Lisa Zielinski was in the St. Thomas Aquinas High gym in late August 2001, when she got a phone call from the principal. A new student from Fresno, Calif., was in the office with her father, registering for classes. The principal urged Zielinski, the girls’ volleyball coach, to head to the office immediately.
Zielinski walked in and stopped in her tracks. Standing in front of her was Foluke Akinradewo, a long and lean 6-3 freshman who had volleyball player written all over her.
“I introduced myself, thought, ‘Wow’ and I told her about the upcoming tryouts,” Zielinski recalled. “Her dad said, ‘Sorry, she doesn’t play volleyball, just track and basketball.’ It was a huge letdown. They told me there was ‘no chance’ she’d pick up a third sport. But I didn’t give up. It’s not like I was going to bolt and chain her to a volleyball court, but I just had a good feeling about her.”
Akinradewo had never touched a volleyball, didn’t respect it as a serious sport, considered it “something you do at a family picnic.”
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Zielinski persisted, and won. So did USA Volleyball.
On Friday, the entire Akinradewo family will be in the audience at Olympic Stadium in London watching Foluke march in the Opening Ceremonies as a key member of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball team. She and her trademark red goggles are well-known in volleyball circles around the world after a brilliant career at Stanford and pro stints in Japan and Russia.
Akinradewo, 24, was an alternate for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but didn’t get to go, making this team berth even more meaningful.
“Until I’m there, at the Opening Ceremonies, I won’t really believe it,” she said. “I know I’ll get chills being out there. I really resisted playing in high school, and I was horrible at it when I started, but I ended up loving it.”
Akinradewo’s mother, a nurse aptly named Comfort, is equally incredulous that her daughter, who never played a minute of club volleyball, wound up at the Olympics.
“We have to thank her high school coach because without her, Foluke never would have tried the sport,” said Comfort Akinradewo, who works at the Northwest Medical Center in Margate. “We thought she wouldn’t like it and would quit. Then, we thought, ‘OK, she’s pretty good, so maybe she will get a scholarship to college.’ We never dreamed she would get this far. It is so exciting.”
Akinradewo ran high school track alongside Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross, was a long jumper and triple jumper, and played center for the basketball team. She also was an A-student, so her parents resisted a third sport and prohibited her from playing on club teams.
“I was really into track and basketball, and the volleyball coach kept nagging me to go out for her team,” Akinradewo said. “I wasn’t interested. I thought of volleyball as something you do at barbeques and picnics. Plus, I had never done it, so I didn’t think I’d be good at it.”
She wasn’t. At first.
Zielinski had Akinradewo in her physical education class, and tutored her on the basics. She was “awkward’’ the first few practices, but her athleticism, focus, and will to succeed compensated for her lack of experience. She went out for the team her sophomore year, and ended up making the All-Broward First Team with 238 kills and 71 blocks.
That spring, Zielinski suggested Akinradewo attend a Junior Olympic selection camp in Tampa. She was one of the few girls who did not play club, and was not on the national coaching staff’s radar. Zielinski brought along CDs of her new star in action. The big moment, though, was when coaches measured Akinradewo’s vertical approach jump.
The girl’s machine tops out at 10 feet, and Akinradewo outleaped that, so they took her over to the boy’s machine. She leaped 10 feet, 9 inches. Within weeks, she received her first college recruiting letters.
Her No. 1 choice was Stanford, primarily for its academics and historically strong volleyball program. But she had a personal reason for wanting to become a Cardinal, too. When she was 10, her older brother, Foluso, was competing for the University of Oregon at a track meet held at Stanford. During a break in the meet, a children’s 200-meter dash was held. Akinradewo entered, and won easily. The timekeeper gave her a Stanford cap and said, “Hopefully, we’ll see you competing here in a Stanford uniform some day.”
Akinradewo’s stock rose after her junior season in high school. She led the Raiders to the Class 5A Regional State Finals and had 443 kills and 100 blocks for the season. She made All-State First Team and was voted Broward County Volleyball Player of the Year. She made the USA Junior National Team and won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
As a senior, she tallied 647 kills, 158 blocks, and led the Raiders to the 5A state title. She also managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average.
She credits her parents for instilling her with discipline and a love of learning. She was born in Canada to Nigerian immigrants. Her father, Ayoola, is a medical physicist. Akinradewo majored in human biology at Stanford and plans to enroll in medical school when her volleyball career is over.
For now, her focus is an Olympic gold medal — something the U.S. women’s team has never won since the sport was introduced at the 1964 Olympics. The U.S. lost to Brazil in the finals in 2008 and settled for a silver medal. China won in 2004, and Cuba won in the three previous Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000).
Hugh McCutcheon, the former U.S. men’s coach, is coaching the U.S. women in London. The team is ranked No. 1 in the world. Brazil and Russia are among the giants who stand in the way. He has urged his players to dream large.
“He told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to envision yourself on the gold medal podium,’” Akinradewo said. “Can this become reality? Yes, it can. I really believe it can.”