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Let the games begin (Atlanta Olympics 1996)

I’d put myself through a thousand deaths before we finally got to the first game in Atlanta, against the English team of Cooper and Glover, but we had a great game plan, and it ultimately got us through those first-round nerves. We won relatively easily, 15–4. Our four-point plan went pretty well:

  1. Make them small.
  2. Serve aggressively.
  3. Target Audrey
  4. Finish strong.

Pretty simple really, but we liked the KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) theory. With a complicated game plan you can be bogged down in too much paralysing detail.

The next day, we hammered the American team of Gail Castro and Deb Richardson, 15–2, and felt vindicated, as they were seeded where we should have been, due to a ruling by the international body. We used that little annoyance as our motivation, and played strong, error-free volleyball. They were so excited to be at the Games that they didn’t know what hit them when they found themselves in front of a home crowd of 11,000. The match also taught us a little about playing in front of huge, vocal home crowds, and we filed that one away for Sydney!

The win put us exactly where we wanted to be: a showdown with Reno and McPeak. Now, to put this in perspective: Reno and McPeak had dominated the 1996 season, winning six out of eight events leading into Atlanta. They were an awesome combination, but had experienced some teamwork issues as the Games drew closer. Everyone began to see a weakness in their armour. Kerri and I had done our homework, and we were ready to play them.

Our game plan was perfect. We had Holly in trouble from the very first serve, and played some awesome volleyball that put them under a lot of pressure before we even realised that we’d jumped out to a 13–8 lead.

The game seemed to move so quickly, but you can never rest on your laurels, and the Americans pegged us back to 13–12, after Reno got fired up in a (non-verbal—all body language) exchange with me. It was like two tigers in a cage! But we managed to withstand the surge and won the match 15–13. It felt like a great triumph. We had not just overcome a great team, but we put ourselves exactly where we needed to be. The big crowd was parochial, chanting “USA, USA”, the whole time. But we decided to hear it differently, and in our minds it became “AUS!”
We came through, so it was a great psychological boost, especially after we saw the look on the faces of our opponents after the match! We never wanted to feel that way.

This put us into the semi-final against Monica Rodrigues and Adriana Samuel—the second Brazilian team—for a place in the no-lose medal final. We would get at least a silver if we won this match, but if we lost, we could have ended up fourth—an athlete’s worst nightmare. All that hard work to get so close to the medals—yet so very far!

It was at this point that my fears finally kicked in. All the band aids started to peel away. No amount of positive self-talk would pull me out of this one. My heart just didn’t believe any of it, and the lead-up to this match was the worst possible time to realise this. Throughout the game, I focused on not losing, instead of on winning. They were always a scary team for me, and all through our 15–3 loss, my Voice kept telling me that I wasn’t good enough to win. It kept asking questions like “What if it doesn’t go to plan? What if we lose?”.

We had won all of our games right through to the semi-final, and along the way we had defeated the number-one team, from the USA. Yet, when we got to  that semi-final, doubts that I didn’t even know I had come to the surface. So I suppose, in retrospect, it shouldn’t surprise me that at 3–2 down we thought it was all over! Correction: I felt it was all over. I felt as though I was at the bottom of a mountain, looking up. It looked way too hard to come back. At this point, I felt that I wasn’t good enough. I felt unfit, slow, and lacking in mental strength. I had found a lot of reasons why I couldn’t win. We always seem to find those voices very readily. I just couldn’t hold on to a positive attitude any longer. I felt nervous and under-prepared. I had my Voice saying “This team’s too good today, Nat”. There was nothing on the other side to balance that Voice. From then, it was a downward spiral. The harder we tried, the worse it got, and I began to feel helpless, as though it was all out of my control. The positive self-talk was nowhere to be heard. It hadn’t even shown up on the day!

Physically, Kerri and I were capable of winning a gold medal in Atlanta, but not mentally and emotionally. The fact is that, at this elite level of beach volleyball, everybody’s skills are about equal. Everyone can hit, pass, set, and serve the ball. It all comes down to the mind of the athlete. Kerri and I hadn’t been in a winning position enough as a team to believe or understand that we could do it. What’s more important, we hadn’t run our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems, through the experience of winning.

It took a loss to realise we had a lot of fight in us, and we decided we weren’t going to leave without a medal. As I wrote in my diary, “Learnt a lesson today but not a good time to have to learn it!”.

“A champion is someone who gets up when they can’t.”

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