There was a moment during the United States Women’s Volleyball Team’s tense semi-final match with Serbia when coach Karch Kiraly, a legend of indoor and outdoor volleyball, called timeout. His team gathered around him. For a moment, the NBC announcers went silent and we heard Kiraly unfiltered. He told his team they were a family. He explained that this familial structure they had built was specifically for moments like this, to combat adversity. They need only rely on one another to do what they needed to do. If another coach in another sport at another time had spoken those words, I might have dismissed it as hooey. But by Thursday, after watching every single one of their games in Rio, I’d seen enough of this team to know it was true.
The Olympics are that much more fun when you have a team. You pick a team, whatever the sport, whatever the country, and you temporarily transfer all the emotionalism reserved for your official team and make this Olympic team your team for a fortnight instead. Sometimes you choose your team in advance, like I did with the U.S. Men’s Water Polo squadron of 2012. Sometimes you choose your team on a whim, like I did with the Swiss Women’s Curling Team in 2014. This year I picked my team ahead of time. This year I picked the United States Women’s Volleyball Team. And though they were referred to, by custom, as Team USA, I naturally decided that was too staid and unbecoming of a team so spectacularly righteous, and thus re-imagined their moniker as The Care Bears on Fire.
The Americans might not have seemed at first glance to possess as much volley balling verve as, say, the flair-full Brazilians, especially given how much Kiraly and the NBC announcers, Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett, referred to the American “system”. Somehow the term “system” just makes them feel more American, like Nick Saban and his monstrously unexciting sounding “process”, even if so many other volleyball teams have their own systems. But there is some truth to the tactical sameness of their “system.” They forbade, as Sunderland and Barnett repeatedly pointed out, any kind of riotous jump serving because it wasn’t as efficient. And while other teams could occasionally become dependent upon individual brilliance, setting a great player and simply letting her go get it, the United States stuck to the belief that systemic adherence would yield rich dividends.
Not that the Americans were rigid automatons. Look, I’m a Sports Emotionalist, first and foremost, and if The Care Bears on Fire just played white collar volleyball I would have bailed match one for Puerto Rico and its resplendent ABA-ish uniforms. In fact, Barnett explained that in the Olympic run-up he spoke with the mighty Foluke Akinradewo who said she loved this team because it let her act like “a big ol’ weirdo.” “What’s a big ol’ weirdo look like?” Barnett said he asked. “A lot of dancing,” she replied, “off rhythm.” She may as well have been speaking for the whole team; The Care Bears on Fire loved to dance.
While the six players competed on the court, the reserves, always at standing and at the ready if called upon, had choreographed dances for each individual player that were busted out in the wake of any point or great play. We didn’t see enough dancing, frankly. I wanted an iso-cam on the dancers. Kelsey Robinson became my favorite player not simply because she’s an ex-Cornhusker, and not simply because she was The Microwave, by which I mean she channeled Vinnie Johnson in instantly effecting results off the bench, and not simply because once when she made some dig that defied the eye the camera caught her mouthing “wow” to herself as if she didn’t even believe it, but because the dance in her honor was my favorite. It was sort of this little shoop shoop ba-doop, once to the right, once to the left. When Kelsey subbed in against China last Sunday, my favorite match The Care Bears played, and never came back out because she took over, it’s possible I tried out the shoop shoop ba-doop a couple times in my living room, though I’d never admit it.
The Care Bears on Fire were founts of this sort of joy. Any time a player substituted in or out there was an exchange of high fives between the whole team. Before every point was played there was a round of low fives, a constant “let’s get ’em.” And at the end of each point, there was either a celebration, often rendered in striking slow motion, giving full weight to the gigantic emotions splayed across the players’ faces, if they won. And if they lost, there was a huddle, typically packed with just as many smiles as a point won, and even occasional laughs that seemed to imply something along the lines of a jocular “can you believe I just f***ed that up?!”. This was particularly crucial. There was an incredible capacity for well-adjusted, even fun-loving, resolve. A point lost was gone, though not necessarily forgotten because it might have suggested a space for strategic correction, and now it was time to play the next point. In America, where so many of our sports are ensconced with unmerciful whining about everything that has already happened, this “the next point is a new point mentality” was a breath of fresh air.
That mentality had benefited them throughout the tournament, through which they had traversed with a perfect record of 6-0, and it seemed extra critical in the hella dramatic fifth set in the semi-final against Serbia, which we return to now, after The Care Bears on Fire had gone up by one set, only to lose Akinradewo to injury and struggle, going down 2 sets to 1, only to rally to even it at 2 sets all, and then take the lead in the fifth set, three precious points away from the Gold Medal match, when Serbia made a run and Kiraly called timeout and told them they were family.
In the Sports Movie, that’s enough. The Care Bears on Fire would go out and win. Instead, they kinda cracked up. They lost. And they took it hard. They shed some tears. And I liked that they shed tears because it simply reinforced the realness of the emotion that was so prominently on display throughout Rio. Forty eight hours later they played the Netherlands for Bronze and won. I was not surprised. After all, that was why they built their familial structure, to combat this kind of adversity. Next point, new point. Now, let’s dance.