The USA’s transition to becoming a sitting volleyball powerhouse did not happen overnight.
Just ask Monique Matthews.
Formerly Burkland, Matthews has been a key part of the US women’s squad after making her Paralympic debut at London 2012, helping her team win silver. Before that, the USA won bronze and another silver at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, respectively. Then Rio 2016 was their golden breakthrough by defeating China, against whom they lost the last two Paralympic finals.
But her preparation has been vastly different this time round as the team was apart for the majority of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, they have had to make up for lost time.
“It’s been slow, especially after having a whole year off and training at home because you can only do so much at home,” said the outside hitter. “It’s been a long, slow process, but we are probably at a good 80 percent of where we were when we left off.
While the USA head into Tokyo 2020 as the gold medal favourites, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, RPC and Rwanda are other teams that have booked their berth.
“I feel our setting has gotten a lot stronger. We have two really good setters and another good one coming up. Our hitting has been strong and we can really rely on all six players on the court. We also have a deep bench, so if someone is having an off game, we don’t have to worry too much because we have a bench that can fill in. We keep getting better each year and we are pushing each other.”
Matthews believes one of the biggest challenges for the team is the likelihood of competing with few spectators in the venue.
“I feel like it’s going to be really quiet, so I think we will have to bring a bunch more energy and cheer louder just to get the feel of a big audience that we are used to at the Games,” she added.
The USA head to the Netherlands from 2-4 July for a warm-up tournament, where they will play against international opponents for the first time in more than a year. RPC, Brazil and the Netherlands are among the competitors. At this point, COVID-19 feels like a non-factor, though caution always remains.
“It’s kind of part of the game plan and it’s a lot different coming into these Games because you have to prepare for that, as well as skill-wise,” Matthews said.