Championship point. This time it's Nebraska's own Jordan Larson Burbach who gets the final kill. The US Women's National team backs up last years World Championship with a 3-0 sweep of that same Chinese squad and wins the 2015 FIVB Grand Prix title right here, in Omaha Nebraska...
...and we were there!
Wait, what. Yes we were there. In the flesh, and some of the best part of the story is how we got there. So here goes...
It's a pain in the ass, but for some background it would help if you'd read
Seriously, the background of this story is pretty important. I'll wait until you get back...
Now that you've done your homework, let's continue this story.
After last summer's #SummerofUS there was no way we could do any better when it comes to watching our favorite team play. We thought about The Grand Prix, even had airline tickets and hotel information down to the last detail, but for some reason we didn't pull the trigger.
When we got the news in the spring that Ellen's cancer had returned, volleyball got pushed way down the list of priorities. When we met with her oncologist he gave us a very grim prognosis. Words no one wants to hear. With treatments, one year. Without, six months. Our world was flipped upside down, then trampled on. We kept this news to ourselves for a while. Our son Mason was finishing up a very hard semester at Penn State Behrend, he was working so hard, and we didn't want to have him concerned as finals approached.
We decided to start treatments. It was a harsh combination of two of the chemo drugs Ellen had already been given, plus a third new drug. She would come home from The Hillman Cancer Center with a chemo pump, and it continued to dispense medication 24/7 for three weeks, then the whole process would repeat itself again.
After two weeks she was so weak, her lips and mouth were totally ulcerated, so much so that she couldn't speak comfortably at the WPIAL banquet, where she and Jaime were honored with the "Courage Award". No one was aware of the dire prognosis that night. That might be the very definition of courage.
We talked a lot about how badly the chemo was making her feel, and we had come close to the very tough decision to stop treatment. Ellen's oncologist had a few other ideas, but before discussing them he gave her two weeks to recover. We took one of those weeks in the Outer Banks. We came back to Vandergrift on Saturday, knowing we had an appointment on Monday to discuss these options, still somewhat convinced that no treatment was still on the table. Ellen's father Sam took a bad turn on Sunday, and he passed on Sunday night after suffering with COPD for four years. As hard as it would be, we showed up for our appointment Monday.
Ellen's doctor told us we could not make a rational decision under these circumstances, and told us to wait a week. At Ellen's insistence he scheduled a PET Scan for the following Tuesday. We attended services, and held a funeral for Ellen's beloved father Sam. He was always her biggest fan, as a player and later as a coach. He and Ellen's mom Eleanor attended as many matches as they could, right up to the end of her last year at Kiski. I'll miss a lot about being involved with coaching Kiski, but the way Sam supported Ellen for so many years no matter where she played or coached will always be a big part of that.
Tuesday's PET Scan went like it always does. No information, just more waiting, more stress. Thursday came, and as always, the ritual is consistent. Bloodwork, then vitals, then wait in a little room for the doctor to see you. This wait is usually long. That day it really wasn't.
Ellen's oncologist is Doctor James Ohr. He is a big man, with a very professional demeanor. Looks like he pushed a lot of people out of the way in college as an offensive lineman. That kind of big. He walked into the room, spun his chair around so he could lean on the back of the chair as he spoke to us. Then he said, "So the plot thickens"...
The first thought you have is, "what the hell does that mean?" I think Ellen and I had prepared for the very worst news, like the cancer had spread, it was here, or there, or everywhere. The past five years has been hard, we have had tragedies swirling all around us. We were not prepared for good news, but that is what we got!
"The plot thickens" means that the cancer isn't showing up on the PET Scan. In fact Dr. Ohr explained that if he handed this scan to a radiologist who had no history with the patient, he would have said it was CLEAR... No sign of cancer...
Now before we spike the ball on the ten yard line, we have to keep this in mind. The hospital has a sample of bone material that contains cancer cells. It is possible that the single treatment may have beaten it back, but we know it was there, and Dr Ohr wishes for us to stay vigilant. Ellen has no treatment scheduled. She will get another scan in two months, and we will decide based upon that scan how to proceed.
