Natalie Hagglund… competing for Olympic qualification

In the first of what we sincerely hope will be an all too regular column, current USA & Volero Zurich libero Natalie Hagglund together with her USA team-mates are out to provide all you fans with a unique insight into what it is like to compete for Olympic qualification, whilst knowing that even if the team qualify they may not be part of it!

Being apart of the USA Women’s National Team, we work hard to establish a gym culture that will prepare us for the multiple different atmospheres and adversities that we will meet during competition. There is rarely a competition or tournament where something doesn’t go wrong, especially when competing and training overseas in countries that are often times not as well off as we are in America. Lost bags, no hotel rooms, food poisoning, hard floors, cold gyms… you name it, I bet we’ve experienced it.

With that being said, in order to be the best that we can be at every competition, we have to prepare, practice, and compete (regardless of the day) like it is the Gold Medal Match of the Olympics. Taking off reps because you are tired? Cheating through drills because it is hot?

Tired because they didn’t have a room for you the night before? Not trying hard because you aren’t playing a great team? Would you do any of that at the Olympics? Hell no! You don’t give excuses. You play hard regardless of how you feel! Every game is the same. Every match is the same. Every practice is the same. No day is any different. No repetition is any different. That is what Karch Kiraly, and the rest of the USA Volleyball Staff has emphasized this Olympic quad.

“For me it was something I’ll never forget. To be that close to the Olympics and to qualify is something that you dream of as a little girl. Especially to do it in Lincoln, where I went to school and in front of family and friends was really special. After the last point I just really took it all in for a moment and was grateful for the chance to represent USA.”

Olympic qualifier

We approached this recent Norceca Olympic Qualifier in Lincoln, Nebraska with the same mindset. Our two-week training block prior to the tournament was hell in terms of our inability to the control the climate in our gym. It was in the 40-50°F (4-10ºC) all day, everyday… so as you can imagine, warming up and even staying warm was a difficult and rather painful task. Rather than falling victim to the cold (we could have changed practice gyms or practiced differently because of it), we had to step up and find ways to compete the hardest we’ve ever competed, even in such an uncomfortable environment.

As we departed for the Olympic qualifier in Lincoln, Nebraska our coaches once again emphasized that ideal mindset that we had been striving for. And although we were competing for something a lot more important than points or a medal, we understood the importance of just being USA… and nothing more than that. With that being said, we knew we had to prepare and compete exactly like we always did. We knew we had to let it rip regardless of the opponents and the risks at hand.

“Any time you get to put on red, white, and blue it’s special. But it’s really cool to help your team qualify for the Olympics because it just feels like you’re a bigger part of your team’s history. We had a blast competing together in Nebraska and the best part is that it’s only the beginning. We believe our best volleyball is yet to come and we’re fired up about what’s ahead.” 

Practice day 1… gone. Practice day 2… gone. Game Day 1… done. Game Day 2… done. Four days gone, one more day to go. The final day. The crowd was larger, the stakes were higher, and the team across the net was the strongest we had seen thus far. We made mistakes and we weren’t perfect but we had a sense of urgency and we sure did let it rip… like we did every single day in practice. Until BAM, it was over.

My thought process? “We rolled through those guys!”… and then the thought sunk in “holy shit…WE WON. USA volleyball is going to the Olympics”. In almost perfect synchrony, the cheer “USA, USA, USA!” erupted throughout the stadium as we took a large victory lap around the 15,000 person stadium. It’s really difficult to explain the feeling you get when playing in front of a home crowd wearing USA on your back.

‘That’ feeling

Honestly, I’m not a good enough writer to capture that feeling because it is almost surreal. It’s indescribable. Your body is overcome by adrenaline… but not hyped adrenaline. Your heart rate is spiked, your blood pressure increases and you’re energetic, but it’s more of a calming, reassuring energy. You almost become weightless. You can’t feel the pain in your legs or the heaviness in your body. The thoughts that previously fogged your mind are no longer hindering your ability to think. You are thoughtless… almost speechless. Your body and your mind feel light… almost floating.

So, as I stood there, in front of thousands of proud USA fans, I took a step back from that ‘everyday is the same’ mindset and just embraced that energetic yet weightless feeling. I guess the feeling of accomplishment and pride. Although winning any tournament while representing USA is a special accomplishment, I realized that this moment… this tournament WAS in fact special for that it represented the true beginning of the Olympic journey that we had been preparing for in the last three years.

“Being a part of the squad that qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was an honor. If you asked me if I’d ever be able to say this, I would have not even considered it. As corny as it sounds, being apart of something so muchbigger than me is pretty incredible. If I’m apart of the team competing in Rio, or if I am not, I will be very proud to be apart of the USA program and the best country in the world!”  Karsta Lowe (Outside Hitter)

Aside some of the best volleyballers in the world

I stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the best volleyball players in the world as we one by one bowed our heads to receive our medals. But it’s not the medal that is so special… it is what the medal represents. That tiny goldish piece of metal draped around our necks was and is a representation of a birth to the Olympics. It is a birth to the tournament that gave us reason for even having a national team; that brought us all together as teammates, as a family. It is a birth to the tournament that we have been relentlessly preparing for four years. It is a birth to the tournament where we can do something special and create history for USA Volleyball. That little medal represents the true beginning of a long and tenacious journey, through one last beautiful stride to the finish line.

BIG side note: When I say we, I don’t mean that I am necessarily going to be apart of the Olympic team. In fact a lot of us that are on the national team won’t actually be at the Olympics. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t play just as large of a role on the team as those who are going. We all practice the same, we all prepare the same, we all sacrifice a lot of things to be apart of the adventure… to learn and to experience the hardships, the adversities and the feelings involved with being apart of something so special. We sacrifice and are continually withstanding the hardest of the hard knowing that at the end of the four years, only 12 of us will be representing USA in the big tournament. Hard? Hell yeah!

“It is a rare opportunity to get to play in front of a home crowd, and qualifying for the Olympics in the presence of the wonderful fans in Lincoln NE made it that much more special. We’re one step closer to making our dreams a reality and I’m so fortunate that I got to take that step with a spectacular group of women!”  Foluke Akinradewo (Middle Blocker)

But representing USA, especially in the Olympics, is something far, far bigger than just one person. You just have to know and trust that at the end of the day, 12 of your great friends… 12 great volleyball players… 12 beautiful women (that you have spent four years with) will be representing you and all of your hard work.

So, there I was, at the award ceremony standing shoulder to shoulder with the best players in the world, receiving my medal. That “everyday is the same” mindset was now out the window and reality set in. USA Volleyball was going to be at the Olympics and WILL make history. Regardless of where I am, I will be proud to be apart of that moment when those 12 ladies stand on that podium and bow their heads one more time.

Watch out for Natalie’s next story, but meanwhile you can follow her on twitter @nataliehagglund & on Instagram @nataliehagglund.