Courtney Thompson, who led volleyball teams at Kentlake and the University of Washington, says she "won the lottery when it comes to family."
Courtney Thompson drove to the graveyard alone. She parked in Section 48, then walked down Riverside National Cemetery’s neat rows to the white headstone marked THOMPSON, WOODROW WILSON / CDR, US NAVY / WORLD WAR II, KOREA.
Hey, Gramps. I’ve been thinking about you.
It was May 18, 2012. If he had still been alive, Grandpa Thompson would have turned 99 that day. His granddaughter, wearing her USA Volleyball National Team jacket, pulled out a birthday present.
“A couple of cold beverages,” she remembers. “And I laid down my USA jacket, and I just sat there and had a drink with him. And told him what was going on; how fun it was, how hard it was.”
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She told her grandpa, who died in 1997, how most everyone assumed she had roughly a snowball’s chance in hell to be an Olympian. How just last summer she’d been buried so deep on the Team USA setter depth chart that few would have blamed her if she’d simply quit. How she’d worked so relentlessly since, hoping to persuade USA coach Hugh McCutcheon to include her on the World Grand Prix roster, where 17 athletes would compete for the final 12 Olympic positions. In just six short weeks, she told him, they’d pick the team for London.
You always praised me, Gramps. But it was kinda embarrassing, you know? I mean, you sacrificed absolutely everything so the rest of us could live a wonderful life.
Compared to that, I’ve always felt kinda unworthy.
— * — * —
The city of Kent has long run an impressive kids’ sports program. Courtney Thompson was a product of that system; she played nearly every sport and loved wearing a uniform.
“Since I was little,” Thompson says, “getting gear has been, like, the best day of my year. I remember being in my first full warm-up suit in soccer. And I remember my mom telling me that I couldn’t wear it to school again. Because I wanted to wear that sweatsuit every day.”
From the start, she was usually the best athlete on the field. A moment captured on video shows 9-year-old Courtney dribbling a soccer ball end to end, blowing past defenders, scoring an acrobatic goal with ease.
Her brother, Craig, was seven years older and often her coach. He cut a deal with little Court: He’d give her one star for scoring a goal, and two stars for an assist. She quickly switched gears, sharing glory and endearing herself to her teammates. It carried over to baseball, basketball and — eventually — volleyball. For setters, assists are the most golden of stars.
Craig was different from most coaches. He schooled his kid sister about the mental side of sport: how to think, how to react to adversity, how to carry yourself on the court. And he was always there to talk about other things: school or boys or just plain life.
“I always say I won the lottery when it comes to family,” says Courtney, “’cause Craig has been the best older brother that you could ever ask for.”
Trevor, her other brother, is 2 ½ years older than Courtney. “I grew up emulating everything he did,” she says. “I’d run around, trying to follow him and keep up with him. He’s a super-energetic, competitive person.
“I think I got those things from him.”
These days, Trevor is in the Navy, a veteran of several overseas deployments. He’s a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, just like Courtney’s father, uncle, and Grandpa Cooper, her other granddad. Charles Grafton Cooper was a three-star Marine Corps general, born and raised in Mississippi. During the Korean War, Charlie led his unit up a hill under enemy fire, earning a Silver Star and a lifelong load of embedded shrapnel.
“Growing up, Grandpa Cooper was a little bit intimidating to me, for sure,” Thompson says. “He was a little more old-school. And I think there was a point where he would have liked it if I wore a few more dresses, and was into more girlie things.”
By the time she reached Kentlake High School, Thompson had topped out at 5 foot 8. She turned out for a sport every quarter. She made her high-school volleyball team, and auditioned for a club team.
“There’s this girl who was short and couldn’t really hit like the other players her age,” remembers Dawn Colston. “She had bad hands and bad form.”
But Colston, who would eventually become Thompson’s club coach and close adviser, saw something else.
“Confidence. And leadership. Two skills every great setter needs.”
