Its not an easy team to make or even contend for given the high caliber of college volleyball continually entering the pipeline to the national team. So for Arizona native Madi Kingdon Rishel to be pushing for an outside hitter job on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo is a substantial accomplishment no matter how the eventual cut to 12 players goes next year.
"Our team has the ability to win gold in Tokyo," Kingdon Rishel said. "We have a lot of great outsides on our team. Its definitely a tough position to break into, but the potential is always there. Im working hard each day for that potential."
Dave Rubio, who coached Kingdon Rishel at Arizona from 2011-14, puts her Olympic chances at 50/50. Three outsides from Rio -- Kelsey Robinson, Jordan Larson and Kim Hill -- still are on the national team with Larson turning 34 this year. Michele Bartsch-Hackley and Kingdon are the main OH additions since 2016.
The U.S. women were 44-7 in 2019, winning gold at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, Pan American Cup and NORCECA Champions Cup. The U.S. qualified for the Olympics by winning its tournament pool in August 2019, which carries over even with the Tokyo Games being postponed until summer 2021.
U.S. coach Karch Kiraly carried four left-side hitters for major competitions last year. Kingdon played in the FIVB Nations League (three weeks), Pan American Cup and Pan American Games in her fourth year with the national team.
"Its been more than what I could have imagined," Kingdon Rishel said. "Coming out of Arizona, there werent a lot of players who played professionally so I didnt really know I was getting myself into and I didnt really have a lot of guidance. The fact everything has panned out the way it has is pretty incredible, and Im really just grateful for everything that has happened thus far. So anything on top of this is pretty much just a cherry on top."
Even as a three-time state champion at Phoenix Sunnyslope High School and 2010 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year and solid club coaching under Terri Spann with the Arizona Storm, the 6-1 Kingdon Rishel fell under the recruiting radar with major colleges, Rubio said.
What others missed out on was a driven player who rose to top three in school career kills (1,943) and digs (1,366) and in 2014-15 was All-America for indoor and beach.
"What sets her apart is her mentality, confidence and belief in herself," Rubio said. "She not only wants to beat you, she wants to make you look bad when shes doing it. How far shes gone since she graduated is remarkable. I was uncertain how she would fit in with the national team. Shes physical enough at the net to play at the international level and her passing and defending skill is rare."
Beach volleyball seemed like the right step to pursue after college, especially living in Hermosa Beach (California) but then came and indoor offer to play in Azerbaijan. "I didnt know where it was, but I figured Id give it a shot," Kingdon Rishel said. "I didnt want to say what if. After that, I fell in love with it (pro indoor) and things progressed from there."
She played in Korea from 2016-18, also marrying Paul Rishel during that stretch, then on a championship team in China in 2018-19 and was late into her first season in Turkey when the season ended due to COVID-19.
"I went from 100 to zero," said Kingdon Rishel, who returned to the U.S. on March 21 and spent some of the ensuring quarantine with her parents in Arizona. Her husband is an Air Force captain stationed in Los Angeles.
"At first it was nice because in the thick of season, I was tired and pretty drained. Getting this nice break, I get to take a step back and recharge. After you do that for so long, you go a little bit stir crazy. This might be the most time weve spent together since we got married. It really is a catch 22. Ive gotten to spend so much time with him and be home and relax, but theres this other part of me thats like I should be doing something. Its such a strange feeling."