2021 Paralympics: Women’s Sitting Volleyball Preview

Sitting volleyball at the 2016 Rio Paralympics
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Since women’s sitting volleyball debuted at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, the United States and China have met in the gold medal final three of four times (2008, 2012, 2016). China defeated the United States in both 2008 and 2012 (and the Netherlands in 2004) to claim gold, while the U.S. claimed the most recent Paralympic title in 2016.

Heading into the Tokyo Paralympics, here are some of the key storylines to watch in the women’s sitting volleyball tournament.

Sitting Volleyball – Paralympic Tournament Format

Sitting volleyball matches are best of five sets. The first four sets are first to 25 points (win by two). If a fifth set is played, it is first to 15 (win by two).

The Tokyo Paralympics will feature eight women’s teams, divided into two groups:

  • Pool A: Japan (JPN), Italy (ITA), Brazil (BRA), Canada (CAN)
  • Pool B: United States (USA), Rwanda (RWA), China (CHN), Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC)

At the conclusion of the round robin portion of the tournament, the top two teams in each pool will qualify for the semifinal round.

RELATED: US women win second straight gold in sitting volleyball

How Classification Works in Sitting Volleyball

Athletes are classified as either VS1 (impaired) and VS2 (less impaired). Teams can have two VS2 athletes on each roster, but only one VS2 player can be on the court at a time.

Americans enter Tokyo as defending Paralympic gold medalists

The U.S. has claimed a medal at every Paralympics since women’s sitting volleyball debuted: bronze in 2004, silver in 2008 and 2012, and gold in 2016. Eight members of that 2016 gold-medal winning team will compete in Tokyo.

The U.S. roster saw some last minute changes heading into the Tokyo Paralympics. On Thursday, USA Volleyball confirmed that Nicky Nieves and Tia Edwards – both members of the initial 12-person roster – had been replaced by Annie Flood and Nichole Millage.

The team is led by head coach Bill Hamiter and assistant coach Michelle Goodall.

2021 U.S. Paralympic Roster – Women’s Sitting Volleyball

1 Lora Webster Middle Blocker VS1 Fifth Paralympic appearance
2 Bethany Zummo Libero VS1 Second Paralympic appearance
3 Lexi Shifflett Setter/Libero VS1 Second Paralympic appearance
5 Katie Holloway (C) Outside Hitter VS1 Fourth Paralympic appearance
6 Heather Erickson Opposite Hitter VS1 Fourth Paralympic appearance
7 Monique Matthews (née Burkland) Middle Blocker/ Outside Hitter VS1 Third Paralympic appearance
8 Whitney Dosty Outside Hitter/ Opposite Hitter VS2 Paralympic debut
11 Jillian Williams Middle Blocker/ Opposite Hitter VS1 Paralympic debut
12 Emma Schieck Outside Hitter VS1 Paralympic debut
13 Nichole Millage Outside Hitter VS1 Fourth Paralympic appearance
14 Kaleo Kanahele Maclay Setter VS2 Third Paralympic appearance
15 Annie Flood Setter/ Opposite Hitter VS1 Paralympic debut

Lora Webster, the only five-time Paralympian on the U.S. team, is competing in Tokyo while 20 weeks pregnant. And it won’t even be a new experience for Webster; the Arizona native was also pregnant when she won silver at the 2012 London Games.

The U.S. team also includes three four-time Paralympians: Heather Erickson, Katie Holloway, and Nichole Millage.

Since competing in Rio, Holloway advocated for equal pay for Paralympic athletes. As vice chair of the Athlete Advisory Council for the United States Olympic Committee (later renamed United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee), Holloway was part of a committee that looked at the financial bonuses awarded to Olympians and Paralympians.

Prior to 2018, Olympians received $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze, while Paralympians received $7,500, $5,250 and $3,750, respectively. In 2018, the USOC announced that Paralympians would begin receiving the same prize money as Olympians. The following year, the organization voted to change its name to include the word “Paralympic.”

Holloway recounted her experience to Amplitude in May 2020:

I just remember standing up and proclaiming my sense of feeling slapped in the face and not understanding how we were expected to accept this as fair. And that’s where the conversation turned to, ‘You generate less revenue. Paralympians generate less than 1 percent of the revenue.’ And I spoke up again and I said, ‘How dare you define our value by the revenue we generate. If that were really the case, then by that logic you would give all the money to Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Katie Ledecky. You would give it all to the athletes who generated the highest revenues for you, and not to the Olympic athletes from minor sports.’

US Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team – Tokyo Schedule:

  • Saturday, August 28 – USA vs. Rwanda: 1 am ET (2 pm in Tokyo)
  • Monday, August 30 – USA vs. China: 5:30 am ET (6:30 pm in Tokyo)
  • Wednesday, September 1 – USA vs. RPC: 5:30 am ET (6:30 pm in Tokyo)

Here’s a look at the other teams in pool B:

China aims to return to top of the podium

China is the most dominant team in women’s sitting volleyball history, having claimed three gold medals and one silver.

The Chinese roster includes two athletes who have been a part of every podium to-date: setter Lyu Hongqin and middle blocker Zhang Xufei.

Russian athletes aim for first Paralympic medal

Russia has never competed in women’s sitting volleyball at the Paralympics, let alone won a medal. But after a breakthrough world title in 2018, the Russian athletes (competing as the Russian Paralympic Committee) have a chance to finish on the podium in Tokyo.

The team is led by captain Elizaveta Kunstman.

Rwanda continues to make history

In 2016, Rwanda’s women’s sitting volleyball team became the first women’s team from Sub-Saharan Africa to compete at the Paralympic Games in any sport.

Led by captain and outside hitter Liliane Mukobwankawe, nine members of Rwanda’s team for Tokyo are returning Paralympians.

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How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics

NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:

  • A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
  • Events can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.