COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Dec. 22, 2016) – Of course there is no shame in winning silver or bronze at the Olympic or Paralympic Games.
The effort needed to advance from pool play, win a quarterfinal or semifinal match and make it to the medal rounds should not be underestimated. Just ask the 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s indoor teams or the beach team of April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings, all of whom won bronze in Rio de Janeiro.
But the U.S. Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team had been there, done that and won the Paralympic medals; bronze in 2004 under then Head Coach Mike Hulett and silver in 2008 and 2012 under current Head Coach Bill Hamiter.
In 2016, the team was ready for more. By the end of the season, it accomplished its goal.
For winning the gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games, the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team has been named the USA Volleyball Team of the Year.
The 2016 season started off with the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team playing in the lions’ den. The team traveled to Anji, China for the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup. Waiting there was world No. 1 ranked China, the three-time reigning Paralympic champion.
In a sign of things to come, the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team beat China in pool play and again in the gold medal match, 25-22, 18-25, 25-19, 25-17 on March 23.
“I think we all felt it going in, but the excitement after was almost a relief,” U.S. outside hitter Katie Holloway (Lake Stevens, Wash.) said after the win. “We knew we could do this, but we’re finally the team we knew we could be.”
There was even more foreshadowing; outside hitter and Team Captain Heather Erickson (Fayetteville, N.C.) received individual honors as the tournament’s Best Attacker and Most Valuable Player.
The U.S. Women’s Sitting Team got another victory over China at a tournament in the Netherlands in July, giving the United States another dose of confidence.
“It’s so exciting to witness where our team is now and how far we’ve come,” middle blocker Lora Webster (Phoenix, Arizona) said after the tournament.
Hamiter went into the Paralympics Games with a good feeling about his team.
“We know the abilities of our athletes and we want them to use those as abilities as consistently as possible,” he said. ‘If we play at our level, we give ourselves a good chance of winning every match.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Paralympic gold medal match; the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team lost to China 3-2 (25-17, 14-25, 14-25, 28-26, 15-13) in a brutal pool play match.
“We forced them to play very well, and we struggled in the first and fourth sets, so we’re not walking out of this feeling like we played our best match,” Webster said after the match.
The U.S. Women’s Sitting Team would not lose another set in the Paralympic Games and that includes the gold medal match against (who else?) China. The United States went into the match ready for a battle, but it seemed like China did not and the U.S. rolled to a 25-12, 25-12, 25-18 victory.
“We’ve worked hard the past four years for this and the outcome just shows how hard we worked,” said outside hitter Monique Burkland (Ardmore, Oklahoma). “We just went point by point. We know they don’t give up and always come back. We’ve been in that position before where they’ve come back and won, so we knew we had to keep going at it.”
Erickson was named tournament MVP and “Best Receiver” by World ParaVolley, while Webster received “Best Blocker” honors. Erickson would go on to be named the USAV Female Sitting Player of the Year and was also a finalist in 2016 for an ESPY in the category of “Best Female Athlete with a Disability” and the Sportswoman of the Year presented by the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The U.S. Women’s Sitting Team was also honored as the “Best Paralympic Team” Presented by Dow at the Team USA Awards in Washington D.C. The U.S. is now ranked No. 1 in the world by World ParaVolley.
In being named USAV Player of the Year, Erickson reflected on what her team had been through.
“Even though everything happened in 2016, all the work and sacrifices happened in years before,” she said. “My team and I have been putting all of ourselves into the hopes that we might have a chance at possibly having a season like this one. Preparations for 2016 happened for some of us the day after we left the court in 2012 with a sour taste in our mouths.”
BEST OF THE BEACH
In 2016, April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings continued the trend of the United States bringing home an Olympic medal on the beach. The duo earned bronze at the Games in a season that saw the team earn five gold medals on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. During the season, April and Kerri also eclipsed the century win mark and earned their 150th team victory while at the Olympics.
“Kerri and April had a remarkable quad,” said Doug Beal, USA Volleyball CEO. “The grit and determination of the team sowed most dramatically in their performance winning the bronze medal after an enormously, and hard for most of us to imagine, loss in an incredibly close semifinal.”