By Craig Flagg
If the girls who make up Ravenwood’s volleyball team were starting to feel pretty darn good about themselves after last year’s run to the state championship game, Stacy Sykora came in prepared to burst their happy, little bubble.
She did it with a little finesse, with a lot of flair and with one riveting tale about what it takes to the be best when you think you already are.
Sykora is a three-time U.S. women’s volleyball player, who, in her prime, was recognized as the best libero in the world. In 2008, she helped her team win the silver medal in the Olympic Games. On Sunday at Ravenwood High School, she held a volleyball clinic and capped off the training session with a high-energy question-and-answer session and a lesson about how little things aren’t so little when it comes to becoming an elite athlete.
“Toshiaki Yoshida is a Japanese coach.” she told the girls, now seated in the gym’s bleachers, as she began her tale. “I love him. I give him my everything. He made me who I am, but. … One day I passed a free ball and the setter went up and she was like this — ughhh (illustrating her point by stretching awkwardly) — you know, and got it. We got a point off of it. Remember this. She got the ball and sets it. We win the point.”
She continued with her tale, speaking of how the next morning Yoshida called upon Sykora as she and her teammates transitioned from lifting to court practice.
“He was like, ‘Do you remember the free ball?’ and I was like, ‘Uh?’ Obviously, I was like ‘What free ball, Toshi?’ But I couldn’t. He goes, ‘Free ball. Bad free ball. Robyn (Ah Mow-Santos) —ughhh.’ And I say, ‘Oh, Toshi, Robyn got it.’
“And he interrupts me: ‘It wasn’t perfect!’ And he goes, ‘Today you will work on free ball.’ ”
Doing her best impression of the venerable coach, she continued, saying “ ‘We will do 10 sets of 100 free balls,’ and I was 20, so I was like, OK. I still will not forget that look. Now I know.”
Sykora went on to demonstrate, showing how the drill requires back-and-forth running that is clearly exhausting. She stopped her demonstration after doing seven free balls.
“Seven,” she said. “Seven, eight, nine, 10 — 100,” she counted, gesturing to her now captive audience. “I remember doing 100 and he said, ‘Drink water!’ ”
She explained that her teammates, who were practicing among themselves while watching the episode unfold, didn’t know what to do.
“So they run to get water and he goes, ‘Don’t help her!’ Just like that. So they were all like ‘(expletive).’ ” drawing a laugh from the girls.
She continued, “I’m like,”— breathing heavily to re-enact the scene. “But I’m in shape though. I’m 20. One hundred is hard, but I was like, ‘I got you.’ So I was drinking my water and he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
She continued her demonstration, counting, “One hundred one, two,
hree. Two hundred. Three hundred. By 300, y’all, I give you my word, I could not feel my legs.”
The drill continued until she’d done 1,000 — plus a few more — before Yoshida summoned Sykora’s teammates to join her. She said she stood there, worn out, crying, knees bloodied, legs wobbly and never feeling more proud in her life.
“I just did 1,000 balls. ‘I beat you, Toshi.’ In my mind, I won. All he said was, ‘Yesterday Stacy made bad free ball.’ ” Pausing, she delivered the punch line, mimicking Yoshida: “ ‘She will not do it again. U-S-A’. That’s all he said. From then on do you think anyone questioned my free-ball abilities? Nope.”
By clinic’s end, Sykora’s tale of toughness — and another one about the importance of yielding one’s own style and technique for that of the common good of the team — just may have given the players — and anyone else listening — the perfect mental workout to realize that even the very best must keep working hard to get better — and better, and better.”