Exactly four years ago, the final whistle sounded at the Riocentro Pavilion 6 in Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro, echoing the cheers of an electric crowd and the outpour of emotions as the players flooded the court in celebration.
It was a picture painted by the United States’ victory over China in the Paralympic Games final – a memory Kaleo Kanahele Maclay treasures as precious as the gold medal they brought home on that day.
Four years after writing her country’s name in history books, Maclay reflects on the four stages in her Paralympic gold journey.
London 2012 witnessed Maclay’s first Paralympic appearance. At age 16, she was the youngest in her team and made the most of her limited time on court, soaking herself in the rush of being in the Games.
“Before London I was just happy to be there. I loved playing volleyball and thought it was such an exciting opportunity. But there was a big shift in me after London. I knew I wanted to be a part of us getting gold in Rio.”
While Maclay’s eyes were set high on celebrating amid a stream of confetti, the young player experienced the lows of competing being on the losing end, as China rallied to its third straight gold medal victory with a four-set triumph.
“I was in London and was on the court when we lost against China in the medal match. It was extremely heartbreaking because we had made it that far. Every time I see pictures of me from after that game in London, I can still feel the heart wrenching disappointment little Kaleo felt.”
The disappointment remained for some time, but it was a big lesson that taught her to never back down from her dreams.
“But it pushed me for the next four years to not experience that loss again but to put everything I had into training for that quad for the gold. I really do think it was the disappointment of losing that pushed me to not want to feel that, to not just be happy to be there, but to work hard and put in the time and set goals. There was a big maturity shift within myself that I was able to give to the team.”
The golden moment
The year 2016 finally arrived for Team USA. With a mix of youth and the experience of a heartbreaking loss in the Paralympics, Maclay knew it was their time to rewrite history.
“Gold was our goal whether that was against China or anyone else. We knew we were capable of gold and that is what we set out for! It’s a moment I’ve dreamt of for a long time.”
Now promoted as a starter, Maclay faced an early test of handing China its first loss in the Paralympics but to no avail. In the rematch of the London 2012 final, China once again went away with the victory.
But it turned out as a different tale for USA as the tournament went on. After beating Brazil in the semifinals to setup another rematch with their London 2012 rivals, coach Bill Hamiter devised a new strategy heading into the gold medal match.
“We had a game plan to watch the hitter’s shoulder and pull our hands down if it looked like she was going to hit out. That was basically our entire game plan for the gold medal match was to watch the hitter’s arm and drop our hands then just play like normal,” Maclay recounted.
The game plan worked. With their strategy well in place, USA quickly surged to a 2-0 lead. With a huge set lead in the third set and a few points away from the gold medal, the 20-year-old setter knew it was their match to win.
“I remember looking at Katie (Holloway) earlier in the set and saying to her ‘Katie, we’re gonna win.’ We were already pretty far ahead in the third set and I always knew we were capable of winning like this, but I was still in awe! She looked at me with a sort of determined smile and said, ‘Just focus on this point!’
“Going into this game we had talked quite a bit about not getting ahead of our selves, that the only point we could control was the point we were on. So Katie reminded me not to get ahead of myself and to focus on each point.”
One point led to another and finally, the score reached 25. The final point that sealed gold for the United States – their own game plan.
“I was in the middle closing to a right-side block and we both pulled our hands down and it was such a magical moment that our game plan is what won us the last point. Then coming together centre court, everyone hugging and celebrating – I will remember forever. Bill’s celebration after we won was my favourite. I call it the fist pump heard around the world. It’s an iconic picture of him in my mind fist pumping the air!”
True enough, Hamiter’s celebration and the news of USA’s victory were heard all over the world – a new sitting volleyball champion was crowned in Rio de Janeiro. Maclay may now call herself a Paralympic champion.
It took a while before she got accustomed to being called a Paralympic champion. While their dreams are now a reality they live in, Maclay knows there is nowhere to go but higher and further, and to dream bigger than before.
“Initially, I think not much has changed because right after we won gold, I set new goals for myself.
“I think what has changed the most is that as a team we have decided we want to be the bar, be the one to beat, set the standard for the sport, push the sport forward. We are training to be the best versions of ourselves, the best team overall that we can be.”
The picture and memoirs of that heartbreak in London now serves as a reminder of the adversities Maclay had to endure in reaching the top of the podium.
“Personally my life looks nothing like it did before Rio, I think it gave me the confidence to know that I can actually have goals – big ones – and achieve them.”
The next chapter
Setting themselves as the team to beat at Tokyo 2020, Maclay and the rest of the USA team will be entering the Paralympic court for the first time as defending champions. After defeating the odds to reach the top of the podium at Rio 2016, and with a huge target now on their backs, Maclay knows the only team to focus on right now is their own side.
While being apart due to the pandemic means having to work on their collective goals individually, she said the situation gave them a whole new perspective to look at.
“To be honest, we are looking more inward by improving ourselves, our team chemistry and our team unity. Because of COVID-19 we have been away from each other for months, causing us each to focus on ourselves over volleyball.
“I think being in this new position of being the top-ranked team has sort of caused us to focus inward as well, to focus less on what other teams are doing, to focus on what we can do and what we can control, and to develop our team to be a well-rounded team for Tokyo!”
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