March 20, 2012

The week Foluke Akinradewo spent in Colorado Springs with the U.S. women's volleyball team at age 16 almost had the opposite intended effect.

"To be honest, it was hard," she says. "My mom came with me and I remember telling her, I don't know if I can make this my life. These girls just play volleyball and they eat and sleep and train and train some more and I don't know if I can do this ... and we laugh all the time because here I am and all I do is play volleyball and eat and sleep and play volleyball."

Eight years later, Akinradewo splits her year between playing for her professional team -- this year in Russia, last year in Japan -- and for the U.S. national team, with about five days off in between. All volleyball, all the time.

It all started her sophomore year of high school. Akinradewo had always been tall -- she's now 6'3" -- and although she'd been a serious runner and basketball player, she had to that point ignored the encouragements of the volleyball coach to give the sport a try.

Finally, just to appease the coach, she joined the team.

"The first week, I was like, 'This is crazy,'" Akinradewo remembers. "I was just awful, and I was sore in areas I didn't know I could be sore. When I thought about volleyball I thought about picnics and barbecues, really chill, but it definitely wasn't, so it was kind of a rude awakening, but I think the challenge of it kept me going."

Her natural aptitude for the sport didn't hurt, either. Despite being relatively unskilled, she was an excellent athlete and was invited to try out for the junior national team that summer with one season's experience under her belt. Her junior national peers had mostly been playing for four or more years, for their high schools and on clubs, so they got close to year-round instruction.

Here again it was her athleticism that carried her. Early in the process, the coaches measured the athletes' vertical leaps. Akinradewo out-jumped the machine they were using.

"I think within about an hour after that, everyone knew her name," says her college coach, Stanford's John Dunning. She had gone from an unknown -- after all, it had been only a few months earlier that she had first touched a volleyball -- to a valuable college recruit. And she beat several of the more experienced competitors to make the junior national team, giving her access the next December to the week in Colorado Springs.

By her senior year in high school, the opportunity with the junior national team turned into an opportunity with the senior national team before she headed off to Stanford, the fulfillment of a dream that was born when her older brother Foluso was competing for Oregon in a track meet at Stanford. They held a 200-meter race for the kids in attendance, which she won handily, and the timekeeper remarked that she hoped she'd see Foluke in Stanford colors in a few years.

Between her high school GPA (north of 4.0) and her volleyball ability, Stanford snapped her up. Again, she was a leader athletically, but there was room for improvement technically. In fact, it wasn't until the end of her first year that Dunning realized exactly what he had in her.

"When she was a freshman," Dunning remembers, "we had some key injuries -- one player tore her ACL, another broke some bones in her hand -- so we were playing without some very key people, some All-Americans, and we lost in the second round of the playoffs. I don't think anybody predicted the emotion that came out of her. She was just inconsolable. And I think everybody knew then how much she strove to be the best."

Akinradewo laughs when she thinks back to that day.

"I can't forget that moment," she says. "We were playing Santa Clara in the second round of the tournament at Stanford and it was match point for them in the fourth set. I got set the ball, and I hit it out of bounds, ending our season. It's easier said than done, you know, it's not just your fault, but you don't remember that. I felt responsible in a large way. It really hit me hard. I don't think anyone expected that much emotion out of me."

It was a defining experience in her career.

"It made me hungrier for the next season," she says, "and it allowed me to know that I can't really take things for granted. Unfortunately we never did end up winning a national championship, but we did get further." Stanford reached the finals her sophomore, junior and season seasons, losing to Nebraska the first time and current four-time defending champion Penn State the other two.

Now, her focus has moved from winning NCAA titles to winning Olympic gold. Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. men to gold in Beijing, took over on the women's side at the beginning of this quadrennial. Although he won't lay odds on her chances of making the London team -- she found out just a month before the 2008 Games started that she'd only been named an alternate -- she has started at middle blocker on the teams that won the FIVB World Grand Prix in both '10 and '11 and just recently qualified for London with a silver at the World Cup in November. She won tournament MVP and best blocker at the '10 Grand Prix.

"She is a fantastic athlete," says McCutcheon, "but she's become a fantastic volleyball player. In the international world, just being physically superior isn't enough. You have to be physical, but you have to be technically efficient. It's the combination of physical dominance and skill that's helped her established herself at the international level."

Akinradewo looks back at the process thus far with wonder born in part from her initial fears.

"I never dreamed that this would be my life," she says.

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