US stars Akinradewo, Larson glad they stayed for Olympics
ABS-CBN Sports on Aug 16, 2016 02:01 PM
United States' Jordan Larson passes the ball during a women's preliminary volleyball match against China at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
JANIE McCAULEY, AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — So stung by a devastating defeat to Brazil in the championship match of the London Games four years ago, silver medalists Foluke Akinradewo and Jordan Larson each contemplated walking away for good from the U.S. national team and skipping another Olympic cycle.
One by one, something slowly pulled each woman back to join new coach Karch Kiraly and support his plan for Rio de Janeiro.
"I took the summer off for the most part to re-evaluate and make sure I still loved the game, and I did, so I came back," Akinradwo said, "and I'm really happy I did."
Despite the deep sense of hurt after failing as the undeniable favorites, she and Larson knew one thing: They had to go for it again and chase that elusive gold medal they knew was oh-so-close before calling it a career.
And everybody involved realizes how much these two mean for the top-ranked and unbeaten Americans (5-0) in Brazil as they prepared to take on Japan in Tuesday's quarterfinals. The hard-hitting, high-flying Akinradewo is a menacing force at the net. The businesslike, reliable Larson is a steady presence in the lineup match after match.
"They're a part of building and laying the foundation for the culture that we've created," captain Christa Dietzen said.
By late summer of 2013, Akinradewo had undergone shoulder surgery and would stop by the team's Orange County headquarters about once a week to check in, work out and just say hello. Larson, too, by then had decided to give it another chance, eager to follow Kiraly's lead.
That part was easy.
"I was pretty sad with how London ended and just whether I wanted to continue my career at all. That's where I was at and I liked what Karch was doing and what the girls were trying to do," Larson recalled. "I really wanted to be a part of that. I thought it was going to be a cool thing."
Akinradewo is 28, and Larson 29. Both women have considered their aspirations for life beyond volleyball.
Yet those goals can wait for at least another week.
"I love that our players are just all in giving it another shot here. Ultimately they have to make their own decisions, so Jordan went through a process of pondering, mulling and weighing the options to play more and Foluke, too," Kiraly said.
Aside from her pure athleticism, Akinradwo's playful nature has been a positive. She has a signature move she'll break into every so often called the "calf dance," including obliging teammate Courtney Thompson on the 94th day counting down to Rio by taping a '9' on one leg and '4' on the other. Akinradewo does it "to show them off when she's not self-conscious" about her lower legs, Kiraly said.
"Those two, I can't say enough good things. It gives me chills thinking about it," setter Courtney Thompson said. "They get their team going. There's no better two that lead by example than Jordan and Foluke. Those two have a really powerful energy, and they set the tone."
Akinradewo, a former Stanford star, is so thankful she decided to stick with it. Missing out playing with this tight-knit group would have been a major mistake.
"If I would have retired from volleyball I would have been missing out on some great things. I'm just really honored and humbled to be part of this group, absolutely."
Larson has only one small request.
"I just wish she would give me some of her vertical," Larson said, "just a little bit."