USA volleyball’s first Olympic gold medal has a distinctly Utah flavor

Coach Karch Kiraly of Heber City and assistant Luka Slabe, a former BYU player and coach, paved the path to the podium.

(Frank Augstein | The Associated Press) Players from the United States react after defeating Brazil to win the gold medal in women's volleyball at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

Volleyball was introduced as the first women’s Olympic sport in Tokyo in 1964. Nearly 60 years later, Team USA finally won its first gold medal in the same city. And two men connected to Utah guided the team there.

Head coach Karch Kiraly, who lives in Heber City, and his top assistant, former BYU player and coach Luka Slabe, led the American women to the gold-medal match of the Tokyo 2020 Games. There, they defeated Brazil, the team that doused their gold-medal hopes in both 2008 and 2012, in straight sets. The scores were 25-21, 25-20, 25-14.

When the final point went down in the championship, Kiraly — the first player to win an Olympic title as an indoor coach and player and on the beach — gathered Slabe and the other coaches in a writhing, celebratory circle. Meanwhile, the players collapsed in a pile on the court and cried in joy.

“I told them they’re not only bad asses,” Kiraly said, “they’re gold-medal winners!”

Slabe, who hails from Ljubljana, Slovenia, said the Olympics had always been his dream.

“I’ve been waiting for this for 44 years,” Slabe told VolleyballMag.com prior to the start of the Games. “All my life, as a little boy, I’ve been dreaming how I was gonna make it. Here I am and it’s a very special Olympics. We’re back in Tokyo where in ‘64 women’s volleyball was introduced as the first women’s team sport at the Olympics. Now, here we are back in Tokyo.”

Slabe helped deliver BYU to the NCAA championship twice as an outside hitter. The Cougars won it in 2001 and were runners up in 2003. He played and coached internationally after graduation but returned to Provo as an assistant coach of the men’s team from 2015-18. During that time, the Cougars reached the NCAA final two more times. They finished runner-up in both.

Kiraly has been the women’s national team coach since November 2012. He tabbed Slabe to become an assistant women’s national team coach shortly after Slabe left BYU in 2018. In 2020, Slabe was also named the head women’s coach at NC State.

Gov. Spencer Cox issued a congratulations to Kiraly via Twitter shortly after the match, the last women’s team medal event of the Olympics, ended late Saturday night.

“Hard to believe the US volleyball women have never won gold,” Cox wrote. “Such a cool moment! And congratulations to adopted Utahn, Coach Karch Kiraly.”

The USA entered the Olympics ranked No. 1 in the world but was also aware that doesn’t always translate into gold. The Americans have three silver medals and three bronze. Two of the silvers came at the hands of Brazil.

“I think it was more powerful for me today than when I was a player because the first Olympics I played in, we won,” Kiraly said. “We didn’t come close and lose. It makes it taste and feel much more special when you go through the hard times.”

The USA team is known for its sideline dances, but Slabe said the players aren’t afraid of hard work.

“This is a very humble and very fun group to be around,” Slabe told VolleyballMag.com. “They understand that business must be taken care of, and they’re the most professional group I’ve ever been around and I’ve coached International volleyball at a very high level. But this is the most professional group.

“But when we have fun, we can have fun, but business is business. They understand that and I’m very proud of them, how they go about their work and their business every day.”

This squad only dropped one match in Japan, a sweep by Russia during pool play. Kiraly revealed shortly before the gold-medal game that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017. He only told his team this year, shortly after he had been declared in remission.

Serbia, the 2016 silver-medal winner behind China, defeated Korea to take the bronze.

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