Jordan Larson

Foluke Akinradewo, Jordan Larson
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U.S. women’s indoor volleyball league to begin play next year

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The top women’s indoor volleyball players in the U.S. will now have their own professional league at home, giving more athletes an opportunity to prolong their careers past college without having to go overseas.

They will get to help govern the league themselves, too.

Athletes Unlimited, in partnership with USA Volleyball, announced plans Wednesday for a six-week league to begin next February in an as-yet undetermined city in the Southeast. It won’t conflict with the U.S. team’s preparations ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“I’ve been a professional volleyball athlete for a decade now and every time we want to make a living and go play professionally we have to leave the country to do it, so to have Athletes Unlimited, not only having a shorter season, getting to play at home for the first time, it’s so special,” U.S. star Foluke Akinradewo, who has signed on to play, said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

“They’re empowering the athletes. We get to kind of determine the rules and we have a big say in things. It’s really the opposite of the life we’re living overseas.”

Some, like Akinradewo, still plan to play overseas. Fellow American Olympic teammate Jordan Larson will be part of the new league and she also plays professionally in China, while Akinradewo competes in Japan.

Molly McCage is another player who has committed. The three women will determine which 48 players are invited and set rules for the league, which will feature an innovative format without general managers or owners. Four captains will choose their teams one week then a points system from that week will determine the captains for the next week of competition.

“This is a sport that has a huge following around the world, close to a billion people play volleyball around the world. It has huge pro leagues in many countries, both on the women’s and men’s side,” said Jon Patricof, Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder. “For this to be the first pro indoor women’s league in the U.S. is tremendous and a huge moment for the sport.”

Athletes Unlimited has also launched a pro softball league.

Akinradewo is a new mom with a 5-month-old son, so the flexibility to be home more in the U.S. will mean a lot. She expects the new league will keep more players involved and grow the game domestically.

Akinradewo and the No. 1 Americans earned bronze at the Rio Olympics four years ago. Initially, the league will feature only U.S. players but there is a possibility to expand down the road.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer as to why people would want to sign on to this,” Akinradewo said. “It’s just a different look at the game of volleyball as we know it.”

MORE: Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics

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Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

14 Olympic silver medalists with best chances for gold in Rio

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The difference between winning and losing can be minuscule. Olympic gold could have easily been silver if not for an inch here or another second there.

While some athletes can seemingly win gold every time they step into competition, other Olympians are left collecting silver. They’re still remarkable athletes, but gold eludes them.

Some of the world’s best have another shot (for some, their last) at claiming the cherished Olympic gold medal over the next few weeks in Rio. Here are 14 such athletes to watch, in no particular order:

Tony Azevedo, United States, water polo
He’ll become the first five-time Olympian in U.S. water polo history, and he was born in and resides in Rio. It’d be a great place for Azevedo to win his first Olympic gold medal. The U.S. won silver in 2008 before a disappointing eighth-place result four years ago. The American men aren’t favored for gold like their female counterparts, but after taking second in the 2016 FINA World League, they’ve got a shot. Maybe Azevedo’s last shot.

Jordan Larson, United States, volleyball
The third-leading scorer for the U.S. women in 2012 as they fell to Brazil in the second consecutive Olympic gold-medal match, Larson will be just one of four women in Rio from that silver-medal squad. They’re favored to win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women’s indoor volleyball, being the top-ranked team in the world and reigning world champions. But to get that gold, Larson and the U.S. will likely need to take down Brazil in front of their raucous home crowd.

April Ross, United States, beach volleyball
She took silver at the London Games with partner Jen Kessy, losing to compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the final. But Ross is now teamed up with Walsh Jennings, who’s looking for her fourth straight Olympic gold medal. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in Rio –behind two Brazilian teams who, again, will have a boisterous crowd on their side.

Sarah Hammer, United States, cycling
She left London four years ago with two silver medals, but heads to Rio with two chances to grab gold. Hammer placed second the omnium and was on the women’s team pursuit unit that placed runner-up to Great Britain. But Hammer and three new teammates are the reigning team pursuit world champions. She also took bronze at the 2016 Worlds in omnium, so gold in that event in Rio wouldn’t be out of the question either.

