Katie Holloway described it as by far the greatest accomplishment of her illustrious 15-year sitting volleyball career.
Even though — and even because — it caused her so much agony.
“I’ve never had so much joy from an experience that was so miserable,” Holloway said with a chuckle.
But all the pain was worth it, as the Lake Stevens High School graduate can once again call herself a gold medalist.
Holloway and the rest of the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team overcame everything from a COVID-19 scare to a blowout loss at the hands of their archrivals, defeating China to claim the gold medal at the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
The U.S. claimed revenge on the team that handed it a crushing loss in pool play, prevailing 25-12, 25-20, 22-25, 25-19 in Sunday’s gold-medal match to earn their second straight gold medal. Holloway’s medal joins the gold she won in 2016 in Rio, as well as the silvers she earned in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
And Holloway, one of the greatest players in the sport’s history, was a central figure in the U.S. triumph. Serving as team captain, she recorded 15 kills and four blocks in the gold-medal match and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“I’m honestly still in shock,” Holloway said Wednesday after returning to Palo Alto, California, where she now resides. “I think if you’d asked me if we would do this the day after we lost to China in pool play, I would have said, ‘No way, there’s absolutely no way this would have happened.”
Despite being a veteran of three Paralympics, Holloway, who was born with fibular hemimelia and had her right foot amputated when she was 20 months old, went into this year’s delayed Games with a certain amount of trepidation. She was drained from being a leading voice for Paralympic athletes receiving pay equality with Olympians, and the coronavirus pandemic created an added level of stress and anxiety.
That stress was elevated after the U.S. team had two players test positive for COVID-19 just before the team was scheduled to leave for Japan. That brought training to a halt, forced the cancellation of the team’s acclimation trip to Ichinomiya in advance of the Games, and required a rejiggering of the roster.
“That was he most terrifying week of my life,” Holloway said. “I felt like I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just wanted to leave the states, I felt it would be safer in Japan. I was very uncertain that I wouldn’t test positive, and I felt there was no guarantee from that point forward.”
While Holloway and the rest of the team did successfully make their way to Tokyo, it took a while for the team’s game to follow. The U.S., which came in as the top-ranked team in the world, opened the tournament with a 25-11, 25-9, 25-11 victory over Rwanda in which it didn’t play its best. Then in its second pool-play match the U.S. was routed by China 25-17, 25-22, 26-24. That prompted a lengthy team meeting with a sports psychologist.
“We talked about what everyone needs on and off the court in those stressful situations,” Holloway said. “Communication is difficult in those moments of stress on the court. At that meeting we talked about how we need to communicate what our needs are off the court, so that when we’re communicating on the court we can solve problems quicker.”
The U.S. fortunes began to change. A 25-19, 25-15, 25-22 victory over the Russian Paralympic Committee in its final pool-play match earned the U.S. a spot in the semifinals. A 25-19. 25-11, 25-23 victory over Brazil in the semifinals set up a rematch with China for the gold medal — pitting the two teams that squared off for gold in each of the past four Paralympics.
The U.S. was unprepared for China’s strong defensive game when the teams met in pool play, but the U.S. was ready for it in the gold-medal match. The U.S. jumped out to a big early lead in the first set, with the 6-foot-3 Holloway setting the tone with her blocking. After the U.S. won the first two sets handily China responded by winning the third. By that time Holloway was nearing exhaustion, taking a huge breath before each point and telling herself, “Give everything you have for just this point.”
The fourth set was an intense back-and-forth affair until the U.S. grabbed a late lead. Holloway subbed out at 24-19 as Emma Schieck was brought in to serve, and on the ensuing point Schieck served an ace to give the U.S. the gold and bring tears to Holloway’s eyes.
“It was very overwhelming,” Holloway said about her emotional reaction to winning gold. “I couldn’t breathe because I was so overwhelmed. It was emotional just getting to the gold-medal match, and then I was overwhelmed by the fact we pulled it off. We faced so much adversity, both from a COVID perspective and in the internal doubt amongst ourselves.
“I need to be angry to perform my best,” Holloway added bout being named MVP. “We didn’t come all this way and fight all this adversity for someone else to win this game. I think that transferred to the court and helped win points, and I felt the energy helped create that. But I feel lucky that I was given that honor because I wouldn’t be there without the rest of the team being the best in the world. Kaleo (Kanahele Maclay) is giving me the best sets in the world, Bethany (Zummo) is giving her the best passes in the world, we have such offensive threats in Monique (Matthews) and Heather (Erickson), and the bench was viscerally fighting for us on every point. For me (the MVP) isn’t about me, it’s about the team.”
At 35 years old, Holloway doesn’t know what her future holds in the sport, especially since she begins her new job as the Stanford University athletic department’s assistant director of name, image and likeness on Monday.
But if this was her last swing as a member of the U.S. sitting volleyball team, it would be hard for Holloway to go out any more on top.