Five American Women With Something To Prove At The Tokyo Olympics
By Aimee Crawford
Some of the most compelling storylines of the Tokyo Games feature star athletes who are seeking to avenge previous losses on the Olympic stage.
Christen Press, Cat Osterman and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson have all been unequivocally successful in their respective sports — and are some of the greatest athletes to ever compete for Team USA. Yet, they each admit that settling for silver (or, worse, no medal at all) still stings, and aren’t ready to rest on their considerable laurels. Another shot at ultimate glory, and gold, is the only goal in Tokyo.
Here are five American women who have unfinished business to settle at this year’s Olympics.
Press has emerged as the best — and most important — player on the pitch for the U.S. Women’s National Team this year. The veteran forward, 32, has been a quiet force for the national team since her first cap in 2013, but mostly in a supporting role.
Press, who has seen her role grow under head coach Vlatko Andonovski, has been a standout for the U.S. side in the leadup to the Olympics. She scored the second and fourth U.S. goals in a victory over Mexico on July 1, has recorded a point in 17 of her past 21 games and has been directly involved in 37 goals over her past 37 games. (And that doesn’t even include her stunning score in the rematch with Mexico on July 5, which was disallowed because of an inadvertent whistle.)
Press and her teammates will take a 44-game unbeaten streak into the Tokyo Olympics, where they are seeking to become the first women’s side to win a World Cup and an Olympic gold medal back-to-back. But they will also bring some weighty baggage. The last time we saw this team on the Olympic stage, it was crashing out of the Rio Games in the quarterfinals, after losing to Sweden in a penalty shootout. It marked the first time that the U.S. women had failed to medal or reach the semifinal of a major international tournament.
After the match ended in a 1-1 tie, it went to penalty kicks. Press — who had entered in the 99th minute as a sub for Megan Rapinoe — missed the U.S.’s fifth and final attempt, sailing her spot-kick over the bar. She wasn’t the only player who failed to convert for the U.S. — Alex Morgan’s shot, the first of the shootout, was saved by Sweden’s goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl, and Sweden prevailed 4-3 — but Press’s miss put her under a particularly glaring spotlight. (Fans attempted to console Press, a rescue dog advocate, by sharing photos of their pups with her on Twitter.)
In the five years since that loss to Sweden, the USWNT has beaten its nemesis in the World Cup and reached a 1-1 draw in an April friendly in the interim. But it’s still painful. “You don’t forget the taste in your mouth when you fail and when you lose in a world championship,” Press told the AP in 2019. “And I think there’s a little bit of that that will definitely act as motivation.”
Press and the U.S. won’t have to wait much longer to exact revenge. They will face Sweden in their opening match in Tokyo on July 21. The pressure to avenge the loss doesn’t rest on Press alone, of course.
Left back Crystal Dunn is one of five players on the current team who are still seeking their first Olympic medal. “Our first game in Tokyo being [against] Sweden is going to raise a whole lot of emotions within us, knowing that they were the team that knocked us out in 2016,” said Dunn between the victories against Mexico last week. “That’s gonna be intense. But we’re a completely different team than we were in 2016. We’ve had a lot of years under our belt of fine-tuning things.”
One of the USWNT’s most important tweaks: moving Press into the team’s starting 11 for good and giving her a position she can call her own. She’s no longer a super-substitute. She’s a bonafide superstar.
“In Christen,” Andonovski said, “I see a great player, a world-class player.”
Osterman has waited nearly 13 years for a chance at redemption.
On Aug. 21, 2008 — the date remains burned in her memory — the U.S. softball team’s ace was upset by Japan in the gold medal game at the Beijing Games, surrendering two runs in a 3-1 loss that snapped USA’s 22-game undefeated run in Olympic competition. Adding to the heartbreak: softball had just been eliminated from Olympic competition. So there would be no chance for a rematch.
The fact that Osterman already had a gold medal in her quiver was little consolation. During her first Olympic experience with Team USA, at the 2004 Athens Games, the 21-year-old had pitched alongside legends like Jennie Finch and Lisa Hernandez and led the squad in strikeouts.
