TOKYO — The morning of the Olympic women’s volleyball semifinal on Friday here at the Tokyo Games, Foluke Akinradewo, a three-time Olympian and middle blocker for the U.S. team, had a premonition: the United States was going to have a perfect match.
Against Serbia that afternoon, the Americans would be efficient and clinical and every player would execute the game plan just right — she could see it unfold in her mind. And just 20 months after Akinradewo gave birth to a son, Kayode, her squad would beat Serbia to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday.
While walking to breakfast, Akinradewo shared her vision with Jordan Larson, the team captain, also at her third Olympics. Larson, an outside hitter, said she had the same feeling.
“I don’t know if you want to speak that into existence, but yeah, OK!” Larson recalled saying.
The premonition was right. Facing a tough Serbian team, the United States won in straight sets, 25-19, 25-15 and 25-23.
Tijana Boskovic was Serbia’s top scorer, with 19 points, while Annie Drews led the Americans with 17.
“Ms. Boskovic is just one of the world’s great, great players,” Karch Kiraly, the U.S. team’s coach, said. “Going into today, she was probably the most lethal player in the tournament, but we held her.”
Kiraly, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in indoor volleyball and also a gold medal winner in beach volleyball, praised Akinradewo for her part in keeping Boskovic in check by leading the team’s “superb blocking from start to finish.”
The Americans’ win brought both joy and relief for the team, which lost to the Serbians five years ago in the semifinal at the 2016 Rio Games. That loss hurt because the U.S. team had been doing so well at those Olympics, with the gold medal within reach, and Kiraly can’t forget it.
He said it was “an absolute soul crusher” to lose in that semifinal match because it was the Americans’ only loss in Rio and was so close: It came down to the fifth set, with the Serbians winning, 15-13.
The team in Tokyo now will have a chance to redeem itself from that loss when it plays Brazil in the gold medal game on Sunday. The United States will be ready for anything, and any team, Kiraly said, partly because throughout the coronavirus pandemic it has spent so much time working on team chemistry.
The Americans range in age from 24 to 34, and have a mix of experience. Only four of them have played at an Olympics, while eight of them are new to the Summer Games.
When the pandemic hit, Kiraly decided to try something new to get the teammates to jell. Instead of using the team’s usual sports psychologist, he went the unconventional route of enlisting the former U.C.L.A. softball coach Sue Enquist as “a pure mental performance coach.”
Enquist, a motivational speaker who has also coached the U.S. softball team, was the first of several guest speakers Kiraly organized for the team once they began training apart because of Covid-19. Other sports figures followed, including Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck, who are former captains of the U.S. women’s soccer team, and the tennis legend Billie Jean King, who sent Kiraly and the U.S. team an encouraging text after Friday’s win.
At the players’ request, Enquist returned to lead player-only Zoom meetings. They discussed motivational books or films, and how the team, at times spread across the world, could communicate better as a group while each player trained alone.
Larson, for example, worked out at home in California, in her garage on her Peloton and with weights. It was a lonely existence. At one point, she said, almost three months went by without her touching a volleyball because she had no one to hit it back to her. She had also stopped jumping for two months. And when she did start again, she wore a bald patch in her backyard grass because she practiced her approach to the net so many times in one spot.
Larson, who is 34 and the oldest player on the team, said Enquist helped connect the players when they needed it the most.
“She came on and we were kind of functioning as a bunch of individuals; I think we all had our own personal agenda,” Larson said, explaining that Enquist helped them “figure out how to be on the same page.”
Their goal, however, has always been the same: to win the first Olympic volleyball gold medal for the U.S. women. At recent Olympics, the team had come so close. It won silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games, and it won bronze in 2016.
Drews, who is competing at her first Olympics, said winning the gold in Tokyo has been the team’s “whole pursuit.”
“That goal has influenced every decision we’ve made,” she said.
Getting back to the gold medal match was motivation for Akinradewo to return after having a baby boy late in 2019, despite enduring a rough pregnancy. She is still struggling with a severe case of diastasis recti, which is the separation of the abdominal muscles and affects her core strength.
Yet she worked out at home throughout the lockdown and juggled motherhood and breastfeeding with her job as an athlete. In all, she missed three years of playing for the national team before returning to the squad in May. Even then, she worked out separately from the team for most of the time so she could protect her son from possibly being exposed to the coronavirus.
It was especially important for her to keep pressing ahead, Akinradewo said, for more than just a chance at a gold medal.
“There was a journey to get back, but I was determined to do it,” she said. “Part of my desire to do it was I just wanted other moms to know that it’s possible. So I just wanted to do it for them.”
On Friday morning, she also felt that she and her team could win the semifinal for all the moms.
“I woke up and I was like, ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to get it done,” she said. “And I’m glad that came to fruition.”