U.S. women’s volleyball team defeats Serbia to advance to gold-medal match

This one’s for you, baby.

A first gold medal for the U.S. women’s volleyball team probably wouldn’t excite the individual who should be the team’s biggest fan, and also happens to fit into onesies.

“He watches a little bit and is like, ‘Oh, Mama,’” said that mama, middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, “but he has no idea.”

Little Kayode, all of 20 months old, certainly will grasp the significance of this moment one day. His mother’s team will play for the championship of these Tokyo Olympics on Sunday after blitzing Serbia 25-19, 25-15, 25-23 in a semifinal Friday at Ariake Arena.

It was a thorough dismantling of the same team that had handed the Americans their only loss in 2016 in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on the way to the bronze medal, a five-set defeat that U.S. coach Karch Kiraly described as “an absolute soul-crusher.” Gunderson suffered a knee injury in the first set of that match, sidelining her until the consolation round two days later.

The 33-year-old’s return for a third Summer Games was hardly assured. During her pregnancy, she had a common separation of her abdominal muscles that robbed her of core strength before she gave birth in November 2019.

The day she was scheduled to resume jumping as part of her return, the pandemic lockdowns started. That confined workouts to her garage between breastfeeding sessions.

When the team finally resumed its training together, Gunderson completed a routine separate from her teammates that was specially designed to assist her return from pregnancy. It all deepened her resolve to keep playing.

“I was determined to do it,” Gunderson said, “and part of my desire to do it was I just wanted other moms to know that it’s possible.”

Kiraly said his staff figured if there was one player who could have returned eight months after giving birth it was Gunderson. The yearlong postponement of the Summer Games only enhanced her comeback.

“She would have pulled it off even if she didn’t get those extra 12 months,” Kiraly said. “But having that extra time, I think, means that she’s much better now. … She would have been very rushed to try to get ready for last year’s Games.”

After struggling early in the tournament, Gunderson was among the team’s standouts Friday. Her serves led to four consecutive points in the first set and her blocking continually thwarted the Serbians’ comeback efforts.

She also ended the only drama, at the end of the opening set. The Serbians survived four consecutive set points before a Gunderson smash provided the winning point. The outcome seemed assured long before the opportunistic DJ played Queen’s “Hammer to Fall” before match point.

Gunderson’s big day started with a premonition she shared with teammates on the way to breakfast.

“I envisioned us being clinical about it and executing the game plan,” Gunderson said, “and it was just nice to see it come to life.”

After winning three silver medals and two bronzes in its 11 previous appearances at the Olympics, all that stands between the Americans and a golden breakthrough is a victory over Brazil on Sunday.

Having deftly blended a roster featuring eight first-time Olympians and a handful of veterans such as Gunderson, the Americans have rolled to back-to-back straight-set victories, putting them on the verge of history.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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