Saturday, September 4, we reviewed our game plan and all tried our best to get some sleep. Five years of training and preparation was all leading up to the next day’s match. We each did our best to stomach some breakfast before walking to the bus. Nobody had any idea what the next few hours would hold, all that we really knew was that this game was going to challenge us.
It felt like the quickest warmup ever and before we knew it, it was game time.
Adam gave us one of his pep talks and then we were on our way to the competition court. It is a short walk to the tunnel where we sit on benches on one side and across from us sat the undefeated Chinese team. We nervously reassured each other as our excitement and nerves built. Before the match, we exchanged small gifts with the Chinese team, and then the announcer began to call out the teams. First, China left the tunnel, and then we followed. Although this would be our fifth time competing on this court, it was an entirely new experience.
We finished our official warmup and heard our national anthem on the competition court, and they called out the starting lineups. Katie Holloway, Kaleo Maclay, Monique Matthews, Heather Erickson, Lora Webster, Jillian Coffee, and Bethany Zummo would be taking the court for us. Six of our seven starters were the starters in Rio as well, with the new addition of Jill.
Whitney Dosty, Annie Flood, Lexi Shifflet, Nichole Millage, and I were on the bench. We knew that the girls on the court would need energy and information from us so that they could be successful, so we were ready to be loud and pay close attention.
Within the first few points, we could tell that this was going to be a different game than the one we had played a week befpre. We started with an early lead, but we knew that China was not a team that would just roll over, so we stayed disciplined and kept working. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the first set was over and we had won it 25-12. It began to sink in that we could really win this game and come home with a gold medal.
I am an outside hitter and a serving specialist. Over the last few months, I have been going in to serve for Katie Holloway (who was named MVP of the Paralympics) during high-pressure situations. In sitting volleyball, this is a substitution that can only happen once per set. During the later part of the second set, Bill had told me that I would be going in to serve for Katie when she came back around. I went in, and to say I was nervous would be an understatement. I went in to serve, but we couldn’t get on a run and lost the point after a quick rally. I left the court and Katie came back in. This set was much tighter, but we managed to finish it out with a 25-20 win. We were only one set away from winning a gold medal. We tried to stay calm and not get ahead of ourselves. One point at a time.
The third set did not go as well as the first two, but we continued to play well. The Chinese team had begun to adjust, so we began making changes as well. We ended up losing the third set 22-25, but it did not feel like a loss. We knew that we were fighting hard and we expected China to fight back. That loss was a reminder that we could not get ahead of ourselves and still needed to focus on finishing out this match strong.
The fourth set was a battle, and it was back and forth consistently the entire time. As the set began to come to a close, Bill told me that I would be going in for Katie to serve, I gave him a thumbs up and began to look at the scoreboard. I was sitting next to Lexi on the bench and said to her, “If I do end up going in, it looks like it’s going to be really close to game point.” Lexi reassured me and we both went back to cheering on our team. A few more points passed, and I realized that the way the rotation worked out, I would be going in on set point to serve.
The score was 23-19 and we were up. I began to prepare myself because Katie was the next server, and I would be going in after we scored again. We won the point.
The score was 24-19 and I stood up and walked towards the court to come in for Katie. If you would have told me a few weeks ago that I would be going in to serve match point in the gold medal match for the Tokyo Paralympics, I would have thought you were lying, but here I was. As I walked onto the court, my teammates looked focused and ready. Katie had full confidence in me and made that clear as she left the court. I sat down on the service line feeling shaky and the whistle blew for the serve.
I picked my spot on the other side of the court and served the ball. It was an ace, and the game was over. We won 25-19.
I was in shock, and honestly, I think everyone was.
The bench stormed the court and everyone was screaming. The next moments were full of tears and hugs and the most incredible feelings you could ever imagine. After celebrating, we all hurried to the locker room to get ready for the medal ceremony. Hearing our national anthem play from the top of the podium and having Jillian put a gold medal around my neck was incredible.
The weeks leading up to Tokyo and the Games themselves were a rollercoaster for our team, but we had finally done it.
The USA Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team won back-to-back gold medals, and it really can’t get better than that.
Follow Emma on Instagram @emmaschieckk and on Twitter @emmaschieck04
Click here to learn more about USA Volleyball Sitting Volleyball.