The fact that the U.S. volleyball roster includes three who play setter is a source of pride for some — and controversy for others. And the 31-year-old Courtney Thompson will undoubtedly be a big part of the story, whether the U.S. finally wins its first women’s volleyball Olympic gold, or if it does not.
Alicia Glass sat in Hec Ed Pavilion’s bleachers and stared. On the court below, Ohio State had just scored a point against Washington in a 2006 NCAA volleyball tournament match. As a Buckeyes player retreated to the service line, Washington senior setter Courtney Thompson stood defiantly below the referee stand, debating the official’s previous call. She argued emphatically. Persistently. Long and loud enough to draw a yellow card.
Glass, then a freshman setter, was preparing to lead her Penn State team against Washington the next night for the right to advance to the 2006 Final Four. A decade later, she remembers how her coach, Russ Rose, reacted to Thompson’s tirade.
“He says, ‘Did you see that? That’s a leader right there. Do you see that passion? Do you see how she fires up her teammates? That’s how you need to be as a leader.’”
Courtney Thompson file
High School: Kentlake
Twitter handle: @CourtLThompson
Three years earlier, in those same bleachers, a prized high-school recruit out of San Diego named Carli Lloyd also stared in wonder. She, too, was a setter, and couldn’t keep her eyes off Thompson, then the freshman captain of the Huskies. The fierceness. The pumped fists.
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“It was the first time I had ever seen her play,” Lloyd said. “And I looked around and said to someone, ‘I want to be her.’ Man, I just idolized her.”
Next Saturday, Thompson, Glass and Lloyd will all step onto the Summer Olympics volleyball court at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanãzinho Arena for the U.S. national team. The fact that the U.S.’s 12-woman roster includes three who play setter is a source of pride for some — and controversy for others — as the world’s top-ranked team tries to win gold in the most volleyball-mad city in the world.
And the 31-year-old Thompson will undoubtedly be a big part of the story, whether the U.S. finally wins its first women’s volleyball Olympic gold, or — especially — if it does not.
Thompson and Minnesota alum Lindsey Berg were the two setters on the U.S. Olympic roster in 2012. The team was packed with talent, and as it faced Brazil for the gold medal, the Americans hadn’t lost a single match the entire year. The U.S. dominated the first set, but then lost the last three to drop the match.
As the winners celebrated, Thompson and her teammates stood in shock. By many measures, the more talented team had lost.
“Talent took us far,” Thompson said. “But what we weren’t able to do is help each other in tough moments. When we got pushed, we didn’t know how to have each other’s backs.”
The following summer, the 5-foot-8 Thompson eagerly returned to the women’s national team, thrilled that Karch Kiraly had been elevated to head coach. Berg had retired, but there were new setters in the mix, and Thompson was left off the roster for almost every major 2013 international tournament. U.S. setter coach Tom Black recalls how Thompson grew increasingly anxious and unhappy.
One day, said Black, “Courtney was crying and frustrated and upset. So I took her into the cafeteria for lunch. I remember saying, ‘Hey, Courtney, it’s never gonna be easy for you. Ever. You don’t have anywhere near the physical gifts to think you can just cruise. If you’re gonna stay here, it’s gonna be hard. All the time. You gotta accept that.’ ”
Said Thompson: “I never thought I could just cruise in, but what Tom said was absolutely true. He reminded me that I’m a fighter, and that I gotta keep throwing punches.”
But as summer 2016 began, despite international and national-team success for Thompson, there seemed just as many reasons Kiraly might include her on the Rio roster as arguments he should not. The U.S.’s starting setter, Glass, had been battling back from injury, providing openings for Lloyd and for a young setter out of Missouri named Molly Kreklow.
As June turned to July, it was clear that Glass was once again healthy, and that Lloyd was coming on strong. Thompson was on the roster, but stayed mostly on the bench.
And yet, Thompson on the bench is a sight to behold. After nearly every rally, she leads the other five players not currently on the court in raucous cheers. During timeouts, she offers advice to her fellow setters, then focuses on a player or two for a quick pep talk. She’s been on the national team for 149 matches and is the oldest player on the roster.
“I’ve done the work,” Thompson said, “and I’ve prepared in a way that I feel like any moment I could be on the court and competing and helping our team win the next point.”
But more than a few eyebrows were raised when Kiraly decided that one of the 12 slots on this year’s Olympic roster should go to a third setter instead of a second libero or a fourth outside hitter.
“Courtney,” Kiraly said, “galvanizes this team.”
When Kiraly told Lloyd she had made the Olympic cut, Lloyd shed tears of joy. When Kiraly then asked if she had any questions, “The only question I had for Karch was, ‘What does this mean for Courtney?’ Because I couldn’t imagine this team without her. She’s so much more than a volleyball player to all of us. She’s like a light, and she spreads it everywhere she goes.”
About a year ago, Thompson decided she’d retire after these Olympics, whether or not she made the roster, whether or not the team wins gold. That said, she fully expects victory in Rio. But after her long career, she expects something more.
“If there’s anything I hope people see when we compete,” Thompson said, “it’s the joy that we’re playing with and how present we are, despite what’s going on around us.”