COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Stacy Sykora will become Texas A&M’s first varsity athlete to compete in three Olympics, as she is one of 12 players to be named to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Women's Volleyball Team. Pending final approval of the roster by the United States Olympic Committee, Sykora will begin competition in Beijing when USA opens the 2008 Games against Japan on August 9.
“When [USA head coach Jenny' Lang Ping] announced that they were going to take two liberos, I started bawling like a baby,” Sykora said. “I cried just like the first time I was told I was going to the Olympics; just an uncontrollable happiness cry. It was incredible. I didn’t think I was going to be that emotional, but it meant a lot to me, because it was a very long, hard road.”
Sykora, from Burleson, Texas, realize a childhood dream when she played in her first Olympics at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. She was Team USA’s designated libero, a defensive specialist position that was making its Olympic debut. Sykora help 10th-ranked USA to a surprising fourth-place finish, narrowly missing out on a medal.
Having quickly established herself as one of the top liberos in the world while leading USA to a No. 1 world ranking, Sykora made her second Olympic team in 2004. Sykora went on to be named the “Best Digger” at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, but the top-ranked Americans finished a disappointing fifth.
Sykora considered retiring after the devastating loss.
“We came so close to medaling in 2000 so I tasted it but didn’t medal,” she said. “Being No. 1 in the world from 2000 to 2004 was so awesome, and we were thinking, ‘oh you are going to medal.’ I would daydream about it, celebrating with the medal, sleeping with the medal. I’d never take it off. I had all these fantasies about what I was going to do, and then it didn’t happen. It was such a disappointed that it hurt. I was angry for the entire year. I was sick. I couldn’t talk about the Olympics. Anything about the Olympics, I couldn’t handle.”
Sykora got away from the sport and began working as a paralegal in Las Vegas. She also eventually began working some volleyball camps and the urge to play again began to return. After three years away from competing, she rejoined the national team two weeks before the World Cup in November 2007.
“I took three years off,” Sykora said. “I thought I had retired. I was ok with retiring, but then I was doing camps for an entire summer. When I would demonstrate, I realized I could still do this. Being around camps and talking about volleyball, I missed it a lot.
“I kept in touch with many of my former teammates, and I decided I was going to give it another try. I was going to see if they wanted me or needed me or even cared. It was random.”
USA already had a libero, Nicole Davis, who had won two NCAA titles as a libero at USC.
“Nicole has been there for four years and plays Jenny’s style,” Sykora said. “I had to come in and learn a whole new system, a whole new everything. It is just very different than 2004. It’s an entirely new coaching staff and new system.”
Sykora trained with the team and played in international matches, but she wasn’t on the roster in June when Team USA left for the World Grand Prix, the prelude to the Olympics. Sykora thought her Olympic career was over, but an early-round injury to a USA player created a roster opening for the final round of the World Grand Prix. Sykora received an unexpected call to come to Japan.
“That whole weekend before the call I couldn’t stop crying, because it was over,” Sykora said. “I was an emotional wreck. (To get called to Japan) was a very great surprise.
“I say everything happens for a reason, and it did. If the injury had happened, would I be on this team? That’s the big question mark.”
Sykora took advantage of her final opportunity and was impressive. Then in an unprecedented move for USA Volleyball and a huge surprise to Sykora, Lang Ping decided to name two liberos -- Davis and Sykora -- to the Olympic roster.
“I got my chance at and I took it and ran,” Sykora said. “That is what helped me out. It showed that Nicole and I are both not only good liberos but passers and defenders, tops in the world. It showed that it would be a tough decision, and I’m glad she is taking both of us.
“You can say I was selected because of what I can bring to the team experience-wise, but I honestly don’t know why. Jenny could have done anything, and she chose me. (Having two liberos) is rare, usually only seen on the Asian teams, but it is a great thing for us. It is good for our team too so that a lot of the hitters can concentrate on hitting, and we can come in the back row and pass for three rotations.”
The team is balanced with youth and experience. Four players on the roster will be making their Olympic debut. Sykora is one of five players to be competing in her third Olympics, and middle blocker Danielle Scott-Arruda will be playing in her fourth Olympic Games.
“I’m hoping the feeling will be like 2000, because we have some youth on the team,” Sykora said. “We didn’t know what to expect in 2000, and we go to the bronze medal match and just have fun. I think it is going to be like that, but we also have the experience. Most of the people on the court experienced 2004, the disappointment, the anger, the sadness. We all said we are not going to let 2004 happen again. We have that side, people who know enough that we don’t want to have that happen. And then we have youth that is just going to go out and play.”
The U.S. Women, currently ranked fourth in the world by FIVB, the international governing body of volleyball, are aiming for their first medal since winning a bronze in 1992.
“Before I joined the team, I said this team is going to medal regardless of if I am on it,” Sykora said. “I always said that. I don’t think this team is going to harp on it as much. In 2004 our goal was medaling; medal, medal, medal, medal. Now we are just going to go have fun and play, and with this team and this talent, we can medal if we start with the little things.”
USA is in a pool with returning gold medalist China, Cuba, Japan, Poland and Venezuela. Algeria, Brazil, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia and Serbia make up the other pool. The top four teams in both Olympic preliminary round pools advance to the quarterfinals on Aug. 19 with the winner of each pool facing the fourth-place team in the opposite pool. A drawing of lots will determine the opponents for the second- and third-place teams against the opposite pool.
“There are eight teams that are in the Olympics that all can medal,” Sykora said. “It will be whoever comes more prepared and who is ready to play. In 2000, we surprised teams, but you knew Cuba was going to win the gold medal. Period. In 2004, we had four strong teams. This year, you have the Polands, the teams that just got good and are moving up. You have returning gold-medalist China. And then there is USA. We have changed our roster in every single tournament from 2004 to 2008, so you don’t know what to expect from us as well. It is a toss up.”
What would winning a medal mean to Sykora?
“The world. That is all I have ever wanted my entire career was to medal. That is the only reason why I came back. I want to medal. I want those fantasies to come true. I’m coming back because I want this team to medal.”
A two-time All-American outside hitter in her final two seasons with the Aggies, Sykora first joined the national team in January 1999, one month after completing her stellar four-year collegiate career. Sykora still refers to her days at Texas A&M, where she was coached by 1984 USA Olympic volleyball silver medalist Laurie Corbelli.
“Still to this day I wear No. 5 in honor of Laurie Corbelli,” Sykora said. “I’m where I am because of Laurie and John (Corbelli, A&M associate head coach). The training they gave me, not only the physical but also the mental part of it. They instilled a lot in me during my years at Texas A&M.”
Sykora jokingly added: “I also want to win a medal so I can be as cool as Laurie. I want to be cool, too, and have a medal to show, but it would really be cool it if I could one-up her silver medal.”
Like Sykora, Vic Wunderle, a 2002 graduate of Texas A&M, also will be competing in his third consecutive Olympics as a member of the USA Archery Team. The A&M athletic department does not sponsor archery.
For more information on the USA Women’s Volleyball Team, go to usavolleyball.org.
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