Watch: Kerri Walsh Jennings interview

October, 10, 2012

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings stopped by SportsCenter on Wednesday to discuss the road ahead:

It’s a party at Horse Guards Parade. Kitschy dancers in beachwear, conga lines, the Macarena. Beer. The only things missing are Frankie and Annette.

And no group of fans is embracing this raucous nightly bash disguised as a world-class volleyball tournament like the Gibb family, the parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, in-laws, son and wife of Jake Gibb, one half of the only U.S. men’s team remaining in the tournament.

“They’re usually a pretty conservative bunch,” Gibb said after he and partner Sean Rosenthal won their round of 16 match against Russians Konstantin Semenov and Serguei Prokopiev. Gibb comes from a Mormon family and most of his family members don’t drink alcohol or, for the most part, attend sporting events half-naked and wearing sparkly wigs. “I dunno. I guess you get them to London and they go a little bit wacky.”

[+] EnlargeGibbs family
Courtesy Gibb familyThe family of Jake Gibb (this is less than half of those who came to London) has made its presence known at the beach volleyball venue.

Gibb is the youngest of 11 children, and nine of his 10 siblings traveled to London to fill seats in the family section -- although they don’t use them much for sitting. Gibb’s twin brother, Coleman, who’s older by 30 minutes, showed up at Saturday’s game wearing jeans; a red, white and blue top hat; and body paint. His brother-in-law Kevin Ditty, who’s married to Gibb's sister Marali, was wearing face paint and a volleyball hat. To be clear: That’s an actual volleyball worn as a hat.

“People probably think we’re drunk,” said his sister Larali Miller, who opted for a fluffy red wig and a flag face decal. “But we’re just high on excitement.”

Larali’s the Ticketmaster of the family. Saturday morning, no one in the family had a ticket to that night’s match. After she worked her magic, 12 Gibbs were holding party tickets. Jake’s wife, Jane, also has been juggling tickets, as well as an 11-month-old son.

“She’s going to need a vacation after this,” Jake said.

His nieces, Shayla Gibb and Jenna Davis, who wore their USA T-shirts and red-and-white star sunglasses for Saturday night’s match, have become stars themselves, JumboTron regulars picked up nightly by the venue’s dance cam.

The venue has a dance cam.

“This is similar to what tournaments are like in America, but the energy here is just incredible,” said Byron Mickle, Jake’s brother-in-law. (He’s married to Valerie.) “The crowd, the music, the dancing, the atmosphere is just awesome.”

“The crowds here are just way more into it,” said brother John Gibb. “When the announcer says, ‘Feel free to sing along,’ people sing along. When they start a conga line, people participate. They’re not too cool to take part, like they would be at home.”

Until a month ago, not one member of the Gibb family had a plane ticket, hotel reservation or tickets to the events. But when Jake qualified for his second straight Olympics, the Gibb clan decided it wasn't going to miss seeing him play this time around and the mad scramble to book a two-week family trip for 32 began.

“It’s humbling, it’s amazing,” Jake Gibb said. “A few of them came to Beijing, but this time, they’ve got wigs on, their chests are painted. And my wife has been a champ, dealing with tickets and our baby boy. She is going to need some TLC when we get home.”

And possibly some paint remover.

Looking beyond the bikinis

July, 25, 2012

With so much fuss over the bikinis the women wear in beach volleyball, what about what the men wear? Would it bring more attention to the men’s game if, instead of board shorts and tank tops, they wore nothing more than a very tight Speedo?

“I think it would, but I don’t think it would be a positive effect,’’ 2008 gold medalist Todd Rogers said with a laugh. “It just doesn’t look as beautiful. The reality is men are driven more by their vision and women are not, so I just don’t think it would help. I’ve practiced in Brazil where the Brazilians are wearing Speedos and it just doesn’t look good. To see a guy’s package is just not the same.

“I would fight that tooth and nail, quite frankly.’’

OK, maybe the Speedo is a little over the top. But perhaps losing the shirts for a “Top Gun’’ effect?

“We argue for that all the time,’’ April Ross said. “Men have such amazing bodies, too. They shouldn’t be wearing tank tops. Give them shorts and make them go without a shirt.’’

The bikinis became a topic when it was announced earlier this year that women can wear sleeved tops or full-body suits at the Olympics if they wish.

“We think it’s a great thing for the sport,’’ said Ross’ partner, Jen Kessy. “We want women of all different religions and from across the world to play our sport. To not be able to play because of the attire is not OK for use. So for them to wear more modest attire is great.

“We’re not uncomfortable in our bikinis. We grew up in southern California, and that’s what you wear in the summertime, from when you’re a little kid until now. That’s the most comfortable thing for us to wear. We can stylize our bikinis the way we want; they can be bigger, they can be smaller. It’s what we’re comfortable wearing. And if it is cold, we can put clothes on.’’

