For most athletes, one Olympic appearance is a lofty goal. Five Olympic appearances seems downright impossible. Just ask Danielle Scott-Arruda. She played indoor volleyball at every Olympics from 1996 to 2012, setting the U.S. record for most Olympic appearances by a female volleyball player and bringing home two silver medals in the process (along with the Best Blocker award at the 2000 games). In 2016, she was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame. In her final Olympic appearance, Scott-Arruda was 39 years old—much older than the average Olympian—but still a force on the team, serving as a valuable mentor for younger players at her position. Behind the scenes, she was savoring every moment. We spoke with Scott-Arruda to find out what it’s like to compete in the Olympics, how it feels to narrowly miss out on a gold medal, and the athletes Olympians need to be in order to compete at the highest possible level. [Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.] HEALTHYWAY: Tell me how you got your start. As I understand, you didn’t have a typical path to the Olympics. DANIELLE SCOTT-ARRUDA: Well, I actually did a lot of different sports growing up, and going through to college, actually. That started with physical education classes [in grade school], just being exposed to different sports and activities. It’s unfortunate we don’t do a lot more P.E. in schools today! But in those classes, that was when I was first introduced to the sport. I didn’t play with a team until my 6th grade year, which is actually pretty late when we’re talking about something like the Olympics. Of course, nowadays, there are club teams. Some parents start their kids as toddlers. At the time I started, I wasn’t even allowed to compete in 6th grade—those were the rules. So I did other sports. I did basketball, softball, and track and field through high school. Eventually, I got a scholarship for volleyball and basketball. Flash forward, and I was invited to the national volleyball team. After the 1996 Olympics, I took a couple years off and tried out for the WNBA, but I didn’t quite make it, and then I went back and continued my career in volleyball. I didn’t realize you’d tried to make the WNBA. Yeah, it wasn’t in the cards for me. Seven years had passed since my collegiate basketball days by that point, and I was pretty well-established in volleyball. I ended up putting my basketball shoes back in the closet after the third attempt. So, at what point in your athletic career did you realize that you had a chance at going to the Olympics? It was actually pretty late. I started club volleyball in my sophomore year of high school. I was 15, and kids were starting a lot earlier. It wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I started getting recruiting letters. That’s when people started telling me—”Hey, you know, you might be able to compete in the Olympics.” Had you watched many Olympics by that point? Was competing there one of your goals? Sure, we watched the Olympics at home, as a family, but I wasn’t watching it saying, “Someday, that’ll be me.” I didn’t have that sort of confidence until I had these outside influences telling me that I was pretty good. That’s important. Look—I was really shy growing up. I wasn’t the confident kid. A strange thing happened: When people started boosting my confidence, I continued to get better. By my junior year of high school, I thought the Olympics were a possibilility. By my senior year, rumors were flying around—”Maybe you’ll make the ’92 games.” So I started really working towards that. In my freshman year of college, there were tryouts for the national team, and things really spiraled from there. That started the process. It happened gradually. You’re at your first Olympic games in 1996. What did it feel like just stepping into the arena the first time? You know, it was so amazing. It was my first games, and to have it at home, in Atlanta—well, to be clear, Atlanta isn’t my home, but the United States certainly is—anyway, it was incredible. [pullquote align=”center”]“It never tapered off. In fact, all the little things that a lot of Olympians do traditionally … it was never old.” —Danielle Scott-Arruda[/pullquote] It was such a long process. To become an Olympian, you don’t work every four years, you work every day, training for six to eight hours. It’s your life. With that kind of an investment, I can’t imagine what it feels like to get the call. When you’re finally named to the team, it’s just—you don’t believe it. It stays that way, if you’re fortunate enough to compete in multiple Olympics. Each time after that it’s that same reaction: “Wow, I did it.” You know, you can work really hard to accomplish that dream, but the reality is that only 12 people make the team, along with a couple alternates. So when you finally make it, it’s just that sigh of relief. All that work was worth it. Do you have time to just sit back and enjoy that accomplishment? Oh, no! The work continues. After you’ve received the call, now you have compete and train with a small, specific group of athletes—teammates—and really hone in on your common goal. You have to know what each person’s role is, and you’ve all got to get on the same page very, very quickly. We have to know how we want to finish in the Olympics, and there’s really only one goal at that stage—win. Strategy is an enormous part of that. But, with that being said, we did get to appreciate the accomplishment, even if we weren’t “sitting back.” My first Olympics was in Atlanta, as I said, and a lot of my family was able to attend. We had so much support, being on our home turf. That was definitely exciting. And really, once I competed at that level, it got in my blood. I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to do this thing until I don’t. Until I can’t.” Did any amount of the excitement taper off with each successive Olympic invitation? It never tapered off. In fact, all the little things that a lot of Olympians do traditionally—with the pin trading, and going to opening and closing ceremonies, the