It was Friday morning, roughly five hours before U.S. women's Olympic volleyball captain Lindsey Berg had to be at the airport to board her plane to London, and her suitcase was essentially empty. "I didn't pack yet. Oops," she laughs. But the setter, who's about to compete in her third Olympics, isn't one to get flustered. "I'm not too worried about it -- it'll get packed. I think it's supposed to rain there, but I don't really care. We're there for one reason and one reason alone. We're there to bring home that gold."
She's had tastes of it before. At her first Olympics in Athens, "we were supposed to win it all," she remembers. Instead, they didn't even medal, finishing fifth after a loss to Brazil in the quarterfinals. The disappointment of it almost caused Berg to stop playing altogether. "That was rough," she says. "At one point, I was like, 'I'm done with volleyball.'" Spoiler alert: She wasn't done with volleyball. Shortly after, she was approached with, and accepted, an offer to play professionally in Italy, a move that she says changed her life and kept her a staple in the volleyball scene for years to come.
Four years later, she helped lead the U.S. team to their first Olympic silver medal in 24 years, and eight years later, she's captaining the team currently ranked No. 1 in the world, poised and ready to change the fact that the women's team has never won gold.
Of course, ask her and she'll humbly tell you that she never thought she would be where she is today. The 32-year-old grew up with a ball in her hand on the beaches of Hawaii and started playing competitively when she was 9. "I would beg my dad to go outside and play with me and play in the court in our backyard," she says. "I would go to the gym and jump serve 500 balls. I was completely in love with the game."
She calls Hawaii a place that is "completely supportive" of the volleyball culture, a place where she got the experience necessary to compete on a college level, a place that was very hard to leave. But when the time to compete on that college level came, she knew she had to. "Hawaii will always be my home, but I knew more was out there," she says. "I needed to leave and grow up." So she left the beach for the snow of Minnesota.
"Everyone always questions my jump to the University of Minnesota," Berg says. "They're like ‘…what?' It was hard. I almost transferred my first year, but I gave it a chance." Good thing she did. "I loved the people. Everyone was so nice, and there was a great Big Ten support program. I went and along with a couple other players, we built Minnesota's program."
Although the Golden Gophers never made the Final Four while Berg was there, the school has been very successful afterwards, a testament to the culture that she and her teammates created.
The end of her college experience led her to a professional league in the states, which led her to an invitation to try out for the national team. "I was asked to go out for a two-week tryout," she says. "I continued to beat girls out and make my way on." Which led her to three Olympics.
"My friends and family help me remember what a big deal this is. When I'm in the gym every day, it's my job. I get used to it. But when I talk to my family, they bring me back to reality and I remember, going to the Olympics, this is a big deal. It's an amazing thing, and I can never take it for granted."
The time she spends in the gym every day leading up to the Olympics isn't much different from the time she spends every other day of every other year. "The training is all year round. Not much changes," Berg says. "We have to look at this like it's every other tournament, so we train like every other tournament. We don't diet; we eat healthy. But by now everyone knows their body really well, and there are weight trainers available for all of us."
She emphasizes that a huge plus is they're simply treated like adults. "We get to make decisions for ourselves on what we eat, how we prepare," she says. "And our new coach keeps our minds fresh, he keeps us wanting to be in that gym."
That new coach is Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the men's U.S. volleyball team to gold in Bejing. "He's brought some of the men's game into our game," Berg says. "It's been great. I want to make history with him, and for him. I want to win gold with him for the women."
So how do they do it? What's the key for this No. 1 ranked team? How do they make history? Berg emphasizes the importance of composure. "We can't let the excitement of the game affect what we are there to do. We have to control our emotions."
She talks about how the team hasn't let the pressure of that No. 1 ranking get to them. "We're really good mentally, so it hasn't affected us in a negative way. Yes, we're going to be nervous when we first step on the court, but I have full faith in this team."
Berg is in London by now. It's unknown if she remembered to bring an umbrella amidst her last minute packing frenzy, but something tells me she won't be needing one, as all of her time until their first match against Korea on Saturday will be spent in the gym, the same way all her time was spent as a 9-year-old, jump serving 500 balls. Because one thing Berg has proven in the past is that nothing -- not naysayers, not frigid, snowy weather, not failure -- can get between her and her passion.
"Growing up, I had a lot of doubters outside of my circle of support," she says. "I'm not the most physical person, not the tallest, not the skinniest. You can't listen to anybody. Just know your dreams. Know how hard you can work. Work hard, have fun doing it, and you can really make it places that you really never thought you would. Dedication, passion and heart gets you where you want to be."
Berg is certainly where she wants to be right now: With her "amazing team and coach," ready to chase that gold, and "do it for everyone in the States."