Thompson’s confidence grew as she led Kentlake to three consecutive state volleyball titles. After the first championship, a newspaper photo featured the strong, toned player flexing and celebrating with an emphatic, wide-open shout.
Courtney was elected student-body president. She was class valedictorian. People liked her because, in life, as in volleyball, she was always dishing out assists.
“Her strength,” says her mother, Linda, “is that she makes people around her better. They know she’s got their backs.”
Even though Thompson was named Washington state player of the year in 2002, few collegiate volleyball powers recruited her. Too short. Small hands.
“It killed me — killed me,” she says. “It adds fuel to the fire. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
At the University of Washington, Jim McLaughlin was taking over a program that had never been among the elite. During his first UW recruiting season, he saw Thompson in action.
“I just got a vibe. I watched her energy. I watched her drive. I watched her compete. And I just loved those things. Those things outweighed her height and her blocking ability and all that stuff.”
They started slowly, but fed off each other’s energy. He taught her everything he knew about footwork, eye work, pace and positioning.
With Thompson as team leader, Washington became one of the nation’s top teams. At UW, volleyball outdraws every other sport, male or female, except football and men’s basketball. During Thompson’s era, the UW won its first volleyball national championship and reached the Final Four three times. After the 2005 season, Thompson was named the best collegiate female volleyball player in America.
And Grandpa Cooper, the Marine Corps general, took note.
“She made him realize that you can be a feminine woman in a feminine world, and yet be confident and athletic,” says Courtney’s father, Steve. “Courtney really changed his entire perspective.”
— * — * —
In 2009, Thompson was in Thailand with the U.S. National Team when the call came: Grandpa Cooper had died. All those years later, the shrapnel he took on that Korean hill had finally claimed his life. He was to be buried at Arlington National Ceremony.
“I called my grandmother, and I was crying,” Thompson says. “I told her I felt I had to leave the team to come to the funeral. She broke down and said, ‘Don’t even think about it. You know your Grandpa would want you to live your dream.’ “
The dream included occasional time with the National Team, plus a decent salary playing pro volleyball, first in Puerto Rico and then in Switzerland. But with each passing year, more wonderful setters were graduating, and all had their eyes on the London Olympics. Several moved ahead of her.
She decided to take a calculated risk: While her main competitors signed with elite European professional leagues, Thompson returned to Puerto Rico. She competed at a lower level but got a chance to lead a team hungry to win.
It worked. She led her underdog club to the Puerto Rican professional championship. Reinvigorated, she returned to the U.S. and fought her way back into the top three.
“She’s always been a great competitor. But she hasn’t always been, technically, a great setter,” says McCutcheon, the USA coach. “And to her credit, she’s worked very hard. And she’s made significant changes. And that’s allowed her to be where she is today.”
Many in the volleyball world were shocked when McCutcheon selected Thompson and Minnesota’s Lindsey Berg as his two Olympic setters, bypassing Penn State’s Alicia Glass. But those who know Thompson best say they are not surprised. She beats the odds, they say, because she lives and breathes old-fashioned values: hard work, and attention to even the smallest details.
“The better you get at something,” says Steve Thompson, “there’s less big stuff to work on. But there’s always small stuff to work on. And that small stuff can really make a difference.”
“To become great is really, really hard,” says McLaughlin. “And Courtney’s standards are frickin’ off the map. There’s nothin’ that kid doesn’t believe she can do. And I love that.”
— * — * —
As she stood up to leave Grandpa Thompson’s headstone, Courtney wished him happy birthday.
It means so much to me, Gramps, to wear the USA flag on my jersey. Because it’s kind of a way that I can say, Hey, I’m representing this country, too. I’m able to play a sport for a living, you know? And I’m representing all that is good about this amazing country and what my grandpas sacrificed for.
As she headed back to her car, she left her USA Volleyball jacket behind on his grave. She had never felt worthy of her grandpas’ praise. Maybe now, though, she’d earned it.
Jack and Leslie Hamann produce The Seattle Times News Partner site Volleyblog Seattle, http://volleyblogseattle.