We literally skipped out of the Hillman that day. The Governor called. There will be no execution. You are free to go...
That was three weeks ago. In the time between, after mourning the loss of her dad, and getting this good news, things started to even out again. Ellen was feeling better every day. We started to do a few things. We were in the ballpark when the Pirates came back in the ninth and beat the Cards on Sunday Night Baseball. That was great! I hadn't forgotten about the Grand Prix, but it just didn't seem rational. So much had happened...
We watched both teams throughout both the Pan Am Games and in the weeks that lead up to the Grand Prix Finals. We streamed matches from our laptop onto our TV. We were starting to catch the bug again...
Last Thursday morning I got up as usual, went to the gym, came home, showered and went to work. As always, as in the "Canyon", I started to read some of the twitter stories coming from both Toronto and from Omaha. The US had beaten the Japanese team on Wednesday night. The thought crossed my mind. I texted Ellen "Let's jump in the car and head to Omaha tonight, we could get there in time to see the match on Friday night." Ellen was at Hillman at the time, doing yoga as a part of their intagrative oncology approach. She wasn't as "centered" as I thought she'd be because she didn't say no. We worked out a few "minor" details and decided to go for it!
Photo by Image Source/Digital Vision / Getty Images
We left Vandergrift at 7:00pm took Rt. 76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike west until it turned into Rt. 80 west. We didn't make many turns! Rt. 80 pretty much goes right into Omaha. We did try to get a room in South Bend, Indiana, but there weren't any available. By 2am we were tired enough to take a 2 hour nap at a rest stop. At about 4:30 am we were rolling again. Peddle to the medal, Chicago, Davenport, Iowa City, Des Moines, Council Bluff...
At 1pm we crossed the bridge into Omaha, The CenturyLink Center was right there, big and beautiful! We had made it to Omaha in time, checked into our room in the Hilton across the street, took a quick nap, and then found out that the players had taken care of our tickets for the whole weekend. That's right. The players on our National Team slicked us up with tickets. Courtney Thompson's mom, Linda, met us in the lobby and handed us tickets, sitting with the family and friends of the players. Unbelievable.
We watched the US beat the Russians on Friday night. They played so well. As if that wasn't good enough we also got to meet a twitter friend who has become a real friend for the first time. Joel Schafer and his sweet daughter Emma found us in the crowd and we chatted it up like old friends! Emma was part of the Premier Volleyball team that ask their heroes questions in a very special "Five Questions" segment. She will be a volleyball star one day, I'm convinced, not because I've seen her play, but because she has that familiar twinkle in her eyes I have witnesses in so many of the ladies who beat the Russians that night. As the players on the National Team would say, "Dream Big!" Emma. Joel also had a huge bag full of great Nebraska, Premier, and team USA tee shirts. No I'm not throwing out my Penn State stuff, but I have enough red tee shirts for an entire week! Thanks so much to the Schafers!!!
Ellen and I were exhausted from the trip and as excited as we were to be in Omaha, and as cool as it would have been to hang out in the lobby and wait for the team to come back across, we didn't. We were asleep by 10:30.
The next morning I got up as I usually do. I really wanted to try out the cool treadmills in the Hilton gymnasium! I checked my phone to see a message from Alisha Glass. She ask us if we would like to come over to the CenturyLink for the morning "serve and pass", a quick pre-match practice. Of course we did! Getting Ellen up and moving with that news was easy. We dressed and headed across the street.
We were prepared to see a lot of other "fans" at practice, but it was just us! Each of the players greeted us as they entered the gym, most of them were quick to offer a hug. They all remembered our story, and each of them spent time chatting with us, asking how things were going, and remarking how impressed they were with our journey. They genuinely appreciated our presence. Karch took the time to speak with us as well. He posed for this picture with Ellen...
As the team stretched and peppered, we were approached by NBC Sports sideline reporter Tanith Belbin White. She noticed how we were received by the members of the team and wanted to know more about how we were connected to the players. She took notes as she spoke to us, interested in every aspect. It was fun to watch her as she discovered our story, and our unlikely road to friendship with this group of athletes. Tanith was working the sidelines for NBC's coverage of the USA vs China match being played on Sunday, and it seemed she was interested in including our story. (You were spot on Sunday Tanith, great work by everyone at NBC!)
