Washington will retire Courtney Thompson's jersey on Sunday during intermission of the match against Colorado.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – They said she was too short to play Pac-10 volleyball. Then all she did was lead the Huskies to their first NCAA championship as the national player of the year.
They said the 5-foot-8 dynamo couldn’t beat out more towering setters to make the United States Olympic team. She now owns a silver medal from the 2012 London Games.
And when Courtney Thompson was a sports nut going to Husky basketball and volleyball games with her family while growing up in the Seattle suburb of Kent, even while she was starring for the Huskies, she always looked to the rafters of Hec Edmundson Pavilion – but never pondered having a presence there.
“I definitely looked up there, but it never crossed my mind,” Thompson said this week. “I couldn’t even imagine having my name up there.”
She can now.
Sunday – a day before her 29th birthday -- Thompson and her purple, Huskies No. 3 will join Brandon Roy’s No. 3 and Bob Houbregs’ No. 25 of UW basketball as the three retired jerseys hanging from the top of 86-year-old Hec Ed.
The third-ranked Huskies (17-1, 9-1 Pac-12 halfway through the conference season) are honoring the undeniable, endearing, dominant Thompson at halftime of their 3 p.m. match at Alaska Airlines Arena against Colorado (14-6, 6-4). The Buffaloes are the only team to beat the Huskies this season.
Even though she’s known for months of the honor – she joins national-champion softball ace Danielle Lawrie this fall as the only women to have their jerseys retired in over a century of Husky athletics – Thompson was genuinely blown away when reached by telephone Wednesday.
“Yeah … man! I can’t even … it’s overwhelming – and so humbling,” Thompson said with a sigh from San Francisco, where she was visiting friends on her way from southern California to Seattle. “This is such an honor.
“U-Dub is such a big part of my life. To think I get to be part of it forever … wow, it means a lot. I can’t even wrap my head around this.
“It’s just so special.”
“It’s a cool feeling to see the program get to where it is today, knowing you had a part in that. Everybody’s who’s ever played for the Huskies has had a part in that."
The feeling with UW volleyball – heck, all of Husky athletics -- is mutual.
“We talk about developing the intangibles. Courtney more than any player I’ve ever coached, men or women, had incredible intangibles, had this invisible energy and a work ethic that was second to none,” Jim McLaughlin, the Huskies’ coach for the last 13 years, said. “We tell our kids to be who you are, and become who you want to become, and Courtney did that in the truest sense.
“She knew who she was. She knew her strengths and weaknesses. She was proud of them and she competed with them. She didn’t listen to outside opinions and she didn’t get knocked off her course.”
McLaughlin said those unique intangibles turned Thompson into a self-made star. She became a three-time All-American who won the Honda Award as the national player of the year as a junior. As a senior she set the Pac-10 record for career assists with 6,552, third-most in Division-I history – and more than 1,200 better than any other Husky’s ever had. She holds the NCAA record for career assists per set, 14.56.
No wonder her Huskies went to three Final Fours over her Washington career.
“She became the greatest setter in the country. She outworked people in every way, shape, and form,” McLaughlin said. “Every day was a great day just being around her, in practice, in big matches.
“Even when she went trick-or-treating with my kids,” the coach said, “that was a great day.”
Through she’s been an Olympian and recently resumed training with the national team in southern California to begin the cycle for the 2016 Olympics, even though she’s played professionally for the last half-dozen years from Puerto Rico to Switzerland, she remains a huge Husky fan.
The first text of congratulations McLaughlin saw on his phone following Washington’s big win last Sunday at USC was from Thompson.
That was a day after Thompson was at Husky Stadium to watch the football team rout California in the homecoming game. It was her second home football game this season. She stood in the torrential rains of Sept. 28’s game against Arizona, when UW honored her, champion golfer Nick Taylor, dominant baseball pitcher Tim Lincecum and Lawrie for having their Husky jerseys retired.
Sunday will be the first time she’s seen this season’s Husky volleyball team play in person.
“I can’t wait to see the girls play,” she said. “I love this team.”
Thompson is weighing a contract offer from a team in Switzerland, for which she could begin play next month or in January.
Or she may stay in southern California to train. The grind of eight-month seasons half a world away has worn some on her.
“I’m just being a little more picky this time,” she said. “I usually get jobs on the bottom teams of top leagues. I feel I’ve fought that battle a lot. I’ve done that for six, seven years internationally now. So I feel if it’s not beneficial to me and my game, I’d rather not leave behind my family and do that for eight months this time.”
As for another shot at the Olympics, that’s a grind Thompson has already re-started. She began training with national-team members in May.
“She became the greatest setter in the country. She outworked people in every way, shape, and form,” McLaughlin said. “Every day was a great day just being around her."
This go-around she is empowered by having proven the doubters wrong yet again to become a silver medalist in London last summer.
“It’s absolutely a clean slate. But I know what I can do,” she said of making another Olympic team. “Personally, I’m in a different place this time around.”
Sunday, she’ll be back in the place she’s called home for all her 29 years, only this time her name and jersey will be going up to hang in her hometown arena forever. She’ll be back to where she helped build a national volleyball powerhouse with McLaughlin through determination and more than a little bit of skill.
“You know, I feel so lucky. I came in at a perfect time, his third year when he was just getting the program rolling,” Thompson said of her Huskies’ coach. “I do feel like our teammates and I, we set a standard. It’s expected now that U-Dub goes to Final Fours and wins championships.
“It’s a cool feeling to see the program get to where it is today, knowing you had a part in that. Everybody’s who’s ever played for the Huskies has had a part in that.
“We are a family.”