By JULIE JAG
LONDON – Savanah Leaf simply wanted to return to her roots when she decided she would try out for the Great Britain women’s volleyball team almost a year ago – before she even knew the squad would be competing in the 2012 Olympics. Now the 18-year-old Marin Academy graduate is making the Brits roar on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I didn’t think I would be here four months ago, I didn’t think this would be possible,” Leaf said following Great Britain’s 3-0 loss to Italy in pool play Wednesday night at Earls Court. “I see my family up in the stands, and it’s just incredible. It’s amazing.”
Leaf, who at age 8 moved with her mother, Alison, from London to the Bay Area, was considered a long shot to make the GB team. At 18, she holds the distinction of being the youngest British volleyball player at the Games of any discipline and the only American on the team. She played just her freshman season at San Jose State after graduating from Marin Academy in 2011, and she has no international experience.
So it would seem playing at the Olympics in front of a capacity crowd of 19,000 – many yelling “GB!” and “Smash it!” – would be intimidating.
“The first game definitely got me nervous, especially since we were playing really tall Russian players that are really well known, so that gave me some butterflies,” the 6-foot tall Leaf said. “But I’m actually kind of getting used to that big crowd and actually I’m feeding off of them. It’s helping me so much.”
Team GB coach Audrey Cooper said that is true of the entire team, which may have contributed to some of their somewhat unexpected success.
“When they give you that roar, that just gives you a lift. It just gives you a real boost. Everyone’s reacting to that,” Cooper said of the crowd. “It’s like a cauldron to do battle. No sign of nerves.”
The volleyball team’s historic first Olympic win came in wee hours of the morning Tuesday when GB defeated Algeria, 3-2. To advance after losing to Russia and Italy, it will need to win one more match and claim a few sets in the other. The team finishes Pool A play against the Dominican Republic on Friday and Japan on Sunday.
Leaf has tallied seven kills and two aces in limited play at the Olympics. On Wednesday, she made three kills and an ace in two sets against the strong Italian team.
“She is an absolutely delightful, mature 18-year-old. She’s just lovely,” Cooper said. “She has made a significant impact on the team already and she is pushing for that starting six position. She’s a little like a sponge as well, she picks up information quickly and asks superb questions. She has a really bright future.”
About 18 months ago, Leaf decided she wanted to play for Great Britain and sent Cooper a recruiting film her mother, an animation director at Pixar, put together. Cooper invited her to join the team for a training camp in Sheffield during Christmas break when Leaf planned to visit her mother’s hometown of Wetherby nearby.
“First I was thinking about the team, I wanted to make the GB team,” Leaf said, adding her motivation initially was to play in front of her English friends and family. “And then when I found out about the Olympics, I was like I really want to try out for this team.”
Leaf’s dark-horse status may have been what initially endeared her to Cooper and the GB players, most of who have been competing together for four years or more. Locally, Team GB has earned the nickname the DIY team because it has supported itself by holding bake sales and adopt-a-player drives after it was cut off from its public funding in 2010. Players have also left behind mortgages and boyfriends to be part of the first united Great Britain team – until 2006 it was divided into Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — to compete in the Olympics. The team qualified automatically as the representative from the host nation.
“She’s gotten along really well,” said Ciara Michel, 27, a middle who made six kills and three blocks against the Italians. “She’s so young and such a raw talent. She goes out there and plays big, like we’re all trying to.”
Leaf already has plans to return for the European Championships in September, when she will also be starting her first season with the University of Miami, where she transferred after the 2011 season. Right now, she’s trying to believe she’s actually at the Olympics, playing in front of a packed stadium of hometown fans and, of course, staying at the Olympic village.
“It’s like a dream, kind of,” Leaf said. “There are so many athletes that you watch on TV and so many amazing athletes from around the world that you meet every day and everyone’s telling you their stories. It’s crazy.”