For all the cheering and thrill Americans have felt watching their favorite athletes compete in Rio, just imagine the emotions if you were related to the athlete.
The U.S. women’s volleyball team is on a special run in Rio, going 5-0 in preliminary play and earning the No. 1 seed in Pool B entering the start of quarterfinals Tuesday.
Team USA also has an entourage of family cheering them on in the 2016 Olympics, with each player welcoming anywhere from a few immediate family members to a group of seven or eight.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” said Anne Banwarth, mother of USA libero Kayla. “There are so many athletes around here and they’re all doing their own thing, so sometimes, it seems like it’s just like every other tournament. But when you look at all the people around and all the importance of what this means, then it’s kind of surreal.
“Now that we’re into the quarterfinals and the semis, it’s like ‘OK, just a few more matches and they could have a medal.’ I mean, how many people have a gold medal – or any kind of medal – from the Olympics? So it’s pretty amazing.”
Anne and her family have been surprised by the amount of USA fans in attendance in Rio, cheering on their nation’s athletes.
The Banwarth family even ran into an American group Monday who had seen Kayla play in college at the University of Nebraska.
However, the welcome hasn’t always been warm for the U.S. volleyball family members.
While there haven’t been any crazy Rio stories, the Banwarth family has been disappointed by the reaction from the crowd toward Team USA, which entered the Games as the No. 1 ranked team in the world.
Eric, Kayla’s older brother, said volleyball fans have been actively cheering against – and in some cases actually booing – the U.S. team throughout the tournament.
“Not a lot of the neutral fans are on our side,” Eric said.
But the support has been pouring in from back home in the states. The Banwarths are in a WhatsApp group chat with roughly 125 people from their home of Dubuque, Iowa.
“The whole city has pretty much backed her up,” Anne said. “It’s been really fun. I think I’ve had more Facebook friend requests the last three or four weeks than the entire time I had since I started Facebook.”
No matter what happens, Kayla and the Banwarths have a major party waiting for them back in Iowa.
But what if she returns home a hero? What if Kayla helps lead the U.S. women’s team to the first gold in its history?
“It’s just pride. Pure pride,” Eric said. “So happy for her. It’s kind of weird – once they get playing, it’s almost like it’s business as usual.
“… But seeing her in the opening Opening Ceremony was really special. They played a huge match against the Netherlands and it went to five sets and they won. By the end of it, she was just emotionally exhausted. She just broke down. There were pictures of her tearing up; she was just so overcome with emotions.
“Watching those things kinda put me in awe with how big of a stage this really is and how much it means to her and all the athletes. Just extremely, extremely proud. Not really wanting it to end.”
Anne has watched her daughter make volleyball her life for more than two decades and with the sport’s greatest glory on the line, it’s hard to believe the journey is almost over – for better or worse.
“It’s hard to wrap my head around it all,” Anne said. “She’s been playing for 20 years, but it’s been the last five or six that we kinda knew this Olympic thing could happen. It took me quite a while.
“I think it’s weird. I’ve known for quite a while that she would probably make this team, but until you see it in print where Karch has actually announced the team and she’s on it, you know that it’s gonna happen but you don’t feel it until you see it on paper, I guess. And then everybody else embraces it, so it becomes just one big celebration.
“So if they come home with the gold and the first gold ever, I just can’t imagine how that’s gonna feel. I can envision it. I know there’s gonna be tears of joy. Part of the ending of this journey is gonna be sad in a way, because she may or may not keep playing, but this has just been an incredible four years.
“So there’s gonna be a lot of emotions, both good and bad. If they bring home that gold, I know that’s something she’s worked for for a long time and I know this team has really come together. They really, really do like playing together. So for that, I wish they do bring the gold home.”