Neymar, Brazil, soccer
He was supposed to get his gold in London, but the star-studded Brazilian side was shocked by Mexico, 2-1, in the final. So Neymar is back, competing as one of his team’s three over-23 players, seeking Brazil’s first Olympic gold in soccer (men or women). He was second on the squad with three goals in London; more in Rio would help his nation end the drought.

Marta, Brazil, soccer
A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta is a two-time Olympic silver medalist. She helped Brazil to runner-up status in 2004 and ’08, before struggling to sixth in 2012. The U.S. won each of those gold medals, as well as the 2015 World Cup (where Brazil was eliminated in the round of 16), leaving it as the decided favorite for Rio. But Brazil seeks its first Olympic soccer gold medal, playing the country’s most popular sport in front of the world’s most passionate fans, so Marta and Brazil certainly have a shot.

Alison Cerutti, Brazil, beach volleyball
He nearly had gold in London with beach legend Emmanuel Rego, but the Brazilians fell in the third set in the final to a German pair. Now, Alison has Bruno Oscar Schmidt by his side and the reigning world champions will be the No. 1 men’s seed on home sand at Copacabana Beach.

Yohan Blake, Jamaica, track and field
The runner-up to compatriot Usain Bolt in both the 100m and 200m four years ago, Blake did win a gold medal with Bolt on his team in the 4x100m relay. But he’s never won individual Olympic gold. He owns world championship gold, as Blake took the 100m at the 2011 Worlds after Bolt was disqualified for a false start. But Bolt may be at his most vulnerable in his Olympic career, so Blake, three years younger, hopes to capitalize.

Anita Włodarczyk, Poland, track and field
She’s the world record holder in hammer throw and favored for gold as the reigning world champion, especially considering the defending Olympic champion is Russian and won’t be present in Rio. Tatyana Lysenko won gold in London after defeating Wlodarczyk by .58 of a meter, but her country’s doping scandal will keep her home.

Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field
Known for a gender-testing controversy that has followed her since 2009, Semenya is the favorite in the women’s 800m, and she could race the 400m too. She took silver in the 800m at the London Games, finishing behind Russian Mariya Savinova and ahead of Russian Ekaterina Poistogova. Neither of those women will be in Rio due to Russia’s doping scandal. Semenya owns three of the four fastest 800m times this year.

Laszlo Cseh, Hungary, swimming
Were it not for a guy named Michael Phelps, Cseh would’ve won three gold medals at the 2008 Games. Instead, he owns five career Olympic medals (three silver, two bronze) all in races won by Phelps. But Phelps enters his final Olympics not nearly as intense as in years past. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but Cseh has a shot at knocking off Phelps in the 100m and 200m butterfly. Phelps holds the best time in the 100m since 2013 (50.45) while Cseh is third (50.86); Cseh owns the best time in the 200m since 2013 (1:52.91) while Phelps is second (1:52.94).

Qiu Bo, China, diving
Of the eight diving events at the Olympics, China won gold in six at the 2012 Games and claimed silver in the other two. Qiu Bo was one of the two to take second, as he was edged by American David Boudia in the 10m platform. Qiu has since earned gold at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, relegating Boudia to silver both times. The two should do battle again in Rio.

Pau Gasol, Spain, basketball
Gasol’s chances of obtaining gold are slim considering the U.S. men’s dominance in international hoops, but Spain’s chances of cracking Team USA are better than anyone else’s. Spain has met the U.S. in the past two Olympic finals and actually stayed with the Americans until the fourth quarter both times. The 2016 U.S. team is thought to be its weakest since 2004, though it’s still heavily favored.

Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia, badminton
Lee owns two silver medals after losing in the 2008 and ’12 Olympic finals. He also holds three silver medals from world championships, falling in the final at the past three such competitions (2011, ’13 and ’15). Lee was knocked off by China’s Lin Dan in four of those events, including both Olympics, and by China’s Chen Long at the 2015 Worlds. But his hope for Olympic breakthrough comes from these rivals’ most recent meeting at the 2016 Asian Championships – Lee took out Lin in the semis and defeated Chen in the final. Lee will be the No. 1 seed in Rio.

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