When Courtney Thompson steps into the Maracanazinho for the Rio Olympic volleyball tournament, the scene will be familiar.
The fans will be familiar, the venue will be familiar, even her rivals will be familiar.
Thompson, who made her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games, spent the 2015-16 offseason playing in Brazil on the Rexona-Ades Superliga team alongside many women on the Olympic host’s team.
The Brazilian women, who hold two consecutive Olympic gold medals and four medals overall, are slated to be one of the toughest team to beat in Rio. But for Thompson, the pressure of playing Brazil is lessened ever-so-slightly by the fact that her biggest rivals were former teammates.
“It almost diffuses some of the whole ‘playing Brazil’. You’re not really playing Brazil anymore, you’re playing these people you know pretty well,” Thompson told NBCOlympics.com.
She has the potential to play former club teammates Gabi, Juciely and Natalia, all named to the Brazilian Olympic squad.
“It was fun because we would joke about it, they would miss a ball in practice or something, I would heckle them like, ‘Oh, is that how you win a gold medal?’ Thompson said. “And they throw it back at me a little bit, it was all in fun. I respect that team a lot.”
To make it to the Gold Medal Match, the U.S. women must finish among the top four in their pool play group, cruise through the quarterfinals and clear the semifinals. Given that both Brazil and the U.S. women are favored to advance as the top team of their respective pools, the odds of a third consecutive Brazil vs. USA Gold Medal Match seems likely.
“I think the biggest thing about this [U.S.] team is that we want a challenge, we want it to be hard, we want to be tested in tough environments and it would be fun to play Brazil in Brazil,” Thompson said.
As far as cheering for her former teammates at the Olympics?
“I loved my team, we went through some fun battles together and you get close by doing that, so as friends I want them to be successful and I want them to be in the finals,” she said.
“But I hope, of course, we beat them in the finals. But I would be stoked for them, especially when they’re not playing us.”
Thompson’s connection to Brazil reaches even further back than 2015. Brazil, specifically the Maracanazinho venue, marks the location where she made her international debut with the Team USA.
“I went to the Pan Am Games in 2007,” Thompson said. “It was my first international tournament and we played in Maracanazinho.”
The Maracanazinho, often considered to be the spiritual home of volleyball, sits next to the well known soccer venue, the Maracana Stadium. Its little sibling in the southeast, Maracanazinho translates to “little Maracana.”
“It’s a rad stadium and they love volleyball,” Thompson said of the Olympic volleyball venue. “It’s such a fun place to play down there.”
For Thompson, the stadium where she started her international career will also be the stadium where she ends her international career.
“It will be my last tournament with the USA team,” Thompson said. “I’m definitely going to be done playing after Rio.”
Thompson, who joined the U.S. women’s national team in 2007, holds countless medals,including two World Grand Prix golds, a World Championship gold and a silver medal from the London Games. Aside from her career on the U.S. national team, she spent nearly a decade playing on international club teams around the globe in places like Brazil, Austria, Poland and Switzerland.
Thompson cites the time away from home as a major reason for the decision to retire.
“I’ve been overseas nine years. It’s super fun and it’s cool and we get to do all of these amazing stuff but you’re also out of the country for like 8, 9 months of the year. I just want to be around my friends and family,” Thompson said.
“You know I think I’ve gotten to experience, outside of winning the gold medal which I hope we have the chance to, I’ve gotten to experience everything in the game that I’ve ever hoped for.”