Sunday morning we stumbled out of our rooms for our last breakfast in Tianjin to find a pink and yellow bundle by our doors—hooray! The Easter bunny found us after all!
Some of us would have stumbled on those jelly beans even earlier, because we had planned to attend a church service that morning, but the plan was thwarted due to “security issues.” Good thing we don’t have to be in a certain building to acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice and celebrate His reign!
So before I explain what’s next for Team USA, allow me to give you a recap on our final days in Tianjin.
Before competing against the Tianjin team, we had the pleasure of merging with them in practice on Thursday. The gym was chaos at times, as coaches from each team traded turns running drills. I knew we were in for a surprise when the Chinese coaches prepared the defense drill. Their players lined up to demo and were soon being pelted from the left and right in rapid succession. And we were next! Eventually I learned to stop watching the first ball that I just set in order to dig the second ball hurling toward my shins. What was even greater than the adrenaline rush was that when I looked around the gym every player—both Chinese and American—had the same goofy, tenacious grin on her face. It really was beautiful to see, because it was as if in that moment we recaptured a bit of the “why” we play volleyball: joy!
After a much-needed shower, Team USA bussed to our first dinner outside the hotel. It was a fancy affair, and we players had a whole room to ourselves. The setup was very traditional with one big round table and the “lazy susan” center that spins the food around. They brought out what seemed like 20 different courses including several baskets of dumplings (Tianjin’s specialty) that our room’s personal chef was making in the corner. Delish. I, of course, made it a point to try everything except for the second round of snail. I figured the chewiness was a pretty consistent factor, one that I experienced thoroughly enough the first go-round.
The next day was game day! We had an hour and a half practice in the morning to loosen the bodies for our 7:30 p.m. contest against Tianjin. The competition court was much bigger than our practice court, and our poor lungs were reintroduced to the rancidness of cigarette smoke, as, for some unknown reason, people are welcome to smoke freely, even right beside our bench.
As you may know, Tianjin beat us in three sets with us on their tail each game. I think Tom had said it best at one point in saying that we were hanging with them and not even playing that well. The best word I can think of to describe it is “disjointed.” Some were experiencing their first international match, while others, like me, took awhile to become grounded.
The next day was a great opportunity to make some changes. Before our 3 p.m. match, we watched video from the previous night, and everyone took away specifics to improve on. I think we did do a better job at many things the second match; as a whole, we were much more aggressive and confident, especially in the first two sets. Tianjin, though, raised the bar the next three sets, digging everything in sight and loading on the pressure, and we didn’t meet their challenge. With us being so young and new to each other, I don’t think we quite believe we can come back and win from behind yet (though, we certainly are capable). If nothing else, these following matches will continue to challenge our competitive spirit and unified drive.
As Jenny works hard to make us better behind the scenes, in front of the cameras and fans she is still very much a superstar. As I was walking to the bus after our first match, all I heard from behind were shouts to “Hurry!! Jenny is getting mobbed!” We picked up the pace, but were soon shoved aside by the circle of six officers escorting Jenny through the crowd.
The royal treatment continued into our final evening in Tianjin at a farewell dinner. Yanlord and other generous sponsors of our trip (as well as the Tianjin team and staff) gathered to wish us well, feed us, and enlist us in some random "games." Two of the Tianjin players, Lindsey, and I were a team against another two Tianjin players, Angie [McGinnis], and Nellie. The goal: run along the winding tape holding a ping pong ball between two chopsticks before popping a balloon with your bum, then tag your teammate who does the same thing. Everyone’s time is accumulated and the team with the best time wins! Well, our team DOMINATED (okay, we only won by about .7 seconds), and we were awarded beautiful glass art — the kind where they paint the design from the inside of the glass (amazing!). I proceeded to botch my interview, because of my inability to decipher Chinese English. Nellie, however, may have had it worse as upon receiving her second place prize, she was asked by the interviewer (in front of the entire gathering) if she would "marry them."
“Marry them?” she asked, pointing to Lindsey and I.
“Yes!” said the interviewer, nodding rapidly.
Nellie looked afraid. “Uhh….NO!!” she said, trying not to laugh too hard.
And to conclude the highly entertaining evening, a familiar song boomed on the system. Julianne and Destinee made their way to center stage and proceeded to rock out the entire Solja Boy dance. All I can say is, “They Supermanned that show!!” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.).
Now our China adventure moves to a new city called Yiyang, in the Hunan Province. We will only stay two nights here, before changing cities again and again and… then I lose track. On the flight to Hunan, I learned that Sue can complete a Sudoku puzzle in less than five minutes on her leather Sudoku booklet (which she insists was a gift…sure, Sue) and that I may never have as many reps in my entire career as she had in one year of hers. Amazing stories!
And if the hard smack of the landing that we survived (I’m talking ZERO finesse by the pilot on this one) is any indication of what our experience will be like in this city, well… bring it on!
Happy Easter to you all!
Tracy Stalls (Denver, Colo.)
U.S. Women's National Team Journal