x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Olympics: A date with destiny for US women volleyball team

One more high-end display from Hooker against Brazil could end a 10-Games wait for gold, but it could have been so different for the talented spiker.

Destinee Hooker comes from a family with rich sporting background.
Destinee Hooker comes from a family with rich sporting background.

The United States' hopes of securing a maiden Olympic volleyball gold rest largely on the shoulders of a player who was once one of the country's most sought-after talents.

Destinee Hooker has been on inspirational form over the last two weeks, belying her 24 years with some impressively mature performances for Hugh McCutcheon's side.

One more high-end display from her in today's final against Brazil could end a 10-Games wait for gold, but it could have been so different for both Hooker and her country.

From a rich family sporting background – her sister Marshevet is an Olympic sprinter and father Ricky was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs NBA basketball team – Destinee's talent was so widespread that she had her pick of sports.

She narrowly missed out on selection for the Beijing Games in the high jump, while she was also a basketball player of some promise.

Volleyball won the day, though, her sister luring her in to playing, and she is now on the brink of securing national acclaim, after her 24 points helped US beat South Korea in the semi-final.

"Sounds like Michael Jordan getting cut as a sophomore, right?" McCutcheon said.

"She was pretty raw when she came to us," McCutcheon recalled of his first meeting with Hooker.

"But she was in college and was doing two sports. It's hard to be great at any one thing, let alone two things. She just loves the moment of competition, and that's the great thing to have in an athlete, a person who relishes that moment, who wants to be out there."

Hooker has scored 147 points throughout the tournament so far but, despite her profile, has been keen to keep a lid on sharing her experience with the media. She is notoriously shy and surly around the mixed zone, often declining interviews, preferring to communicate through social media instead.

Access was granted on Thursday, though, when she gave an emotional address on how she nearly never made the Games at all.

"When I was little, there was a time when I quit. I didn't want to do it anymore," she said, crying. "This is a huge turnaround for me. I am glad I never gave up."

She credits Marshevet, a 200-metre sprinter, with being her inspiration. She has her name written on tape on her hand along with her old volleyball number - 21 - and said of her: "She is what really pushed me as an athlete. I'm doing this for her and my family."

Standing in the way of Hooker and her teammates are a Brazil side finally warming to the challenge of retaining their title.

Round-robin defeats to the United States and also South Korea put them in danger of missing out on the knockout stages all together, before they scraped through in their final game.

Since then, though, they have been a different animal, subjecting Russia to a first defeat of 2012 in the quarter-finals and then seeing off Japan in the last four.

The group-stage defeat to McCutcheon's women has given Brazil a template too, with their coach Roberto Guimaraes keen to learn from past mistakes.

"We deserve this. We have been given a chance and we now want gold. Now we play USA and we can do good things," he said.

"We suffered a lot with the USA's spikes in the other game.

"We now need to defend against them like we defended against Japan and then we will see. When we lost against USA and Korea and were almost knocked out, I felt like it was an embarrassment to our country.

"I think we really hit the bottom against South Korea. That had to happen so that we would start helping ourselves. There's nothing worse than Brazil losing and having ended in between ninth and 12th [place]."

The bronze medal match will be contested by Japan and South Korea.

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