Former Jack Britt star savors U.S. Paralympic gold medal

By Earl Vaughan Jr.

Even gold medalists aren’t immune to the challenges of airline travel.

Credit:: US Olympic Committee

When U.S. Paralympics sitting volleyball champion Heather Erickson returned to her Oklahoma home from winning the gold in the Tokyo Paralympics, her bags didn’t join her, and she had to return to the airport later in the day to pick them up. 

But it was a minor aggravation after the former Jack Britt High School volleyball standout was the leading scoring for the American team in their medal-clinching 3-1 win over China in the gold medal final.

The win avenged an opening 3-0 loss to the Chinese in America’s first Tokyo match this year.

For Erickson and the U.S. squad, it was their second consecutive Paralympics gold medal.

Erickson said much of the reason for the early loss was a lack of information about the Chinese team, along with problems adjusting to international travel.

COVID-19 protocols delayed the arrival of the American team.

When they first played the Chinese, some team members had only been in Tokyo for four days. Erickson said the team wanted to do the best it could but realized the adversity it was facing.

“It made us as a team come together after that game, put things in perspective and refocus,’’ she said.

They didn’t have any time to feel sorry for themselves as their next match was against another tough opponent, the Russian Olympic Committee, and a loss could have quickly knocked the Americans from competition for any medal in the games.

“We focused more on mental strength and staying together,’’ Erickson said. “We had to trust each person was going to do their job and do it well, not overplay for each other.

“We had to literally grind out every point and hope for the best.’’

The U.S. team finally got its bearings and cruised through the rest of it matches until the rematch with China.

The second time around, things were much different. Before this year’s games, the Americans hadn’t even seen the Chinese since they were in the world competition in 2018.

Going into the title match this year, they had an abundance of data from China’s other matches in the Paralympics this year, plus their own experience of having played them in the opener.

“China mixes it up and hits it faster,’’ Erickson said of the Chinese style of play. “Volleyball is such a momentum game of who’s going to have energy going into the game. You have to restart the score every single game. The more you can have people second-guessing themselves, wondering if they are going to win or lose, it’s to your benefit.’’

Erickson excelled at doing that, one of the reasons she was the leading scorer for the Americans in the final match with the Chinese, scoring 21 points.

She was frequently praised by NBCSN commentators for her ability to fake out the Chinese defense.

Known as one of the hardest hitters on the American team, she struck an overhead early in the match that landed with such force in the belly of a Chinese back row player, the player was literally knocked backward several inches.

But Erickson has also mastered the technique of the dink when she’s at the net, forgoing the powerful slam to the floor of the volleyball court and merely tapping the ball to a vacant spot for an easy point.

“That’s something I’ve really worked on from Rio (where the 2016 games were held) to Tokyo,’’ she said. “It’s fun for me to be able to do that. I worked on reading the court, seeing and recognizing when people are out of place, and can push it to the spots. It’s almost like a trained thing they’ve ingrained in us, making quick decisions where to put the ball.’’

Now a veteran of four medal-winning trips to the Paralympics, Erickson, who is only 28, would like to play in at least two more games before retiring from the sport. The next competition will be in Paris in 2024, then goes to Los Angeles in 2028.

“Once the L.A. games were announced, I thought it was an awesome thing to retire in my home country,’’ she said. “We’ll see what my body tells me and if these young kids can take my spot.’’

For now, she’s taking a brief break from competition, returning to her job at Edmond North High School in Oklahoma where she coaches the freshman volleyball team and helps out with the junior varsity and varsity.

“It’ll be a good change of pace,’’ she said.