Courtney Thompson, a University of Washington graduate and veteran setter on the United States women’s national volleyball team, stepped from the side door of the stifling hot gym and into a cool ocean breeze. The beach was close enough to hear waves crashing into the sand. Sugarloaf, the bullet-shape mountain with a cable car to the top, familiar from Rio postcards, loomed overhead.
It was winter back home in Washington, but midsummer in Brazil. Thompson’s U.S. teammates were scattered around the globe, in at least six countries on three other continents, playing in the type of professional indoor volleyball leagues that do not exist in the United States.
But Thompson was here playing in Superliga, which might be the best women’s league of them all, where almost the entire Brazilian national squad was clustered onto a few powerhouse teams.
The United States and Brazil are fierce rivals and favorites to win the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio. And Thompson had infiltrated enemy territory, like a spy doing reconnaissance for the Americans, on a team from Rio de Janeiro.
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“That’s what they tease me about,” said Thompson, a graduate of Kentlake High School. “They’re learning about me, too. I may take a few tips back, but that was not my intent.”
Teammates called out to her. Soon, Thompson will be on the other side of the net, perhaps with a gold medal at stake. Until then, she was here to learn.
Brazil’s two Superligas — one for men and one for women — are among the top professional volleyball leagues in the world. In Brazil, indoor volleyball and beach volleyball trail only soccer in popularity. Superliga games are routinely on television, and top players of both genders are nationally known and recognized.
Only about half of Brazil’s national men’s team stays home to play in Superliga, unable to resist the bigger paydays and growing talent pools offered in places like Russia, Poland and Italy. And there is no Superliga men’s team in Rio de Janeiro.
But the women’s Superliga, while facing similar competition for talent around the world, has managed to keep most of the top Brazilian women at home. Only a couple of team members ventured overseas this season. The rest played together, or against one another frequently, on Superliga teams like Osasco and Sesi, in São Paulo.
“There are some advantages to playing together all year round,” said Thompson, 31, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that lost to Brazil in the gold medal match, an outcome repeated from Beijing in 2008. “We wish we could do that. We all would if we could.”
The best team all season, and for most of the league’s history, has been the one team in Rio de Janeiro, currently named Rexona-Ades after its current sponsor, a deodorant. While Brazil’s final roster will not be named until summer, as many as four of the 12 members are expected to come from Rio’s team. With Thompson, it is basically a global all-star team.
Thompson played collegiately at UW and helped the Huskies to the 2005 NCAA national championship. She has played most seasons since in places like Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Puerto Rico. Nothing compares to Brazil.
“Walking around the streets, it’s very different than the U.S.,” Thompson said. “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.”
Thompson came to Rio de Janeiro not just to play in Superliga, but to learn from Bernardo Rezende, known as Bernardinho. A two-time Olympian as a setter in the 1980s, Bernardinho coached the Brazil national women’s team for a decade and the men’s national team since 2001.
It is increasingly difficult to keep Superliga filled with top Brazilians and attract outsiders as Brazil’s economy and the value of its real collapses. Top players might make 400,000 reais (about $108,000) per season in Brazil, Bernardinho said, but could command 600,000 euros (roughly $665,000) in well-financed leagues in places like Turkey.
The two members of Brazil’s national team who played the season overseas (one in Russia, one in Turkey) were looking for money, Bernardinho said.
“It’s not about whether they are going to grow, technically speaking, or if it’s a stronger league,” he said. “It’s about the comparison of currency. When foreign players come here, they know they won’t be getting the best contract. They could be abroad and make more money. But they like to grow and increase their level of playing.”
It is what attracted Thompson. She wanted to do anything she could to make the U.S. Olympic team again, and thought Brazil and Bernardinho offered the best chance. Her U.S. teammates were spread across the globe. Four played for the same team in Italy.
Thompson liked the style of play in Brazil, which she had seen from the other side of the net. It is a bit like soccer, the “beautiful” game, full of speed, skill and finesse but moving toward size and power.
“They play fast,” Thompson said of the Brazilians. “They know the game well. It’s almost like a dance. 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.”
She said that the Brazilians have at least one built-in advantage over the Americans — volleyball is part of the national consciousness.
“They grow up around the game, it’s so popular,” Thompson said. “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. It’s like watching video, you just don’t know it.”
LIFE IN SUPERLIGA
Still, Superliga can feel far from big-time sports like soccer in Brazil and football, basketball and baseball in the United States. Practice is at gym with no air conditioning on a military base (with extraordinary views).
Most team members ride bikes or walk to the games at the Tijuca Tennis Club, set deeply into one of central Rio de Janeiro’s compact, leafy neighborhoods. The gymnasium there, with its high, arched ceiling and capacity of about 3,000, has the feel of an old college field house, with four rows of seats on three sides (20 reais), plus 10 rows of concrete bleachers above them (15 reais).
The matches are spirited, family-friendly affairs, with banners, T-shirt guns and a mascot. Banners and photos of each player hang on the wall over one end of the gym. But while game results make their way into newspapers and on television, few members of the news media come to practices or games, and the league does not track results or statistics online. The team’s website is a Facebook page — though one with more than 450,000 likes.
The volleyball, though, is world class. The eight-team playoffs, which started last weekend, attract sellout crowds, and Rio de Janeiro usually moves at least some matches to nearby Maracanãzinho, an arena with a capacity of nearly 12,000, that will be the site of the Olympic volleyball tournament in August.
The intensity ratchets up several notches, especially between teams loaded with Olympians.
“Superliga has most of the best Brazilian players,” said Rio’s Gabriela Braga, known as Gabi, an outside hitter expected to star at the Olympics. “The playoffs get really, really hard, so we play at a great, high level, and a high physical level. It gets us in good shape for the Brazilian national team.”
The women on the national team see Superliga as an advantage, and most are willing to give up more money for the chance to stay home, play in front of familiar faces and prepare for the Olympics in ways that the Americans cannot.
“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 the libero Fabiana Alvim, a two-time Olympic and eight-time Superliga champion in Rio who is known as Fabi. “We get enough money to compete. And the teams can play.”
That is what attracted Thompson. When she arrived in the fall, it did not take her long to see what she had gotten into in Brazil.
“We played at Osasco, our big rival, right before Christmas,” she said of a match in the São Paulo suburbs. “Probably one of the coolest opposing gyms I’ve ever been to. It was packed when we walked in there, and you could hear booing before we got out of the locker room. It was fun, you know?
”I think everyone here is pretty passionate, in all walks of life. It’s a really fun place to live and see their culture. But they aren’t afraid to let you know they’re not happy, those fans. I love it. But also, when you’re doing well, it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Thompson and the rest of her U.S. Olympic teammates, wherever they are around the world, will come see for themselves in just a few weeks.