The US women’s sitting volleyball team was one point away from winning their first ever Paralympic gold medal, and setter Lexi Shifflet vividly recalled that moment.
“I just remember looking at the score and seeing it say 24-18 just before the serve. I grabbed Nichole Millage and looked at her and said, ‘Oh my goodness, we are going to do it!’
“We watched the play and then saw the ball go out. I don’t think I’ve ever ran so fast in my life to my teammates on the court! Just sitting there before that thinking ‘Oh my, we are about to be gold medallists.’”
China had won every Paralympic title since Athens 2004, each time defeating the USA. Thus Rio 2016’s victory was long-awaited.
“I remember watching the London Games, I hadn’t made the team yet and I just watched the team fall to China again, and I remember sitting there thinking, I’m going to push myself to no end to make the team, I don’t want these girls coming home with a silver from Rio,” the 20-year-old said.
Reflecting on the success at Rio and the effort that went into it, Shiffle said: “It honestly still hasn’t sunken in yet. All I can say is, I was so incredibly proud of our team and [winning gold] was the best feeling in the world.
“After that loss [in 2012], we realised we have to make some changes, which we did and implemented them in the Intercontinental Cup [in March in China] and the Rio Games. It’s a deserving rise, we all play a part in the games, starter or not. We all had an important role, which helped us rise as a team.”
Shifflet was one of four Paralympic debutants in the Rio squad but was well aware of what was to come, thanks to the guidance of her more experienced teammates: “I had expected that it wasn’t going to be easy, and that this was going to be the largest stage I will ever play on. All the former players were so excited to see the new player’s reaction to everything. Their advice was it’s just another tournament, just a bigger audience and the memories will last a lifetime.”
The memories created were not only celebrated by the team themselves. Welcomed home with dinner celebrations abounded by proud family and friends, the squad were even treated to a first-class flight back stateside.
“Oh my goodness, the pilot was seriously the coolest person ever! He let some of us into the cockpit and sit in his chair, it was amazing!” Shifflet said.
More accolades followed with the group being awarded the USA’s Best Paralympic Team.
“It truly was unbelievable!” Shifflet said. “We were all sitting there and they announced us and we were so excited. I am incredibly proud of everything we’ve accomplished, we’ve put so much time in and it’s all paying off.”
To cap off what has been a remarkable year, the team also clinched the No. 1 ranking after. The new champions have no time to sit back and rest on their laurels however as future plans are already in place.
“We are looking ahead to the zonal games next year,” Shifflet said. “We will take it one tournament at a time to get to Tokyo. We would love to hold our title as No. 1 in the world.”