“Coming home with the silver in 2008, we felt like we didn’t live up to the standard,” she told Olympics.com. “It was one of the lowest points in my career. “
Osterman figured that her days of chasing Olympic glory were done. She continued to play in the National Pro Fastpitch league before retiring from competition in 2015, then worked in the college coaching ranks. When she learned in 2018 that softball was returning to the Olympic lineup for the Tokyo Games, Osterman initially considered applying for a coaching role with the team. But a friend finally convinced her to dust off her glove and get back in the circle.
The fact that the Games would take place in Japan, against whose national team she earned her first Olympic victory and also her sole Olympic defeat, was added motivation. Osterman quickly proved that, even in her late-30s, she could still overpower hitters. Last summer, she won the individual points title in the inaugural Athletes Unlimited pro softball league after going 13-1 with 95 strikeouts.
Making her return to the pitching circle in Tokyo feels like coming full circle for Osterman. “Even when I retired, I just felt like I hadn’t really finished the story,” she told fellow Olympian Julie Foudy earlier this year.
When Osterman and Team USA won gold in 2004, she was the youngest player on the roster. Now she’s the oldest. Osterman, now 38, and fellow lefty Monica Abbott, 35, are the only players on the Team USA softball squad for Tokyo who have previous Olympic experience. Osterman started the gold medal game in 2008 — and Abbott finished. The pitcher who won it for Japan, ace Ueno Yukiko, is still with the team and will be in Tokyo. That all adds up to a rematch rich with dramatic potential when the U.S. and Japan meet in the opening round on July 26.
This time around, Osterman wants to write a different ending.
“You don’t win the silver medal, you lose the gold,” Osterman told Foudy. “It’s hard to accept that you were that close and it slipped away. I came home [from Beijing] swearing that everyone was going to be like, ‘Oh you were the starting pitcher that lost the gold medal for the U.S. national team.’”
Osterman, who was named to ESPN’s Greatest All-Time Softball Team, did eventually realize that the loss, the only one she suffered on the Olympic stage, did not define her legacy. But the sport’s greatest southpaw still wants to end her career on her terms, and bookend her phenomenal career with gold medals.
“You may kind of accept it,” she said of finishing second. “But I don’t think you ever really move on from it.”
FOLUKE AKINRADEWO GUNDERSON
Sport: Indoor volleyball
The U.S. is the only country to win an Olympic medal in women’s indoor volleyball in each of the last three Games — and Akinradewo Gunderson had a hand in two of them. Yet the Americans have never won the ultimate prize. After taking silver in 2012, Akinradewo Gunderson and her teammates won bronze in 2016. It was a less-than-satisfying ending.
“I honestly thought we were going to be the team that brought home the first gold medal for team USA for women’s volleyball [in Rio],” Akinradewo Gunderson, whose knee injury in the first set of the semifinal game sidelined her for the rest of the match against Serbia, told Shondaland. “But we didn’t. We had to play the bronze medal match. … If you lose, you go home with nothing. So we gave ourselves a day to mourn the loss and then we had to come back together as a team.”
Akinradewo Gunderson, now 33, has gained plenty of perspective since that disappointment. After being named USA Volleyball’s Co-Female Player of the Year in 2018, she missed the following year’s international season as she gave birth to her first child, Kayode, on Thanksgiving Day in 2019. She was back in the gym by January, but her training was hampered by diastasis, the separation of the abdomen muscles. Then the pandemic hit. “I was just in my garage working out for months by myself with Zoom,” Akinradewo Gunderson said.
Now healthy, Akinradewo Gunderson — one of the top middle blockers in the world since she began competing for Team USA in 2009 — will be the veteran leader of a young American team that features eight first-time Olympians. The U.S. is ranked No. 1 and is coming off a third straight championship in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, but will have its work cut out in Tokyo, where it will be in the same group as second-ranked China, the defending Olympic champion. The U.S. faces Argentina in its opening game on July 24.
Akinradewo Gunderson returned to the court in May for her first competition with Team USA in nearly three years. “I never truly understood how much weight the USA jersey held until yesterday,” she wrote on Instagram. “It’s been a long and arduous journey to get back here and there were many times I debated calling it quits along the way, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It was all worth it.”
