Justine Wong-Orantes didn’t know what to do.
She sat in her hotel room in Rimini, Italy, after just learning that she had made the 2021 USA women’s Olympic volleyball team. Tears of joy were streaming down her face.
She called both her mother, Winnie Wong, and her boyfriend, Andrew Pham, but neither picked up. The team’s only designated libero couldn’t even share the news with her teammates, because some of them might not have yet heard from coach Karch Kiraly.
What seemed like an eternity later, her mother called back.
“She was so excited and was screaming through the phone”, Wong-Orantes said, recalling her mother’s reaction, “and I was laughing at her. I still give her a hard time for not answering my call.”
Finally, Wong-Orantes, the little kid who played both beach and set indoors through club and high school before becoming a libero at Nebraska, could share that she was an Olympian.
She won a national championship at Nebraska in 2015 and has played professionally since, but nothing compared, evidently, to becoming an Olympian.
Back to June 7, when she met with Kiraly. Players had the choice of learning by email going face to face with the coach. Or so the team’s shortest player at 5-foot-6 thought.
“I decided to meet in person, and so I went into this hotel room, and I thought I was meeting with only Karch, and then I open up the door, and it’s the whole staff,” Wong-Orantes said.
“I was a little bit shocked, and then he broke the news that I was in, and I immediately started crying. Karch shared the ups and downs that I had faced within the quad, and I was reflecting on that in my head, and I think that was why I started tearing up because I was reflecting and evaluating all the years that we have worked towards.”
“We found out around 9:30 pm, which was about 12:30 California time. I had forewarned my mother, who was on a girls’ trip, that we would be getting the news around that time.
“She was hanging out at the pool at her AirBNB, and she wasn’t available for Facetime. So I tried calling my boyfriend, and he didn’t answer the phone. So I called my mother again, and she still didn’t answer.
“Finally, 10 minutes later, my tears are dry, and I can’t call anyone on the team, because some of them might not have the news yet, and I’m by myself in my room waiting for someone to return my call, and finally my Mom called me back.”
After that fateful day, the USA women continued to dominate the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, the final major international competition before the Tokyo Olympics that begin July 24. Not only did the Americans win the gold medal, Wong-Orantes was named the tournament’s top libero.
Now the team is back in Anaheim, California, preparing to leave for Japan on July 17. The team trains Monday through Friday, with weights Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Typically Wednesday and Friday are more volleyball specific, with scrimmages on Fridays.
It’s a long way from learning volleyball at the age of 6. Her parents, Robbie Orantes and Winnie Wong, played coed volleyball at Thompson Park in Bellflower, and little Justine would pepper with any adults who would oblige.
Robbie Orantes has coached at Hope International and Long Beach City College. Winnie officiates on the weekends. Her younger brother Anthony plays and coaches. So it was only natural that Justine, now 25, would play volleyball.
She began competing at 8, both on the beach under the tutelage of the late legendary coach Bill Lovelace and indoors for Mizuno Long Beach.
“Getting those touches was very beneficial at such a young age,” Winnie Wong said.
“But then they started winning gold medals. They practiced all summer long at Huntington Beach, it was super, super fun. They learned so much from Bill, he was such a good coach.”
In 2011, Wong-Orantes and Hughes took ninth at the FIVB age-group world championships. Then, at the tender age of 12, she and Summer Ross became the youngest duo to earn the coveted CBVA AAA rating.
“We compared ourselves to them,” Wong-Orantes said. “I was Misty and she was Kerri. I think we wanted to follow in their footsteps. We were so young and gung-ho about beach volleyball. We were ‘OK, maybe we can do it.’
“I’ve taken a different path, but it was always so cool to watch the Olympics, whether it was beach volleyball, volleyball, or even gymnastics. I’m a big fan of gymnastics, even at Nebraska.”
Wong-Orantes, then a setter, and Hughes led their Mizuno Long Beach to 16s gold at the USA Volleyball junior national championship.
“We knew each other on the beach side first, then we convinced Sara and her mom to come play at Mizuno Long Beach,” Wong-Orantes said. “We were together nonstop, playing club volleyball through the fall and spring, and then continued on through the summer to play beach. We were inseparable, Sara and I. Sara is one of my biggest supporters and one of my best friends to this day.”
“Justine is amazing,” Hughes said. “She is one of my best friends and I’m so happy for her that she made the Olympic Team. We grew up together and volleyball is her passion and to make the Olympic team means everything. I can’t wait to watch her bring home a gold medal.”
At Los Alamitos High School, Wong-Orantes was a four-year starter for the Griffins in 2009-2012, leading the Griffins to a 130-22 record, winning the CIF Southern Section 1AA title in 2011, finishing second in the CIF state tournament.
Wong-Orantes stopped playing beach in her senior year of high school.
“I really enjoyed beach, but I enjoyed indoors just a little bit more,” she said. “I just love the team aspect of indoor, having six or 12 players contribute to the success of the tournament or team. I love the team atmosphere and having a coaching staff.”
From Los Alamitos, Wong-Orantes went on to Nebraska, where she made the switch from setter to libero.
“Justine to me is a great story. It’s funny how things happen. Lara Dykstra was our libero. Right before the semester ends in the spring she walks in and says, ‘I’m gonna transfer to Pepperdine, they’re starting beach.’ She was on the junior beach team at the time.
“So great, we don’t have a libero going into that year. So I go to JOs and we find Justine setting for Beach. Everyone was recruiting her as a backup setter or a walk-on … I did a home visit. She didn’t even know where Nebraska is but we get her out there and she commits, she gets a full ride, and what a great story.”
Not only did Nebraska win it all, Wong-Orantes left Lincoln as the program’s all-time digs leader. She earned a degree in Child, Youth, and Family Studies, and hopes to eventually coach at the collegiate level. She already has served as volunteer assistant for the Long Beach State women in 2017 as well as at Mizuno Long Beach.
Wong-Orantes, who has been with the national team since 2016, has played professionally in Germany’s Bundesliga for Schweriner in 2020 and this past season in Wiesbaden, where the pro season runs from October to April.
“I’ve had nothing but good experiences in Germany, so I’m excited to go back after the Olympics.”
Wong-Orantes, who when back in the States lives with her parents in Cypress, California, is Chinese on her mother’s side and Mexican on her dad’s. That translates to food and she said when she’s home she’s sure to hit Nick’s Burritos for breakfast burritos and Moon Lunasia for dim sum.
Now, however, all focus is on the upcoming Olympics, although the Games will hardly be normal.
“I’m really disappointed that they’re not allowing U.S. spectators,” Wong-Orantes said.
“Out of all the locations for the Olympics, I think I really, really wanted my friends and family to experience Tokyo. I think they would have loved it. Experiencing the Japanese culture would have been great for them.”
At VNL, the USA went 14-1 in the regular schedule of the tournament and then beat Turkey and Brazil to win the gold medal. The Americans will go to Tokyo as the favorites, albeit a year late.
“Within 2020 alone, so many people have had their dreams crushed,” Wong-Orantes said. “It pushed everything back a year, and there were some people on the team that were planning to retire, and so that definitely puts a hold on things, and puts everything into perspective.
“We put in so much work over the 2020 season, including virtually through Zoom. We did a really good job of staying connected, and I think it’s a huge testament to the program, the girls, and the coaching staff that the squad put so much work in off the court building those relationships.
“When we all got the news, whether you made the team or not, we all felt so close together, that’s what’s so special about this team.”