US star Jordan Larson looks toward another Olympic chance

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) As a girl in the youth organization 4-H, Jordan Larson learned all about the process of raising cattle. She and her friends grew vegetables, and Larson and a cousin would ride on the back of her father's tractor in tiny Hooper, Nebraska, and spray for weeds to protect the bean crop. Her dad would hire her in summertime to paint the barn or handle other small projects, or she'd help with seeding.

Long before she was pounding volleyballs across the net for the U.S. national team as one of the Americans' biggest stars, Larson developed a work ethic in her rural hometown of about 900 just 64 miles north from where she and her teammates just secured their Olympic berth.

''She did what she could do at age 8,'' her proud father, Kevin, recalled.

The 6-foot-2 outside hitter with her ponytail pulled tightly back has even been featured on a banner near the sign entering her town with an announcement reading, ''Home of Olympian Jordan Larson USA Volleyball women's national team.'' She earned another one Saturday night - Larson is headed to Rio de Janeiro this summer for her second Olympics.

The U.S. qualified with a straight-set win against the Dominican Republic, in the arena right down the street from The Flatwater restaurant that Larson part owns in Lincoln's Haymarket neighborhood.

Larson's teammates have fun with her on the practice floor, too. After Thursday's training ahead of a match against Canada that night, she was stretching out on the floor at Pinnacle Bank Arena when Nicole Fawcett grabbed the arena microphone and called out her teammate:

''Hey, Jordan, you want to have a little conversation up here? ... Give the people what they want!''

Nicknamed `Governor' or `Gov' for short by the brother of teammate Foluke Akinradewo for her immense popularity here in Nebraska, Larson just laughed and carried on untying her shoes.

Her leadership has meant so much to this close-knit team, which missed qualifying for the Rio Games during a World Cup last year and was left determined to be better for that failure.

''She sees the game at a very high level,'' coach Karch Kiraly said. ''She isn't the most physically dominant athlete. But that's not super important to us to have the person who jumps the highest and hits the hardest. What we want are people who make people around them better, who elevate the play of their teammates.''

Larson is chasing an Olympic gold medal now. She was on the 2012 silver medal squad in London that didn't drop a match before losing to Brazil in the Olympic final, a 3-1 upset that sent the Brazilians into celebratory somersaults and some of the American players into sobs. Brazil beat the U.S. in the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing, too, and will have home-court advantage this year.

Larson's father, Kevin, considers ''a lot of God-given talent, passion and hard work'' as the keys to her reaching volleyball's biggest stage out of her small hometown.

''Maybe because she hasn't always been the most dominant physical player I don't know what kind of expectations people had for her internationally,'' Kiraly said. ''But I think she's probably surprised a few people who might have wondered how she would hold up internationally to be such an elite outside hitter among the world of international volleyball.''

The 29-year-old Larson, who also plays for the Turkish club team Eczacibasi, was just named USA Volleyball Female Indoor Player of Year for her role in leading the young Americans to a 41-6 record in 2015 and four tournament titles.

''It's been an amazing journey so far for me, in the places that I've gone and the people that I've met,'' she said.

Some of Larson's work ethic likely developed roots on the little family farm, where she only spent part of her time after her parents divorced. Her mother, Kae Clough, died six years ago.

As a girl, she chronicled cow-calf production while learning everything from the animal's developmental stages, its feeding and breeding responsibilities and other aspects of raising cattle and the business.

''I was just always around it. I didn't necessarily farm that much,'' Larson said.

Her father taught school for more than 30 years, focused on industrial technology at the middle school and high school levels, and he coached basketball and football. For fun, he ran his modest farm.

''A small farmer on the side,'' he said. ''I raise row crops and some alfalfa and run some cattle. I'm not a large-scale farmer. I guess you'd want to call it a hobby farmer.''

Kevin Larson made the 90-minute drive south from Hooper this week to cheer for her, and, now, the next trip will be far bigger: to Brazil.

''She's my blessing child, my only child,'' said her father, who intently watched his daughter during the national anthem Thursday. ''I take a lot of pride in her.''

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