U.S. Olympic Volleyball Star is Training Under Legendary Brazilian Coach Rezende Ahead of Rio 2016

In case you didn’t know: Brazilians are basically the OGs of the volleyball world. Home to two of the world’s best leagues in the men’s and women’s Superligas, Brazil is known for its volleyball prowess. The women’s national team is the FIVB World Grand Prix champion title record holder after winning for an astonishing tenth time in 2014, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. So, it will come as no surprise to hear that volleyball (both indoor and beach) is second to only soccer in popularity.

With teams like São Paulo’s Osasco Voleibol Clube and Sesi, as well as recent playoff semifinalists Praia Clube and Minas, it’s no wonder that Brazil’s best talent chooses to stay and hone their craft at home. And it’s not just Brazil’s best talent, but the world’s that is flocking to Brazil, as highlighted by a recent New York Times profile of U.S. international setter Courtney Thompson, who currently trains under Rio-based club Rexona-Ades’ coach Bernardo Rezende.

Thompson is a veteran on the U.S. national volleyball team. Her addition to the Rexona-Ades squad – where she joined forces with at least four Brazilians set to compete at Rio 2016 – has led the team to a finals appearance, attracting sellout crowds and moving matches to the Maracanãzinho on the way (a 12,000 capacity arena.) Brazil and the U.S. are heavyweights – frontrunners to take gold in Rio – so we can only guess how much unrelenting flak Thompson receives for being a “spy” and “infiltrating enemy territory.”

The University of Washington NCAA champion’s career has taken her to Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Puerto Rico, but she came to Brazil intent on learning from Rezende, who is affectionately known as Bernardinho. Rezende was Brazil’s two-time Olympian setter in the ‘80s. He coached the women’s national team for a decade, and has been the head of the men’s side since 2001 (where he’s won three World Championships, two World Cups, eight World Leagues and Olympic gold in 2004.) The dude knows his damn stuff.

For Thompson, the differences between the Brazilian game and that of the U.S. are significant. They are more or less disparate to their cores; “They grow up around the game, it’s so popular,” she told Branch. Volleyball is, quite simply, a part of their everyday lives. “We play twice a week, and the men play twice a week, so four nights a week you see really high-level volleyball on television. That’s the way to learn. You watch it; you go out and try to do it.”

‘What are they doing in Brazil that is so good?’

Hold up. As if this wasn’t enough, in Brazil, volleyball athletes – even women (*GASP!*) – get paid enough to compete at said high levels. The world could perhaps take a page out of Brazil’s book with this one.

“Players want to come here because we’ve won the last two Olympics, and people around the world wonder, ‘What are they doing in Brazil that is so good?’” Said defensive specialist Fabiana “Fabi” Alvim, eight-time Superliga champ in Rio and two-time Olympian. “We get enough money to compete. And the teams can play.”

When asked to describe the atmosphere and difference of play in Brazil, Thompson herself stated that “walking around the streets, it’s very different than the U.S. People will say: ‘Hey, Courtney! You’re the American! How’s it going?’ I sat down at a restaurant the other night and the guy across from me, a Brazilian guy, said: ‘Courtney, good to see you. How’s the season?’ You don’t get that ever in the U.S. And the level of play? I’m playing with half their national team.”

And what of the joga bonito that we all know and love? Apparently, it applies to volleyball too; “It’s almost like a dance [the Brazilian style]. It’s very fluid. Their ball control is very good; their defense is good; they see the game well. They’re not always the most physical – of course, their national team is – but as a whole, they’re just smart. And you can tell that when you’re playing with them.”

In a recent interview with Volleyverse, Bernardinho said that the Brazilian women’s national team is “very strong, competitive,” with a very good chance of taking gold at Rio 2016. “As a spectator, I think the gold medal would go to one of these four: Brazil, USA, China and Russia.”

Only time will tell if Thompson or her teammates will benefit more from learning each other’s secrets. Much more important and promising is the sporting exchange taking place here – the flow of some of the sport’s top athletes to South America in search of the best opportunities for growth and development. Hopefully it’s a trend that sticks despite Brazil’s struggling economy and rampant corruption.