Foster Alumna Courtney Thompson brings home silver from the 2012 Summer Olympic Games
“I have a chance, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
So said Courtney Thompson (BA 2008) back in 2007, when she was first training with USA Volleyball in hopes of making the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Many assessed that chance as slim.
Despite a stellar career at the University of Washington, Thompson was considered too short to compete at the international level. Not fast enough. Technique needed work.
She’d heard it all before. And, as before, such sober appraisals became fuel for the fire. “My entire career I’ve felt like the underdog,” she says today, donning her silver medal from the London Olympics. “I’ve always had to prove myself—but that’s a comfortable position for me.”
Thompson wasn’t always a longshot. As a kid she played—and excelled at—every sport that would have her. Baseball. Softball. Hockey. Soccer. Basketball. In middle school, she took up volleyball.
Topping out at 5-foot-7 in a sport of giants, Thompson was never going to dominate the game’s martial lexicon of attacks, spikes, cuts and kills. So she became the catalyst, the quarterback, the setter. She graduated from Kentlake High School student body president, valedictorian, and captain of three state championship volleyball teams.
The collegiate powers, however, were not interested.
Their loss was the UW’s gain. Jim McLaughlin, first-year coach of the perennial also-ran in the mighty Pac-10 Conference, saw in Thompson precisely the kind of overlooked gem that would deliver Husky volleyball to the nation’s elite.
“I just got a vibe (the first time I saw her play),” McLaughlin told the Seattle Times in July. “I watched her energy. I watched her drive. I watched her compete… Those things outweighed her height and her blocking ability.”
Sure did. After four years of voracious learning, inspiring leadership and infectious intensity, Thompson became the most-decorated student-athlete in school history. She rewrote national and conference assist records, was a three-time All-American and Academic All-American (carrying a 3.55 GPA at the UW Foster School of Business), and received the 2005 Honda Award, honoring the best player in college volleyball. More importantly to Thompson, her teams reached three NCAA semifinals and won the 2005 national championship.
The Olympic dream
The international game was different. Difficult. After failing to make the team for Beijing, getting to London was going to take superhuman dedication. “I decided that either I walk away and say this wasn’t meant to be,” Thompson recalls, “or I’m going to do absolutely everything I can to make it.”
As usual, she opted for absolutely everything.
From fall to spring she played professionally—relentlessly—in Switzerland and Puerto Rico, delivering league championships in both (she’s off to Poland this fall).
Summers were all about making the world’s number one volleyball team. Competition was fierce. But Thompson clawed up the depth chart. She finally cracked the first team at last spring’s FIVB World Grand Prix, sparking a US comeback victory in the gold medal match.
A month later, she was named to the 12-woman roster headed to London, a moment that rendered the usually effusive Thompson “speechless… I wanted to shout, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t do either or anything in between.”
That USA team marched undefeated to the gold-medal match, with Thompson stepping up from a reserve role to lead a three-set sweep of the Dominican Republic in the quarterfinal. The Americans’ magical run ended in the final, though, by a galvanized Brazilian squad.
The long road back
Thompson was disappointed, but hardly devastated. “You wake up the next morning and think, did that just happen?” she says. “But then there is a huge satisfaction in knowing that we’d done everything possible to prepare. And when you go play, you never know what’s going to happen. That’s what makes sports so fun.”
Thompson has off-court aspirations. Coaching or athletics administration, most likely. But first she has some unfinished business. Another four years and countless odds to overcome lie between her and Olympic gold in Rio. As ever, she’s looking forward. For Thompson, the journey has always been as sweet as the destination.
“Some people train for the big moments. But I love playing this game and being with this group of girls every day,” she says. “The past four years were an incredible experience. I’ve grown a lot as an athlete and as a person. But what really motivates me is how much more I have to learn. I just want to do it even better next time—and enjoy every second of it.”