As practice wound down Coach Kiraly had one more command for his troops. "Everyone in here for a picture with the Toy's" We seriously took a team picture with our favorite team! Here is that picture!!!
The US handled the Brazilians that afternoon, clinching the Grand Prix title, and afterwards we were invited by both the Harmotto's and the Thompson's to greet the team during "family time". As the weekend played out, we began to feel more like family and less like fans! It was fun to watch the players interacting with their parents, siblings, and friends. It was explained to us that these times were so short. The players had film to study, they had to be properly nourished, and needed rest. They had a quick turnaround, playing their Sunday match at noon. The Grand Prix is grueling. The travel is long and thus jetlag and repeated practice and matches can be taxing, especially near the end. Everything is practiced, and that includes preparation. All of this in front of the team's first opportunity to grab a spot in the Rio Olympic Games in three weeks at the World Cup in Japan. More travel and more matches, but this squad is ready.
NBC Sports included us in their coverage of the match Sunday!
At the Sunday match we were informed by Tanith that we indeed would be included in the broadcast! We called home to get the DVR set and inform our family, in fact that's why Ellen was on the phone during that piece! China put up a good fight in the first set, but they were no match for the depth the American's displayed in Omaha. It's been said that Coach Kiraly never used the same lineup twice in the entire duration of the Grand Prix. Couple that with the impressive run put together by the team that had traveled to Toronto(also winning GOLD) for the Pan Am games, and it's easy to see what makes this group the best in the world. They are fresher. They face each other everyday in training, pushing each other for each position on the court, but mixing that with a camaraderie rarely seen at this level of competitive sports. They love one another, and it shows. These are the things that makes American volleyball special.
We had a little time to say goodbye to our new friends, the families that separately molded the characters that make up this special group that destiny has put together at this time. Something very special is being developed at the American Sports Center, but it does come back to the families. It was GREAT getting to know all these incredible people!
As we made our way towards the exit of the CenturyLink Center we were so impressed with how Omaha turned out. The autograph line seriously went halfway around the building. We crossed the street, up the elevator to our car. Crossed the Missouri River and headed east on I-80. Council Bluff, Des Moines, Iowa City, Davenport, Chicago...
But forever changed by an adventure, an unlikely and unplanned trip, meeting new friends, supporting a team we have come to love for how they play the game and how they care.
Special thanks to Linda Thompson for all the kindness she showed us by getting together the tickets for the matches.
The Harmotto family for making us feel like one of the gang! It was nice meeting Derek and his family as well!
To the players, coaches, and support personnel who allowed us the unique opportunity of coming to "serve and pass", especially Alisha Glass, Christa Harmotto, and Courtney Thompson.
A special thanks as well to Jordan Larson Burbach for taking the time to chat with Ellen, even though I know it couldn't have been easy for you.
It was fantastic meeting Bill Kaufmann and Lori Okimura finally. Your enthusiasm for our game is one of the things that makes it great. PLEASE keep up the good work!
The city of Omaha. You did yourself proud. The friendliness of everyone we encountered was so refreshing. You have a good thing going. Expect to see us again!
FIVB and USA Volleyball. Slick and well run weekend, with the help of many volunteers and the Omaha Sports Commission. All are to be commended.
The athletes from China, Japan, Brazil, Russia, and Italy. We hope you enjoyed our country, our people, and our culture. Come back soon! You were all fabulous!
Lastly, while most of the world thinks the National Team players have a week off before resuming their training, we know better. The core of this marvelous team headed straight to Kent, Washington, where they will be hosting the very first Give It Back Volleyball Camp. Give It Back is the brainchild of Courtney Thompson, Christa Harmotto, and Tama Miyashiro. This summer's efforts will benefit The Children's Therapy Center where Courtney's mother Linda works. It is a fantastic display of how athletes like our USWNT can use their talents and "celebrity" to affect others positively. To learn more visit