By Mitch Phillips
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – American women’s volleyball captain Christa Dietzen is buzzing at the prospect of playing in one of the sport’s heartlands but, with the U.S. having lost to Brazil in the last two Olympic finals, there is some steel behind the Rio love-in.
Dietzen played in the number-one ranked team who beat Brazil in the group phase four years ago only to get blown away in the final. The U.S. also lost to the same rivals in the Beijing gold medal decider.
Volleyball is Brazil’s most successful Olympic sport and the atmosphere for the tournament is likely to be second-to-none when the action gets underway on Saturday.
“Rio loves volleyball and we are all really excited to compete on this stage,” Dietzen told a news conference soon after the team’s arrival on Monday.
“I’ve played here three or four times. The fans were so passionate and loud with their drums, horns and cheering. When I stepped off court in the time out I couldn’t hear myself think.
“I thought that was awesome and because they have so much knowledge of the game they respect good volleyball.”
Dietzen, however, is not here to enjoy the atmosphere and go home a happy loser.
She says the team have learned the lessons of 2012 when they were “not really pushed” in the group stage and took the first set of the final, only to be blown away by a “Brazilian storm.”
“We went away and evaluated what had happened and understood that the team needs to handle adversity better,” she said.
“We have a very competitive pool this tem and wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think we are better prepared for that challenge and that’s changed since 2012.”
Helping mould the team into a group better able to deal with setbacks is the arrival of Karch Kiraly as head coach, having been an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon four years ago.
Kiraly, the only person to have won Olympic gold in beach and indoor volleyball and voted the sport’s player of the 20th century, led the team to their first world title two years ago and hopes to end “50 years of hurt” by doubling up with a first Olympic gold.
“This is probably going to be the best volleyball Olympics ever with this country so volleyball crazy – it will be an amazing atmosphere,” said Kiraly, a gold medalist indoors in 1984 and 1988 and beach winner in 1996.
“Brazil have a lot of advantages here. They have a lot of players with experience of winning Olympics, players and staff, and now they get to be host.
“We lost a great five setter to them in the grand prix final last month and we know anyone who wants to beat them needs to do something special.”
Kiraly, however, like all modern coaches, is not looking any further than the team’s opening game against Puerto Rico.
“We’d love to win the gold medal but we have a really competitive pool and that’s our focus,” he said.
“We want to do it (win gold) but I don’t know if it we can do it in 100 years or in less than a month.
“One thing I do know though is that the more we think about it, the less likely it is to happen.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)