And they might have to occasionally. Many matches will be held in the evening, with some scheduled to run close to 11 at night. The weather hasn’t been an issue so far this hot, sunny week, but it could be if the climate returns to the cool, wet pattern that has persisted over London much of the summer.

Either way, the American men and women are strong gold-medal candidates. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won gold in both 2004 and 2008 before separating as a team briefly, then coming back together for the London Games. They are third in the Olympic rankings behind Brazil’s Larissa and Franca and Juliana Silva and China’s Xue Chen and Zhang Xi. Kessy and Ross are ranked fourth.

Told that Silva dreams of playing her in the Olympic final, May-Treanor replied, “I have a dream that I beat her in the Olympic finals.’’

Rogers and partner Phil Dalhausser won gold in Beijing and are first in the Olympic rankings, with fellow Americans Jake Gibb And Rosenthal No. 4.

The two said they feel less pressure than 2008 because they already have a gold medal and will try to enjoy the entire Olympic experience a little more than in Beijing. “I look at this as a great opportunity to add the cherry on top and the whipped cream and all the extra sprinkles,’’ Rogers said. “Having Misty and Kerri be our guides through all this has motivated us, and we’ve copied what they’ve done.’’

May-Treanor and Walsh are trying to become the first pair to win three consecutive gold medals in beach volleyball in what Misty said will be her final tournament.

“We obviously want to go for No. 3, but you still have to enjoy the process. You have to enjoy every moment you’re on the sand,’’ she said. “For me, this is my last Olympics, so I’m going to enjoy the journey. I’m going to enjoy every practice. I’m going to take everything in. I’m going to let the blinders open. … So for me, this is the little condiments you’re adding. Not sprinkles. This is my hot chocolate.’’

Aside from the marathon and road cycling route, beach volleyball has the best venue of the Olympics. Although Olympic Park lacks character and is far to the east of central London, the beach volleyball court is at the Horse Guards Parade grounds near some of the city’s most historic and hallowed locations, such as Parliament, Big Ben and No. 10 Downing Street. It should make for a very interesting contrast.

“That’s what our sport is all about,’’ Ross said. “We like to go to places where it’s a little bit shocking for people. That draws them in, and then once they see the athleticism of our sport, they’re hooked on it. So I think the clash will bring some people in who want to see it, and that’s why they event is so popular. And then hopefully we gain lifetime fans because they truly appreciate.

“We feel so blessed to play there. It’s such an historic site, and I think we got the best location of the Olympics.’’

LONDON -- U.S. women's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon knows the questions are going to come. So, too, does his captain Lindsey Berg. But that doesn't mean they have to, or want to, talk about it.

It was four years ago when McCutcheon's father-in-law was murdered at a popular Beijing tourist site the day after opening ceremonies, four years since McCutcheon then gathered himself and coached the U.S. men to an emotionally charged upset victory against Brazil for the squad's first gold medal in 20 years. This is a new team. A new city. A new Olympic Games. It's time to move on.

Returning to the Olympics won't be some sort of a cathartic experience for the native New Zealander. His focus is elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeHugh McCutcheon
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty ImagesHugh McCutcheon has been coaching the U.S. women's volleyball team since December 2008.

"When I say it doesn't matter, obviously it matters," McCutcheon said Tuesday. "But it's not part of this story. That whole side of things is very personal. It was dealt with off of this stage, that's for sure. From a professional point of view, that's the connection. But our stuff from a family point of view isn't on the world stage. The volleyball side of things is, and that's how it should be."

Berg, who played with McCutcheon's wife, Elisabeth, during the 2004 Athens Games, said McCutcheon hasn't brought up the tragedy once since taking the women's job in December 2008.

"The only time it comes up is when the press brings it up," she said. "I understand it's an interesting topic and it's a tragedy, but we don't talk about it. We never have."

The tale of the U.S. women's team is instead about McCutcheon's "mad scientist experiment," in which he has applied many of his coaching principles he learned from coaching men to the women's game. So far, it has worked, as the U.S. women, who won silver in Beijing, enter the Games as the top-ranked team in the world. The squad begins its quest for gold Saturday against Korea. Though the field is deep, McCutcheon and his team enter the tournament focused and confident.

"I feel we're playing the best volleyball right now," he said. "So bring it on."

Berg noted Tuesday that none of her teammates have used the limited free time they've had to tour London. Instead they've gone for extra treatment, therapy or just spent time together in the village as a team.

"It's a business trip for us," Berg said. "Lucky for us, our business is incredible."

McCutcheon said none of his family members will be traveling with him to these Games (though he does have a sister who lives in London) and insists he is truly ecstatic to be back.

"The one thing I can tell you is that I'm really happy to be here," he said. "I'm glad that I'm part of this Olympics. The experiences I've had are unique, but there are not a lot of people in the world who get to know what it's like to be part of the Olympic movement. I'm just so grateful."

London could potentially be McCutcheon's last Olympics. He already has accepted a job to become the head coach for the University of Minnesota women's team after the conclusion of the Games. Now that he and Elisabeth have two children under the age of 2, family is a major factor.

