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USA Volleyball confirmed that Nicky Nieves and Tia Edwards – both members of the initial 12-person roster – had been replaced by Annie Flood and Nichole Millage.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.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC


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.

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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