LINCOLN, Nebraska — A few weeks back, just before Christmas and before the Americans had reconvened in California from their club teams overseas, U.S. captain Courtney Thompson sent a group email to her teammates with a clear message:
"Let's do this." Time to qualify for Rio. Now.
Some responded all in serious tones, others in humor. Some pondered the words and offered no reply.
On Saturday night, each one delivered.
Four months after a major miss, tournament MVP Nicole Fawcett and the U.S. women's volleyball team are Olympic-bound at last.
The top-ranked Americans defeated the Dominican Republic 25-19, 25-19, 25-18 to wrap up a berth into the 12-team Olympics this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, then ran around the arena slapping hands with anyone who was willing.
"It has been awesome. Before we stepped foot out of all the countries we were playing professionally in, Courtney Thompson sent us an email like: 'Hey, as soon as we step into this gym when we return to California, we need to be on. We don't want to waste days trying to get comfortable with each other or trying to figure things out,'" middle blocker Rachael Adams recalled of the note. "'We want to communicate and be like: Hey, this is wrong, this is right, let's fix this. We don't want it to drag on.' ... We're really diligent in what we're doing and how we're working together. It's really the best it's been in a while. That means a lot."
Coach Karch Kiraly's team focused on being a "family" first was forced into a second-chance qualifier after losing twice at last year's World Cup in Japan for bronze, with the top two teams securing their spots then for the Rio Games.
That's the only loss for the U.S. in its last seven tournaments. This week, Kiraly stressed his players had to "earn it" as no other nation would hand them anything.
Meeting up once more to qualify became the most positive outcome for this tight-knit group, which has appreciated the past two weeks together to improve as individual players and as a unit through open communication off the court and detailed work on it.
The Americans were determined to do it right this time.
"We've been going at this for a long time and I think it's important to sometimes get reminded about how special this is, not only what we get to do but how we get to do it and with this special group of people," Thompson said after the match of that winning email. "We really wanted to maximize these two weeks. It came out of a disappointment but it's a huge blessing. We've embraced every minute of it. Honestly, we're all sad it's over. We want to keep going."
The U.S. dropped a set in Friday night's win against Puerto Rico, to which Kiraly said, "That was probably the best thing that could have happened to us for Puerto Rico to come back and punch us around a little."
Several hours before Saturday's clincher, Thompson posted on Twitter: "Love this family- fired up for one more match!"
In fact, she and her teammates also did something thoughtful Friday to include injured teammate Tama Miyashiro. They contacted Miyashiro and told her she needed to get to Nebraska to watch the Americans try to qualify — and all pitched in to pay her ticket to get here. So, there was Miyashiro at Pinnacle Bank Arena for the special night amid all the chants of "U-S-A!" from a crowd of 10,213.
"What a fabulous atmosphere here, a huge crowd going crazy for USA," Kiraly said. "We were very fortunate to get to host this and book our ticket for Rio."
The Americans will go their separate ways again Sunday, most back to their international club teams before meeting back up come spring in Southern California to resume training for Rio.
Thompson's teammates appreciated the setter's caring words in that note — not to mention the much-needed push.
"She's such a good leader and she kind of came out right off the bat and was like, 'Let's do this, we only have two weeks together, let's figure it out quickly, let's have some fun,'" Natalie Hagglund said. "That's exactly what we did. I'm really proud of this team for being able to dominate that so quickly."
Next up for the U.S. is bringing back the program's first Olympic gold medal. The Americans lost in the championship at the past two Olympics to Brazil, settling for silver.
"We really hit gold not qualifying from the World Cup and being here," Adams said. "Because if we had qualified from the World Cup we would not have been able to grow in this way. It's really amazing."