Gray, a five-time world champion freestyle wrestler, is one of her sport’s most successful athletes. But she has suffered nothing but heartbreak at the Olympics. The Denver native failed to qualify for the Games in 2012, then got upset in the quarterfinals in Rio.
Favored to become the first American woman to win a gold medal in wrestling at the 2016 Games, Gray was hampered by a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery and was upset in the quarterfinals 4-1 by Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus — a foe she had dominated in the past.
Her dreams dashed yet again, Gray wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to another four years of training in her grueling sport. Gray, who had started wrestling when she was just six years old and went on to become the second-most-decorated wrestler in U.S. women’s history, wanted to start a family. But, after talking things over with her husband, Damaris Sanders, she decided to put her dream of motherhood on hold to focus on working her way back in time for the Tokyo Olympics. Her younger sister Geneva helped her train.
Gray won a silver medal at the Pan American Wrestling Championships in 2020 — but fractured her ribs, and feared that her Olympics hopes might be on hold once again. When the Tokyo Games were postponed because of the pandemic, she got another reprieve.
Gray, now 30, a five-time world champion, appears to be in top form. In April, at the Olympic wrestling trials, she punched her ticket to Tokyo with a pair of technical fall victories over 17-year-old Kylie Welker. She will be the U.S. team’s 76kg representative — and the top seed in her weight class — at the Olympics.
“I’m ranked No. 1 going into this event, so there are a lot of expectations,” Gray said.
Expectations are nothing new for Gray, who has never hidden her ultimate ambition. Her motto and personal website URL is “Gray to Gold.” In 2012, there were only four classes for women in the Olympics; Gray’s weight class was not yet one of them. Even though she was ranked No. 1 in the world, she had to move down to a smaller weight class. She finished second and went to the Olympics as an alternate.
“Being an alternate is awful because you get reminded that you didn’t win every single day,” she told Forbes. “You’re just sitting there watching the Olympian get everything that you want, and these opportunities and everything that you could have possibly dreamed of, and you’re just sitting in the corner, just trying to be a good teammate. And at 19, you just don’t have enough perspective not to sit there and have a pity party. … It definitely set me up for success because I never wanted to be back in that position.”
This time around, she won’t be relegated to the sidelines.
“A second shot is great,” she said after her trials victory, when asked what it meant to earn a return trip to the Olympics. “It’s such a heartfelt moment to not get what you want out of a tournament, especially at an Olympic games, and I feel like I’m the best one in the weight class, and so to not have that [Olympic] gold medal . . . it stings.”
Sport: Beach Volleyball
Ross is hoping her third time will be a golden charm. The 39-year-old has represented the U.S. Olympic Team in beach volleyball at two previous Games. After winning a silver medal in 2012 with Jen Kessy, Ross and partner Kerri Walsh Jennings were upset in straight sets in the semifinals in 2016 — Walsh Jennings’ first Olympic loss in 27 matches — before rebounding to beat Brazil’s Talita and Larissa and win bronze.
Ross and Walsh Jennings parted ways nine months after Rio. Ross eventually teamed up with former indoor volleyball player Alix Klineman, and together they are gunning for that elusive gold. The duo won a silver medal at the last world championships, in 2019, and are ranked No. 2 in the world behind Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. (Walsh Jennings and current partner Brooke Sweat did not qualify for Tokyo.)
Now 39, Ross is returning to the Games as one of the oldest competitors in the field. The beach volleyball preliminary rounds begin July 24, and the knockout stage starts Aug. 1. “The lure of the gold medal is definitely there. I want to get it,” Ross told USA Today.
But she will do so with a different mindset. During her last Olympics, Ross says she went in with a “gold medal or bust” mentality, and put too much pressure on herself. In Tokyo, she plans to keep things in perspective.
“In Rio, I had blinders on and didn’t really experience the spirit of the Olympics as much as I wish I had,” she said. “So I’m trying to keep an open mind. You can’t control everything. I’m going in with high expectations but I also want it to be a great experience.”