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U.S. women's volleyball beats Brazil to win its first Olympic gold medal

Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

TOKYO — There was a big hullabaloo in Hooper, Nebraska, several years ago when the Nebraska Department of Roads, citing the lack of a permit, removed the banner on Highway 275 honoring Jordan Larson as an Olympian.

After their hometown hero helped the U.S. women’s volleyball team make history Sunday, the locals will just have to do it right this time.

Get the permit and update the banner: It’s Jordan Larson, Olympic champion.

The Americans are bringing home gold in the sport for the first time after routing previously unbeaten Brazil, 25-21, 25-20, 25-14, completing an unlikely journey that involved a spiritual guru and garage workouts while corresponding via Zoom.

The victory also gave UCLA legend Karch Kiraly what amounts to volleyball’s triple crown, adding a gold as coach to go with the ones he won with the men’s indoor team and on the beach.

It was an unexpected connection involving another Bruin that helped galvanize the team for this breakthrough. Sue Enquist, the former UCLA softball star and coach, was retained as a mental performance adviser after wowing players with her energy on a Zoom call. She went on to enhance the wobbly relationships between the first-time Olympians and handful of veterans.

“We were functioning as a bunch of individuals,” Larson said this week, recalling the dysfunction. “I think we all had our own personal agendas and not that we were trying to be selfish, it was just that we didn’t know how to function as a team.”

It also could be hard to perform as individuals while stuck at home during the pandemic. For months, the only kill Larson made was in her backyard near Malibu.

She turned a patch of grass into dirt while practicing her approach to jumping at the net as she prepared for a return to training.

 

“My fiance’s like, ‘Seriously, there’s only one spot in the lawn?’ ” recalled Larson, who’s set to celebrate her retirement by marrying Pepperdine men’s volleyball coach David Hunt in a few weeks.

Middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson trained while also caring for her baby, Kayode. Garage workouts were sandwiched between breastfeeding sessions, Gunderson gazing into the eyes of her newest fan.

Inspiration was everywhere. Before it departed, the team received a care package from the 1980 team that had been unable to compete in the Moscow Olympics because of the Americans’ boycott.

The alumni team sent personalized bookmarks, journals and Japanese lanterns that players hung inside their suites in the Olympic Village. The forebears’ biggest gift came decades earlier, when they became the first group of U.S. volleyball players to train year-round as part of their Olympic preparation.

After once failing to qualify for back-to-back Olympics, the Americans went on to win three silver medals and two bronzes. They had never won gold. Not until Sunday.

It felt like destiny considering their outlook.

“Someone said, ‘There’s so much pressure because the U.S. has never won,’” Larson said before the final match. “But there’s no pressure because we’ve never done it. So why not go out swinging?”

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.