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Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Updated: August 24, 2:29 AM ET
Phipps returns to Summer Games after 16 years

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The requests kept coming from the United States women's volleyball team, so Keba Phipps finally returned. She only wishes she had accepted the invitation sooner.

"Who knows how many gold medals I would've already won?" Phipps said.

It's been 16 years since she last played in the Summer Games, but Phipps is back on the Olympic stage -- and driven to guide the Americans to their first gold.

When she rejoined the national team in 2002, ending a 12-year absence, Phipps created what has since become one of the globe's best outside hitting tandems with former Stanford star Logan Tom. After an inexperienced U.S. squad finished a surprising fourth place in Sydney, medal hopes are high in Athens.

And at 35, this is more than likely the last chance for Phipps get a gold one draped around her neck.

"I'm trying not to think that I'm at the Olympics," she said. "That kind of rattles my nerves."

The last time Phipps played with the whole world watching was 1988, in Seoul, when she started all five matches as a free-spirited, 19-year-old Californian facing a great future in the sport. Two years later, though, a random drug test showed marijuana in her system. She was suspended from the national team, which then had a first-offense policy.

Did she think it was fair?

"That was the rule," she said. "I broke a rule. And I paid for it."

Angry at USA Volleyball, Phipps left the country and began a professional career in the Italian league.

"They actually asked me back a few months later," Phipps said. "I was kind of hostile."

She started making good money, developed her game against some of the world's top talent, learned a new culture and language and matured as a person and a player -- earning several honors and team titles.

"I really learned a lot about there about myself," she said.

The first time Phipps seriously considered coming back was before the Atlanta Games in 1996.

"Then I heard that the girls on the team didn't really want me to come back," she said. "I didn't want no drama, you know? So I decided against it."

Tara Cross-Battle, now playing in her fourth Olympics, joined Phipps Italy in 2002 and started planting another seed. The team and the coaching staff, by then, was a lot different.

"I just told her that we had a chance to have a lot of success, and it would be great for her to be a part of it," Cross-Battle said. "I'm really, really happy she's been able to have another opportunity."

Coach Toshi Yoshida, an assistant on the 2000 Olympic team who took over the program a few months later, had no problem working Phipps back into the mix. He was, after all, one of the biggest reasons why she came back.

"I treated everybody the same, young ones and old ones," Yoshida said. "She was willing to work hard, even harder than the younger ones."

Phipps can only wonder what could have been, had she been able to bypass her bitterness.

"I regret not coming back sooner," Phipps said. "I think I was a lot stronger player back then. In the '90s, I was unstoppable. ... When you have too much pride, sometimes that hinders it. So I learned.

"I was making a lot of money overseas, doing half the work. On the national team you're working out all day, every day -- traveling all over the world. I figured, 'Why do I need to go back?"'

Phipps was told in Seoul by an athlete from Senegal that her full name, Prikeba, is African for "ancient queen." Her current age backs that up, although it's hard to tell on the court.

Phipps and her wiry 6-foot-3 frame have appeared just as graceful and powerful as the other, younger hitters in this tournament. Playing with her hair in dreadlocks, a silver stud piercing her skin between the lower lip and chin and trendy-looking protective goggles to protect an old eye injury, Phipps posted 11 kills and five blocks for the Americans in Monday's win over Germany.

She acknowledges, however, it's not as easy for her as it might look -- especially when she's training in the gym with her teammates. It isn't 1988 anymore.

"We probably work a lot harder now," Phipps said. "Maybe we did the same kind of workouts, but it was easier because I was younger. Now I feel like I'm dying."