At age 33, middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson is one of the elder stateswomen on the U.S. indoor volleyball team.
In her third Olympics, Gunderson’s ambitions have changed. “Now it’s, ‘I want to contribute to the team and more importantly, I want us to win a gold medal.’”
In order to make the gold medal match in Tokyo, the United States had to defeat Serbia. Five years ago in Rio, the Serbian women’s volleyball team defeated the U.S. in the semifinals, handing them their only loss of the tournament. U.S. head coach Karch Kiraly called that loss “an absolute soul crusher” in an interview with The New York Times.
Beating Serbia to advance to the gold medal match was a huge step for the team, which has won five medals – no zero gold – in 11 Olympic appearances.
The U.S. will face Brazil, a team that has its own demons to rid after failing to make the podium in 2016 on home soil. The Brazilians have gone undefeated so far in Tokyo, dropping only four sets in seven matches.
In addition to winning the U.S. team’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, Gunderson is hoping to add an additional exclamation. Gunderson had her first child, son Olukayode Ayodele Gunderson, on November 28, 2019.
“It was always my goal to come back, I didn’t know if it could happen. There were many times in my comeback that I thought about giving up,” She told On Her Turf at the Olympics hosts Lindsay Czarniak and Lolo Jones.
While being an Olympian after childbirth is becoming more common – think Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan, Serena Williams, and more – it is also extremely difficult. Gunderson’s recovery was especially hard because she had to overcome a severe case of diastasis recti, or separation in her abdominal wall.
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In Gunderson’s case, she had a 9-centimeter gap after giving birth The middle-blocker needed to redevelop her core strength ahead of the Tokyo Games.
“The juggle of having an infant and trying to come back to Olympic level is no small feat,” Gunderson told NBCOlympics.com. “The strength of the female body – what we’re able to endure, and how our body changes, and how we’re able to adapt in a new way – is really impressive.”
Rebuilding her core and being a new mother amid a worldwide pandemic brought its own challenges. It was an extreme of the adage: what do you do when no one is watching? There was no competition, no travel, and not even any teammates in the weight room. It was a lonely lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games for many athletes. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Eventually, the national team was able to train together. But even then, Gunderson still trained alone at first, out of an abundance of caution for her infant son. In Tokyo, Gunderson is alone again, this time without her 21-month-old son and her husband Jonathan.
“I’m really proud to be in this Olympic Games and to represent all the moms out there.”
The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report.
Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08
During the Olympics, you can also catch up on all of the major storylines in women’s sports by watching “On Her Turf @ The Olympics,” a 30-minute show that will stream for free on Peacock. Hosted by Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz, and Lolo Jones, the show kicks off on Saturday, July 24, and will stream every day of the Games (Monday-Saturday at 7pm ET and Sundays at 6pm ET).