flag-bearing ceremonies, all those little things—it was never old. [Editorial note: This seems like as good a place as any to mention that Olympic pin trading gets pretty crazy. Athletes, journalists, and dignitaries arrive at the Olympic games with boxes of country-specific pins, which they trade with athletes and obsessed collectors. In the modern era, pins essentially function as currency. According to one collector, “You can get in some places with a pin where you probably couldn’t get in if you handed them a $20 bill.”] At my fifth Olympics, I was the only one that went to the closing ceremonies. I’m like, “What, you guys aren’t going?” I can’t believe that! This is a once in a lifetime thing!” And okay, we were blessed to do it more than once, but the point stands. You’ve got to appreciate every moment. It must be hard to live in the moment. I imagine the spirit of competition is just kind of weighing on you the entire time that you’re there, but you want to enjoy the experience, too. Right. Every other day, we’re competing, so you have to practice and rest the day before the competition. And it’s kind of that continuous cycle of living moment to moment. But our coaches were more conscious of letting us have a balanced experience. We were still focused, but we made time to go to chapel or spend time with friends and family. We wouldn’t necessarily watch other competitions, but at least we’d spend time with the people who went through that journey with us. From talking to you, it’s clear that you love representing the United States. I would always have this expression: If you cut me, I’ll bleed red, white, and blue. I love competing for the United States. To travel, and to represent our country—I mean, for me, it never got old. I never got burned out. You won a silver medal in 2008, right? In 2008 and 2012. Can you tell me what it was like to win that first silver medal? Winning the silver medal was kind of bittersweet, you know? By that point, I had gone to three previous Olympics, and I’d left with nothing. Of course, it’s all about the journey and all of that, but when you’re working so hard with that one big goal… And with our teams, we weren’t necessarily expected to be the top contender, but we were able to overcome some difficult obstacles. We felt like we were playing for something bigger than ourselves. Then, we won the silver, and it was great, because we were going home with something physical. But—well, I’m sure you’ve probably heard this before—when you lose the gold, it’s hard to really celebrate. So it takes a moment to realize extent of the accomplishment. I think I was able to appreciate our second silver more. But, gosh, we were so close to winning gold, and I think that’s kind of one of those things that kept me wanting to contribute, in whatever way I could, and keep playing as long as possible. [Editorial note: Close it was. In 2008, the U.S team won four of five matches in the preliminary round, only losing to Cuba, and then beat Cuba 3–0 in the knockout-stage semifinals to advance to the gold medal game. Scott-Arruda scored seven points in that game—third on her team—but they ultimately fell to Brazil three sets to one. In 2012, they came arguably closer. They won all five matches in the prelims, only dropping two sets out of 17 played. In the knockout phase, they shut out the Dominican Republic and South Korea before falling, once again, to Brazil in the finals. As a reserve, Scott-Arruda played six sets.] Did nerves play a role? I mean, I’m sure you’re used to playing in front of people by that point, but— Well, I think each person kind of deals with nerves differently. And I always felt some butterflies, but to me, that meant I was ready to compete. I’d just say, “This is part of my routine.” In fact, if I didn’t get the butterflies, I’d feel like something wasn’t right. It’s a fine line, I guess, but if you prepare properly for a game, you probably won’t have severe nervousness by that time. You’ll have it under control. I was confident in our preparation so I could dig through the anxiety. And that’s just how it was for me—everyone’s different. What other personality traits would you expect an Olympian to have? I think have that desire, that drive. There will be obstacles and setbacks. You have to be willing to learn from them. You have to have a growth-type mentality. You don’t lose, you learn. You learn from each experience. And you’ve got to be able to learn from criticism, focus in, and make adjustments. At the same time, you can’t beat yourself up or say that you don’t deserve to be there. In team sports, you’ve also got to deal with a different coaching staff every time. Each staff has their own goals and plans, and you’ve got to be willing to change. Never feel like you know everything. Because in the Olympics, you’ve got to keep adding tools to your toolbag. And when I have camps and clinics, I tell the kids, “Hey, this is just something else you can add to what you already know.” I think it’s interesting—you said that you were able to get to the Olympics thanks, in part, to the the confidence instilled by coaches and family members. It’s really cool that you’re working with young players now and giving that confidence to other athletes. Definitely. It definitely gives you a sense of accomplishment. I remember this one experience, I was coaching with the 8th grade team at a local school here. And one of the athletes could not serve the ball over. But she was getting better, and I could see her effort. Still, sometimes, she would immediately come towards the bench to be subbed out. We had a great lead against another team, and I was like, “No, go ahead give it a try.” You know where this is going—she served it over, and scored a point. Those little moments, where you see a kid develop—it brings so much to the job. That self-confidence is important for sports, but it’s important for life, and it’s absolutely wonderful to watch it develop. Find out more about Danielle Scott-Arruda’s volleyball training programs here.
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