Four years ago in Beijing, coach Hugh McCutcheon led the U.S. men to an emotionally charged gold-medal victory over defending champion Brazil.
The U.S. women are his project in London.
The women have never won gold in indoor volleyball, which became an Olympic sport in 1964. In 2008 they came close but fell to Brazil in the final.
There are many who believe that this will be the year for the Americans. The team is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, and qualified early for the Olympics by claiming the silver medal at 2011 World Cup in Japan.
It likely will consist of many of the players who won silver in Beijing, including outside hitter Logan Tom and setter Lindsey Berg. Promising newcomer Destinee Hooker is also vying for one of the 12 spots on the team, which is expected to be announced early in July.
“You don’t back-door your way into being the best at anything. You have to deal with the fact that there are a lot of strong teams out there and you’ve got to be comfortable in that environment. That’s not something we’re afraid of, that’s something we embrace,” McCutcheon said. “We’ll work as hard as we can to be the best we can come London, and we’ll either be good enough or we won’t. But it’s not going to be a whole lot about who is on the other side of the net. It’s going to be about stepping out on the floor and playing USA volleyball to the best of our ability.”
McCutcheon, a New Zealander, took over the women’s team for the Olympic quadrennial and will leave to become head coach at Minnesota after London.
The Beijing Games started with unimaginable tragedy for McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was murdered at a popular tourist attraction in China just before the opening ceremonies. He left the men’s team briefly to be with his family, but rejoined his players in their undefeated march to the gold.
It is not unusual for coaches to flip between national teams. Bernardo Rezende now coaches the Brazilian men after guiding the women’s national team for a decade, and Jose Roberto Guimaraes led the Brazilian women to the gold medal in Beijing, 16 years after doing the same with the men’s team in Barcelona.
The U.S. women have won the silver medal at the Olympics twice, in Beijing and in 1984. The team won bronze at the Barcelona Games in 1992.
The Brazilian women are ranked No. 2 in the word, and as the defending champions they’re considered among the favorites with the United States in London. They’ll both play in the same pool in London along with China, Serbia, Turkey and Korea. Italy, Russia, Japan, Algeria, the Dominican Republic and host Britain make up the other six-team pool.
The top four teams to emerge out of each pool will advance to the quarterfinals. The medal matches at Earls Court are set for Aug. 11.
There was some controversy in the field when Thailand claimed Japan threw an Olympic qualifying match last month against Serbia to avoid landing in the same pool as the United States and Brazil. The FIVB, the sport’s international governing body, rejected the allegations.
The U.S. men, now playing under coach Alan Knipe, are looking to defend their gold medal but it won’t be easy. They’re also in the same pool with Brazil, currently No. 1 in the world, perennial powerhouse Russia, Serbia, Germany and Tunisia. The other pool includes Italy, Poland, Argentina, Bulgaria, Australia and host Britain.
The men’s competition will alternate days with the women’s in London, with men’s medal matches set for Aug. 12.
The Brazilians and Americans, who battled to five sets in the Beijing final, will be closely watched because both teams have a key player who is coming off surgery.
Brazilian Gilberto Godoy Fiho, known universally as Giba, has a titanium rod in his left leg to help heal a tibia fracture. Giba is one of the sport’s most decorated players and helped lead Brazil to the gold medal in Athens in 2004.
Meanwhile, U.S. opposite Clay Stanley, the most valuable player in Beijing, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in December. He had less than two weeks with the U.S. national team to prepare for the NORCECA continental Olympic qualifying tournament held earlier this month in Long Beach. The U.S. team rolled through the event on home soil and swept Canada in the final match to earn the trip to London.
Stanley was the tournament’s MVP.
“Four years is a long time, teams change, dynamics change, coaches change. Each year you gotta put something together and find new rhythm with a new team,” Stanley said afterward. “Usually, the fourth year leading up to the Olympics is the time that these teams come together and gel and I think we’re starting to do that right now.”
Like the women, the men’s side has also encountered some turbulence on the road to London.
Immediately after Bulgaria earned its berth in the Olympics at a qualification tournament in Sophia, the team’s coach and the top player suddenly resigned to protest their country’s leadership of the sport. Coach Radostin Stoychev and spiker Matey Kaziyski have called for the resignation of Bulgarian federation chief Dancho Lazarov.
Lazarov says he will not step down.
“I quit the team because I don’t trust them anymore and I can’t work with them,” Kaziyski was quoted as saying at a press conference.
Stoychev was actually fired by Bulgaria in mid-May but then rehired for the qualification tournament this month on home soil.
Bulgaria was also involved in controversy in Beijing, when team captain Plamen Konstantinov suddenly went home for a drug test, spurring rumors about possible doping. He missed three matches.