Unleashed: UW Olympians Make History, Fulfill Pledge
July 18, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Courtney Thompson was at Disneyland on Tuesday. You know, the "Happiest Place on Earth."
She's basically been there all month.
The former Huskies national champion, All-American setter and national player of the year found out July 3 that she and former UW walkon Tamari Miyashiro are the Huskies' first two Olympic volleyball players -- ever.
They are on the 12-person United States team that is the favorite to win the gold medal in play that begins next weekend at the London Games.
"It's been indescribable," Thompson told me over her cell phone Tuesday. She was still inside Disneyland following a morning parade there honoring the American men's and women's Olympic volleyball teams.
The 27-year-old is renowned for her ferocity on the court. Yet she sounded genuinely giddy - and not because she was talking while standing outside a river-rapids ride at the park where dreams really do come true.
"To reach this goal like this is amazing and rewarding in so many ways," she said of going from a setter supposedly too short for the Pac-10 as a teen from Kent, Wash., to an Olympian. "To represent our country like this, it's humbling.
"But at the same time, I know how hard I've worked. It's humbling, it's crazy ... it's surreal. Really surreal. My favorite thing in life is to compete - and now I get to compete against the world's best, on the biggest stage in the world."
She then paused, as if the enormity of her accomplishment is still hitting her like a spike from above.
"Sorry," she said. "It's just ... awesome."
Of course, their work is far from finished. Thompson and Miyashiro leave Friday with their coaches and 10 teammates for London and next week's start of the 2012 Summer Games. They and five other first-time Olympians on the U.S. roster begin play July 28 against Korea.
My favorite thing in life is to compete - and now I get to compete against the world's best, on the biggest stage in the world.
Two days later they face Brazil in a rematch of the gold-medal showdown the Americans lost in 2008 in Beijing.
But that U.S. volleyball team wasn't what this one is: One-sixth Dawgs.
And UW will have a third member of its 2006 team that reached the NCAA's Final Four competing in London. Janine Sandell, who transferred from UC Santa Barbara for her senior season and was a key outside hitter in `06, made the team for host Great Britain. UW's Olympic trio has been trained by Washington's master preparer-coach Jim McLaughlin, one of the sport's most accomplished, and most unique tacticians.
Now McLaughlin's 12-year-old program is certifiably world class.
How big a deal is this to him?
"In terms of great days as a coach, maybe the greatest day I've had as a coach was when `Court' called and said, `Hey, we made it,'" McLaughlin said in his office Wednesday, minutes before he went back onto the Alaska Airlines Arena court for another session of his UW volleyball summer camps.
"It's the ultimate high for a coach. I mean, hey, this is the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series. The gratification, you can't put into words."
Miyashiro is a defensive ace from Kaneohe, Hawaii, who began training with the national team a couple months after her 2009 senior season at Washington ended. She knows how big a deal these Olympic berths are to Husky volleyball.
She can feel it even amid pre-Olympics preparations and hype in Anaheim.
"It's a really cool feeling to be a part of that history with Courtney. Representing U-Dub has always been a big thing for both of us," she said.
"It's huge. I know it's huge, even though I'm here in the middle of it. That school prepared us for this next step."
Miyashiro proudly says "U-Dub is our school. We talk about it forever. People here get sick of hearing about it."
So, yes, UW's all-time leader in digs is digging what her Olympics spot represents for her Huskies.
"It's just amazing to represent our great school, our great program, our great coach, and our great history," she said Tuesday evening from her home in Anaheim, near Disneyland and U.S. Volleyball's training center. "It's an honor."
It's just amazing to represent our great school, our great program, our great coach, and our great history.
"WE WOULDN'T BE HERE WITHOUT JIM"
For McLaughlin, the Olympic selections are huge validations that further separates Washington's from other top-tier volleyball programs in the U.S.
For Thompson and Miyashiro, it's the fulfillment of a goal McLaughlin set for them on their first days visiting UW's campus many years ago.
"When we first sat down and talked about me coming to Washington, Jim said his goals were to win a national title, graduate every player and prepare his players for our Olympic team," said Thompson, a three-time state champion and valedictorian at Kentlake High School in suburban Seattle.
Thompson's done all that now.
After winning that NCAA title in 2005, she was part of the UW Class of '07 with a degree in business administration. And now she has fulfilled a dream by becoming an Olympian.
"We wouldn't be here without Jim, without that program he built, without that school," the 27-year old said, referring also to Miyashiro. "We are so proud to represent that program internationally.
"Jim teaches really well how to learn. We were all excited there about that process of learning, and we also learned how to truly compete."
