2021 Paralympics: Women’s Sitting Volleyball Preview

Sitting volleyball at the 2016 Rio Paralympics
Getty Images

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USA Volleyball confirmed that Nicky Nieves and Tia Edwards – both members of the initial 12-person roster – had been replaced by Annie Flood and Nichole Millage.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