TOKYO, Japan —- The match moved at light-speed. If a spectator had glanced away for a single moment too long, they likely missed a point being scored by either team. Neck to neck for an entire two sets, the U.S. and Chinese women’s sitting volleyball teams left no space to breathe in the tightness of their scores. With a rivalry spanning almost the entirety of women’s Paralympic sitting volleyball history, this was sure to be a promising game— and it delivered in its intensity and suspense.
In the preliminaries, they had lost to China 0-3 sets, which may sound like a wipeout, but the point total had been 63 to 76 for a difference of 13 points. Not a huge gap in score for a game that requires 25 points per set to win. In this match, the margins were significantly smaller.
Although the U.S. took a comfortable lead in the first set, China was quick to react and adjusted their game to tie with them in the second. It went on like that for a painstaking two sets— one team’s score would be immediately followed by a point for the opposing team. China was hot on the U.S. team’s heels and even coasted in the lead for three or four points at times, managing to pull ahead and win the third set.
With competition as fierce as China vs. USA, no moment in the game signaled a secure win. The theme of this match was “it’s not over ’till it’s over.” The fourth set would be the one to decide whether a fifth would be necessary to break a tie, and it was a back-and-forth battle the entire time with baited breath.
“I didn’t want to go to five, that’s for sure. I didn’t even want to go to four,” said U.S. team’s #5 Kathryn Holloway.
She’s the team captain, and she speaks with the command of a leader.
“In that fourth set that we were back and forth, back and forth, back and forth with [China]— and I looked at everybody, and I said, ‘Every point is the last point. Give it everything you have right now.’ Because I didn’t want to make it to the fifth set,” she said, tone steady and firm as she quoted herself, but quickly devolving into laughter as she confessed that her determination was inspired by her desire to keep the game from continuing onto a final set.
Her pep talk must have worked, because by the end of the fourth, the U.S. team’s unyielding composure led them to victory.
“There was a couple moments where it hit me in the middle of the game, and I was like ‘don’t go there yet, don’t go there yet!'” said U.S. team’s #1 Lora Webster about realizing that they had the match. “Even when we won, it took time for it to soak in, which is the adrenaline of that moment, and just looking at my teammates and realizing that we had finally done it. “
The Paralympics welcomed women’s sitting volleyball teams for the first time in Athens 2004, and from that very beginning, China and the U.S. were teams that medaled– China with gold and the U.S. with bronze. Every Paralympic games thereafter has seen the two teams face off in the gold medal matches against one another. China won gold and the U.S. silver in the 2008 Beijing games and then again in 2012 London games, but the U.S. turned the tide at Rio 2016 and got the gold for the first time.
“For the last four games, it’s been us and China in the finals duking it out,” said #6 Heather Erickson. “So it was a really amazing moment to see all of us work together hard and fight a really good Chinese team. It’s always a really fun match for us and we always want to win.”
And they did. But it wasn’t easy. Holloway’s eyes brimmed with tears and her voice shook as she looked back on how they reached this point.
“I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “This journey has been so challenging. Every day is a visceral anxiety. . . I know that we’re deep, and I know that we’re talented, and we’ve been together for the last five years, but we showed up totally changed when we came here from our last six weeks leading up to this experience. To me, I still can’t believe what we did.”
The women of the team cheered and cried and embraced one another the moment they reached that final 25th point, but they mainly expressed that they were largely still processing the fact that they made it to the podium after all that they’ve been through. Relief is closest to what they described feeling. Now, they’re ready to finally go home.
“I’m just looking forward to giving my family a hug,” Holloway said.