"My goal in life was to be a dad, not a coach," he said. "And with two young kids, I want to make sure I do right by that. I don't want to raise them on Skype."

The day of the bus crash is a blank space in Stacy Sykora's memory. So is the week before. So are the 11 days afterward, days the three-time U.S. Olympic volleyball player spent in an intensive care unit of a Brazilian hospital, first in a medically induced coma, then conscious but with an uncertain prognosis due to her closed head injury.

That kind of amnesia is usually described as a blessing, and Sykora agreed it's probably best she doesn't have any recollection of the moment last April 12 when the Volei Futuro team bus, en route to a playoff game, skidded in a downpour and tipped over onto its side, shattering the windows and tossing the club's staff and players around like marbles in a tin can.

No one else was seriously injured. One woman had a broken arm, others were bruised and scraped. Sykora's teammates found her face down in a puddle of water. A passing driver offered to take her to the hospital. Two players accompanied her. Her condition, first reported as not serious, quickly deteriorated. Several of her friends from the U.S. national team made their way to Brazil, and the women's volleyball community held its breath.

[+] EnlargeStacy Sykora
Volei Futuro Volleyball ClubStacy Sykora returned to competition in January with her Volei Futuro club in Brazil.

Nine months and a thousand hours of rehab later, the 34-year-old Sykora is playing again and bears no outward sign of trauma, except that she wears more bobby pins in her hair (one side of her head was shaved and her hair is still growing out).

Her career prognosis is still uncertain, but in a telephone interview from Brazil last week, Sykora said she's "in a better mental place than I was before the accident." Her first competitive minutes since the crash came in January. She felt like she had "won the lottery ... I thought I would be nervous, but I was just so happy," she said.

Sykora will play in her accustomed libero (defensive specialist) position with Volei Futuro until April, fly to California via her home state of Texas, and rejoin the national team.

"I'll be there until I make the [Olympic] team or I don't make the team,'' she said, and sighed deeply. "First and foremost, it's about the team. Do I want to go? Yes. But I have to see how I work with this team. There are some great liberos who are fighting for the same position. ... I don't want [the accident] to be for me or against me. Regardless of what happens with me, it's going to be a great USA team."

That serenity didn't descend overnight for the Burleson, Texas, native, a two-time All-American at Texas A&M and 2008 Olympic silver medalist.

Sykora learned just how mysterious brain function can be when she emerged from a three-day coma and, she was later told, spoke Portuguese to the doctor, Italian to her agent and English to her mother at her bedside. She doesn't remember that, or learning to walk again. Her first memory is of circling a date -- April 23 -- on a calendar.

She was released from the hospital in early May, flew back to the United States and spent the summer and part of the fall shuttling between Casa Colina in Pomona, Calif., which specializes in helping patients recover from brain injuries, and the U.S. team's training base in Anaheim.

"They proved to me how important they've always been," Sykora said of her fellow players. "They helped me go from a one to a nine."

But she found it hard to fend off frustration at times. "I was big-time in the past," Sykora said. "I'd think, 'I could have dug that ball before the accident,' or 'I could have run that ball down.'"

[+] EnlargeStacy Sykora
AP Photo/Morry GashStacy Sykora plans to rejoin the U.S. national team in April.

Sykora was able to get fit relatively quickly, but her vision -- one of the things that made her a great libero -- had to be retrained like a muscle that had atrophied. A volleyball sailing through the air would sometimes disappear on her, like the moon ducking behind a cloud. Sykora had to put in long, tedious hours to regain clarity, light contrast and depth perception (and is still doing exercises five times a week). She needed ball touches, and she needed to re-map spatial relationships with her teammates on the court.

When the U.S. team traveled to the World Cup in Tokyo last October and secured an Olympic berth, Sykora wasn't yet ready to play a competitive match. She went back to Brazil and started traveling with the club again; she began dressing for games in December. And Sykora asked her Volei Futuro teammates to fill in the gaps about what had happened last April.

They told her she had been sitting on a teammate's lap, listening to music, when the bus flipped sideways. Everyone else grabbed their seats, but she went into free fall. They told her she was unconscious with her face in the water for perhaps 30 seconds, perhaps a minute; no one could be sure in the chaos of the moment. They told her how she was lifted out through a window and carried away. At one game, a man came up and introduced himself. "I'm the one who took you to the hospital," he said.

One day, boarding the team bus to go to an away match, Sykora insisted on recreating the scene and defiantly plopped down on the same teammate's legs. "I told them, 'I'm looked after now, this is not going to happen again,'" she said.

Everywhere Sykora goes, people tell her she's a walking miracle; but the true transformation has been internal, the kind of emotional depth perception that has nothing to do with 20/20 vision.

"I hope I get to 100 percent, but I'm content with where I'm at," she said. "I'm only focused on today. I don't look to the future at all. The only thing that matters, the only thing I have every day, is 24 hours to do everything I can."


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