A few first-time Olympians are providing a huge boost to the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team in London, but none more than Destinee Hooker, 24, who is giving many fans hope that 2012 will be the year the U.S. women will finally capture their first Olympic gold.
On Monday, Hooker, Jordan Larson, and Foluke Akinradewo led the USA women to a 3-1 victory over Brazil in a highly anticipated rematch of their gold medal battle in Beijing. All three U.S. stars are enjoying their first trip to the Olympics.
Although the Brazilians are the defending Olympic champions, the U.S. women are now the No. 1 ranked team in the world. Monday’s win was their sixth straight against the No. 2 Brazilians in international competition. On Saturday they defeated a very tough Korean team in their opening match.
Naturally, the Americans will be severely disappointed with anything less than gold in London.
Hooker led the U.S. on Monday with a match-high 23 points, with 22 kills on 45 swings and a block. Larson added 18 points with 16 kills on 36 attacks and two blocks, and Akinradewo added nine kills on 19 attacks. The four-set match went 25-18, 25-17, 22-25, 25-21.
The hype surrounding Hooker and her U.S. teammates is starting to build in London, with high-profile fans like Kobe Bryant taking in Monday’s action at Earls Court from the stands, and NBC providing them some well-deserved network attention. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Hooker is quite the looker, and most of her teammates could pass for runway models.
But the oncoming hype is likely to be deflected by this crew. What’s proving vital to Team USA is the support the first-timers are getting around them. “They’re so composed when they step out on the court that I even don not realize that this is their first time in the Olympic Games,” says Lindsey Berg, the U.S. captain.
Indeed, the entire team looked composed all the way through Monday’s match.
Team USA came out firing in the first two sets, rallying from a 10-8 deficit in the first game to go on a 6-1 scoring drive that led to a 25-18 win. In the second set Team USA erupted for a 16-7 lead, then cruised to a 25-17 wins. But the Brazilians adjusted in set three, and started to click. Brazil led early, but the U.S. rallied to take a 16-15 lead. Then Brazil scored four of the final five points and hung on for a 25-22 win.
The final set was a close one, but the Americans managed to maintain at least a two-point advantage the entire way.
Brazil finished with the edge in blocks (7-4) and aces (3-0) but were a dozen kills short of the Americans (66-54).
“There were some ups and downs, but we played really well,” Larson said. “We had a tough start, but we found our rhythm. Brazil is always a battle.”
U.S. coach Hugh McCutcheon, who led the U.S. men to the gold medal in Beijing before jumping over to coach the women’s team, believes the chemistry of this squad is golden. He’s being joined on the sidelines by assistant coach Karch Kiraly, who led the U.S. men’s team to three Olympic gold medals as a player. With the power of the young guns and the wisdom of their coaches and peers, things are looking up for the ladies.
The U.S. women face China on Wednesday, in a match that is sure to test them.
Team USA women’s indoor volleyball team (above) has a solid shot at bringing home the gold medal for the first time ever in London, thanks in large part to first-time Olympians Destinee Hooker, (top and middle) and a stellar coaching staff that includes Hugh McCutcheon and Karch Kiraly (in blue). Team USA is gaining a few fans in London, including NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Photos: Gettysportimages/Elsa