By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Thursday, August 9, 2012, 11:32 p.m.Updated 8 hours ago
LONDON — Christa Harmotto has had ample help along her road from Hopewell, Beaver County, to within one volleyball victory of an Olympic gold medal this weekend at historic Earl's Court.
Some of it's divine, as she sees it.
"This is about my faith," Harmotto was telling me after the U.S. swept out South Korea in the semifinal Thursday, 25-20, 25-22, 25-22. "This is about my belief in God and everything he's allowed me to do in this world."
It's hard to imagine something extra wasn't involved when retracing her steps.
Each one pointed to right here, right now.
Step 1: Harmotto was a tall, thin sixth-grader who - per "the Western Pennsylvania obligation," as she called it - had to play basketball. It's what tall girls do. But Terry Borkovic, her gym teacher, asked one day if she'd considered volleyball.
Harmotto mentioned Borkovic and welled up a bit in looking back at the court: "It only takes one word from somebody to change your life."
Step 2: She starred in high school, including a state title, good enough to make the national junior team in her sophomore year, good enough to choose volleyball singularly.
And the appreciation she felt from Hopewell at the time was enough that she's now being overwhelmed with support from back home: "It's been Facebook messages, emails, photos. I feel like I've heard from everyone in the community. It's great to be from a small town!"
Step 3: Harmotto starred at Penn State, too, twice an All-American under longtime coach Russ Rose.
The mention of that alma mater brought more emotion: "You feel for everything going on back in Happy Valley. The ‘We Are' campaign, the measures they're taking, the way people are responding ... I'm proud to be from Penn State. I'd love to win for the people of our university, of our great program."
Step 4: She turned pro after graduating, which meant traveling with the national team and joining international leagues. All of which probably sounded like a glamorous adventure but, in reality, ended up "wiping clean" most of what she'd learned about the game.
The coaching staff reinvented most of her techniques, aimed at making her a more complete blocker, setter and server. Only problem: She wasn't very good at serving - still isn't - and it quashed her confidence with the other two.
It wasn't until Hugh McCutcheon, the New Zealander who took over the U.S. women's program after leading the men to gold in Beijing, eliminated serving from her plate that she took off.
"Where I am today compared to where I was last year, it's not even close," Harmotto said. "I'm a completely different player."
A championship player, too, if the U.S. beats Brazil in the gold-medal match Saturday. Opening serve is at 1:30 p.m. Pittsburgh time.
The Brazilians are ranked second in the world to the U.S., but there's no reason the Americans should lose. They're 7-0, they've lost only two of 23 sets at these Olympics, and they've got a force - and name! - unlike any other in Destinee Hooker, their jump-out-of-the-gym winger who Harmotto calls "just an amazing athlete." Hooker had a game-high 21 spikes Thursday, a few of those sending the South Koreans scattering.
Harmotto, a 6-foot-2 blocker, sees herself as a complementary piece, but her five spikes and 13 blocks were among the best numbers of the match.
"I'm one part of what we're doing out there, that's all," she said. "This whole experience so far has been absolutely wonderful. You work four years for this, and to be right there ... well, we're not done yet. We've got another game."
Her parents, Rob and Connie, will be there. So will younger brother Nathan.
And watching back home?
"Ha! I can't even picture it," she said.
As for any other Pittsburghers who might be tuning in volleyball - real volleyball - for the first time in these Games, no, they don't wear bikinis, and no, they don't prance around to rave music between whistles.
There doesn't seem to be any animosity between the two disciplines, despite NBC's clear lust for the beach brand. But it sure would be a welcome sight to have the focus flipped for a bit.
I met Janine Sandell, a member of the British team, in a coffee shop the other night. She limped in on crutches, having broken her left ankle coming down after a spike. It will cost her time and money in a Spanish pro league.
"If that was sand, I'd be fine," Sandell bemoaned. "And everybody would have watched, too, right?"
Harmotto's heard her share of that stuff, too.
"Yeah, you get questions, like, ‘Oh, you're on the beach?' " she said. "I think it's great what our team has been able to do because it's nice to grow our sport. We don't see ourselves as in competition with the beach volleyball."
No, the competition is Brazil.
That's Step 5.
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