Meet The U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team As They Tune Up For Tokyo
by David Seigerman
“We’re extremely grateful for the extra time that the Olympic postponement provided,” said U.S. coach Karch Kiraly, who led the team to a bronze medal in the 2016 Games. “Our core group of 23 Women’s National Teamers has done amazing work in the last 14 months, setting us up for phenomenal trust, connection, purpose and performance.”
Team USA will be among the gold-medal favorites when the women’s indoor volleyball competition gets underway on July 24. The squad will feature a lineup composed of four returning Olympians, and a host of first-timers who bring valuable international experience to the Games.
Perhaps, the premier middle blocker in the world, Akinradewo Gunderson will be competing in her third Olympics. She won a silver medal in London in 2012, and added a bronze in Rio in 2016.
Volleyball fans in the States have been familiar with Akinradewo Gunderson, 33, since her days at Stanford, where she was the AVCA National Player of the Year in 2007 and finished her college career with the highest hitting percentage in NCAA history.
But the fans in Japan will recognize her name and her game as well. She’s played several seasons for Hisamitsu Springs, and was named the MVP of the Japanese V.League following the 2018-19 season.
Bartsch-Hackley nearly made her Olympic debut in 2016. She was considered Team USA’s next-best outside hitter behind the three that were named to the roster for the Rio Games. Bartsch-Hackley was an alternate, and then in 2017, was recognized as the Most Improved Player on the women’s national team.
Bartsch-Hackley, 31, played her college volleyball at Illinois, where she led her team to its first NCAA championship game appearance. The Illini lost to UCLA in that title match, but Bartsch-Hackley does have an NCAA ring on her resume — she was a volunteer assistant coach for the men’s team at UC Irvine, which won the national championship in 2013.
Bartsch-Hackley went to high school in Collinsville, Illinois, home of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle and the self-proclaimed Horseradish Capital of the World. Unsurprisingly, she has an affinity for food, and has launched a cooking and baking website (http://www.makeeatbake.com/) that shares meals she has encountered in her volleyball-fueled world travels.
Drews joined Team USA in the summer of 2017, the year after the Rio Games. She was a late add to the program that season, as she had to wait for the completion of the playoffs in the Puerto Rico professional league. But once she arrived on the scene, Drews began to establish herself as a force at Opposite.
Drews, 27, had her breakout season in 2019, when she was named Most Valuable Player at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, Best Opposite at the FIVB World Cup, and USA Volleyball’s Female Indoor Player of the Year.
That Hancock eventually would land a spot on Team USA’s Olympic roster has long seemed inevitable.
Hancock, 28, began her trajectory as a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year as a high schooler in Oklahoma. She went to Penn State, where she first was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and then the conference’s Setter of the Year during her first two collegiate season. She then led Penn State to back-to-back NCAA championships, earning tournament Most Outstanding Player honors as a junior and the AVCA National Player of the Year award as a senior.
The accolades have continued to roll in since joining the U.S. national team in 2016. Hancock was the MVP and named Best Server at the 2017 Pan American Cup; at the same event two years later, she was the MVP and Best Setter.
When she decided to audition for the national team in an open tryout back in 2013, Hill already had a unique distinction to her credit. During her time at Pepperdine, she became the first college player to earn AVCA All-American honors in both indoor and beach volleyball.
The honors have rolled in for the outside hitter ever since.
Hill, 31, has been named Best Spiker at the FIVB World Championship (2014 – when she also was named Most Valuable Player) and FIVB Volleyball Women’s Club World Championship (2019), the World Grand Prix (2016), as well as at the CEV Champions League three times. She also was the MVP of the Turkish league for the 2015–16 season.
Hill is one of four Olympians returning for Team USA from the 2016 Games.
Growing up in Fremont, Nebraska — a town of roughly 830 residents — it would have been impossible for Larson to imagine where her volleyball career would take her.
It started at Nebraska, where she won an NCAA championship in 2006, and later became the first woman in Big 12 history to be named the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
She’s won gold medals at the World Grand Prix, the NORCECA Championship, the FIVB World Championship and the FIVB Volleyball Nations League. Earlier this year, she was the champion of the inaugural season of the Athletes Unlimited professional volleyball league based in the U.S.
Larson, 34, is now the oldest player on the 2020 Olympic roster, and will be competing in her third Games for Team USA.
By the time her college career ended at Texas, no player in the program’s history had more blocks or block assists than Ogbogu, a three-time first-team AVCA All-American.
Ogbogu, 26, made her debut with Team USA in 2018, winning gold at the Pan American Cup. The following year, she led the U.S. in hitting efficiency (.463) and kill percentage (.560) at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.
One of three Middles on the roster, Ogbogu will be making her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
The youngest player on the U.S. roster for the Tokyo Olympics, Poulter, 23, has nonetheless had her share of experience representing Team USA.
She started to play for the U.S. national team before finishing her All-America career at Illinois. She was USA Volleyball’s Female Indoor Co-Most Improved Player in 2019, and was named Best Setter at the 2019 NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship.
Poulter, who won the 2014 Andi Collins Award as the top high school setter in the nation, also competed for the U.S. as a member of the girls and junior national teams.
Robinson moved from outside hitter to setter in 2018, then she moved back to the outside. That’s where the Manhattan Beach, California, native remains as she goes for her second Olympics with Team USA, having won a bronze in 2016.
Robinson, 28, has done some other moving in her career, having started her college career at Tennessee and finishing at Nebraska, while playing professionally in an eclectic mix of countries: China, Puerto Rico, Italy and Turkey. Wherever she goes, though, she seems to have success. Robinson was on previous U.S. teams that won gold medals at the 2014 FIVB World Championships, 2015 FIVB World Grand Prix and 2018 and 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.
A native of Edina, Minnesota, Thompson is one of the younger members of Team USA at 24, but she’s already helped the U.S. win gold medals at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League and the Tokyo Qualification Tournament.
A 6-foot-4 opposite, Thompson played college volleyball at Cincinnati, where she set the school record for kills in a season with 827 in 2018. Her average of 6.27 kills per set established a new NCAA record. The 2019 AVCA Player of the Year, Thompson began playing professionally in Turkey in 2020.
By the way, her dad was a Harlem Globetrotter.
Washington, 25, was honored as the Best Blocker for the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League Final Round. But she began her volleyball ascendance with a state-record 48-kill performance back as a high school player in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In between, Washington blossomed into one of the most promising middle blockers in the country. She led Penn State to the 2014 NCAA championship as a freshman, and she carried them back to the Final Four in 2017 as a senior, a season in which she led the country in hitting efficiency (.492 — the third-best single season in NCAA history).
Justine Wong Orantes
Wherever she has played — whether on the beach in California or in land-locked Nebraska — Wong Orantes has risen to the top of her sport.
As a 12-year-old, she was the youngest player ever to earn a AAA CBVA rating, after winning a beach volleyball tournament with her partner, Summer Ross. In college, she led the Huskers to the 2015 NCAA indoor title. She was a two-time first-team AVCA All-American and was the Female Athlete of the Year at Nebraska for the 2016-17 academic year.
Wong Orantes, 25, was named the Best Libero at the 2019 Pan American Cup and the Best Digger at the 2019 NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship.
Setter Lauren Carlini, outside hitters Kathryn Plummer and Sarah Wilhite Parsons, middle blockers Tori Dixon and Hannah Tapp and libero Megan Courtney have been named as alternates for Team USA.
David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.