McLaughlin is excited that these athletes are living the ultimate fruits of their learning and labor right now. Thompson and Miyashiro are two of the hardest-working Huskies he's ever had.
"The most powerful thing about this whole thing is knowing you do get a return on all your work," McLaughlin said. "They saw it through."
Thompson's fiery competiveness and carried UW's program to its first national title in that magical 2005 season, etching her permanent place in McLaughlin's and Huskies' lore.
But another, overlooked piece of magic happened that year: McLaughlin saw the potential in a walk-on setter and changed her position.
His hunch is why Miyashiro is now an Olympian.
McLaughlin's program needed another libero, and Miyashiro wasn't going to get much playing time the following year at setter with Thompson coming back for a senior season in 2006. So the coach took his freshman aside after a practice and began working on back-line passes.
After that first test, McLaughlin went upstairs to the UW volleyball office and declared to his two assistant coaches: "We have our new libero for the next four years."
Jim teaches really well how to learn. We were all excited there about that process of learning, and we also learned how to truly compete.
"I just liked her so much; she was just learning so fast," McLaughlin said. "I just had to find a way to get her on the floor."
Miyashiro found out she'd made the Olympic team five days before her 25th birthday. She says McLaughlin taught her how to "be a whole volleyball player."
"He taught me how to be focused when you everything - practicing, lifting weights, doing training exercises, studying. He taught me how to be mindful as a whole volleyball player," she said.
"He taught me how to prepare to get to this level. How much time he spent preparing us was ridiculous."
McLaughlin is renowned for his dual white boards that are on the sideline at every practice and at the forefront of every meeting. The intricate dry-erase boards are full of statistical analyses, trigonometry and physics of shots and player placement -- for each Husky practice, let alone matches.
Sure enough, what do you think Miyashiro noticed when she walked onto the floor in Anaheim in early 2010 for her first work with the national team?
"In our gym there are two white boards, and one has a bunch of numbers on it - just like Jim's," said Miyashiro, whose 2,382 digs placed her ninth in national collegiate history and second ever in the conference when her Huskies career ended in 2009. "It's pretty cool to see all the same things we had at U-Dub a couple years back continue here.
"UNDERDOGS" NO MORE
Thompson is going to try to do everything in London but manually chime Big Ben during the Olympics.
"Oh, yeah, that's the plan. On and off the court to make the most of this great opportunity, for sure," she said. "I'm excited about walking in the Opening Ceremony. I'm excited for our first match. Being in the Olympic Village with my teammates and other world-class athletes is going to be really cool. I'm excited for everything."
No wonder. She's been dreaming about this since she was yay tall.
Oh, sorry, the height thing again.
"I'm 5-7 and a little bit," Thompson says, coyly and bit wearily, given it must have been the trillionth time she'd answered that question. "In the real world that's pretty good. But in volleyball that's short."
Short, as in being told for years: "You can't get over the net. You can't block spikes from elite, 6-4 towers. You can't ... you can't ... you can't ..."
Thompson keeps proving she can - through a national championship, the Honda Award as the best college player in her sport and now all the way to the top of world competition in the Olympics.
Thompson and Lindsey Berg, the expected starting setter for the American team, are both listed at 5-8 on the USA Volleyball website. Three other setters in the mix for Olympic bids ranged from 5-9 to 6-feet-tall, but the sacrifice in pure size was made up for by the ability to simply run a team.
"I'm beyond it. There's just a point I realized I'm going to be me," she says. "It's so easy to waste energy worrying about my blocking or whatever. But if I invest in what I am good at - setting - that's what will help my team.
"And that's why we are all here, to help the team be the best."
Miyashiro didn't have the same lifelong Olympic dream. She admits she didn't have the dedication or work ethic to be an elite volleyball player - until she learned it at Washington from McLaughlin. She then noticed when she joined national-team training two years ago that she wasn't all that far from world class.
Then it was just a matter of repetition and experience before she made the U.S. team.
"It's more of a recent thing, to be honest," she said. "I always thought I could be a pretty good libero, but I didn't know what that took to be the best."
McLaughlin is so proud of Thompson and Miyashiro, he is planning to fly to London in the next couple weeks to see a couple U.S. matches. Then he will zip back to Seattle to resume preparing his Huskies for the 2012 season that begins Aug. 24 at home against Boise State.
That's 9,600 miles out and back to see the proud culmination of a process he began with Thompson and Miyashiro nearly a decade ago.
To him, it's the least he can do.
"Courtney and Tama, you know, many considered them underdogs. Nobody expected them to make it," McLaughlin says. "But they stayed the course. They stayed with the process. And now they are in the Olympics - with a chance to win the gold medal, too. I mean, they are on the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
"It's nice, it really is.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.