‘Biggest cheerleader.’ Edina’s Thompson shows she belongs on Olympic volleyball team

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It's never been Jordan Thompson's primary goal to be the best at what she does, although the 24-year-old Edina graduate is on a very short list of the top women's volleyball players in the country.

She's not seeking accolades from volleyball's elite or adoration from the hoi polloi. She does appreciate a kudo or two from those she respects, but only in a "Really? Me?" sense.

What the front-row attacker wants from her blossoming volleyball career is far more simple. She wants to pull her weight. She wants to belong.

"My favorite thing is being part of the team and cheering them on, no matter what my role is," Thompson said. "I want to be the best team player I can be. I want to be everybody's biggest cheerleader."

She's one of the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team, bearing a skill set that makes her a fearsome front-row opponent. A lean 6-4 with a vertical jump well over 30 inches ("I haven't measured it since college. I think it was about 32, 34 inches," she recalled) and long, whip-like arms that generate tremendous downward power when she winds up for a kill, Thompson is considered one of the team's most dangerous threats in the Tokyo Summer Games.

To hear her tell it, though, she's just a typical volleyball-crazy individual lucky enough to get the honor of playing with the best players in the country and walk, wearing the red, white and blue, in the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

"That's still hard for me to believe, that I am one of a group of 12 that's going to represent the United States," said Thompson, who will play her first Olympic match on Saturday night against Argentina. "I keep thinking I might not really be one of the 12 best. It's just a really weird thing to grasp."

But her inclusion on the final Olympic roster surprised no one who knows her.

"I probably disappointed her with my reaction when she told me she made the team," said her mother, Mary. "But I wasn't surprised. I knew she'd make it. She has always been so incredibly focused on being the best she can be that I had no doubt."

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Thompson certainly has the bloodlines for athletic success. Her uncle is former Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman; her father is the late Doleman's brother Tyrone, who spent nearly a decade playing basketball professionally overseas and with the Harlem Globetrotters.

She grew up in southwest Minneapolis, which is where a dream of playing in the Olympics took root.

"It was the 2012 Olympics in London and I remember watching some of the volleyball games with my cousins," she said. "I remember thinking 'Man, I want to do that.' I didn't know how realistic it was, but it was something I always kept in the back of my mind."

Armed with the requisite tools for volleyball success — height, athleticism, humility and a passion for the game — Thompson developed quickly at local volleyball clubs like Club 43 and then at the nationally-renowned Northern Lights.

"When she came to us, she was tall, skinny, kind of flappy, not terribly strong," Northern Lights club director Adam Beamer said.

He put her on the 15-2 team, the No. 2 squad in her age group, "just to get her some experience."

Which is all Thompson has really ever sought: a chance to play, a chance to improve.

"You could see her potential," Beamer remembered. "You never know how a player is going to pan out, but she had all the tools: She had a well-rounded personality, she was humble and she was grateful. She's done a ton of work. Now you see her and you're like 'Wow.' "

She went on to have a record-setting career at the University of Cincinnati, eschewing the recruiting allure of more traditional volleyball powers in the Big Ten and Pac-12.

"I wanted to go somewhere where I could play right away," Thompson said. "I didn't want to be on the bench until I was a senior."

It was the perfect place to develop her game. She became a three-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and two-time All-America. She is the school's career record holder in kills with 2,634, seventh in NCAA history. She had 50 kills in a match in 2019, a mark no one had reached in the rally scoring era.

Her proudest moment was understandably a team achievement in her final collegiate season. "We made it to the [NCAA] Sweet 16, which we had never done before. That was amazing," she gushed.

"You don't have to go Big Ten to have a successful career in volleyball."

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She didn't go unnoticed by those in charge of the U.S national team. She had two successful stints with the U.S. Collegiate National team and had led the United State to a gold medal in the FIVB Nations League in 2019. An invitation to Olympic tryouts was the logical next step, yet it humbled Thompson.

She recalls being giddy when Hall of Famer Karch Kiraly, the womens' national team coach, first approached her during tryouts. He didn't say much, but what he said spoke volumes.

"He pulled me aside and said, 'I like what you're doing. Keep it up.' Nothing special, but I was so excited," she said.

It meant she belonged, if she had any doubts.

"She's always been very humble and not one to think highly of herself," her mother, Mary, said. "When she was playing club, my mother would always tell her that one day, she was going to be in the Olympics. She'd always say, 'Oh grandma, you're so funny.' "

As a young player on the team, Thompson, who played professionally in Turkey last year, readily admits she has a lot to learn from her more experienced teammates and is a willing sponge.

But she's confident enough in herself that what she brings, energy and offense, will translate well as the top-ranked American women aim for their first Olympic gold medal.

"I bring youth and energy and I think that's important," she said. "I think we can win gold. That's the goal."

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