Katie Brand Blog - Bringing Home a Championship (and Memories)

Senior Katie Brand trained and competed with the U.S. Collegiate National Team on a 12-day tour of China, with stops in Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing and other cities in between. She has checked in periodically throughout the two weeks, sharing her experiences of not only high-level volleyball but the Chinese culture as well. This is the final installment of her journey.

Part 1 - Greetings from China  I  Part 2 - Exceeding Wildest Dreams

Hello from Seattle!  

That's right! I'm officially back in the greatest country, the one that I've had the most amazing opportunity to represent these past few weeks! I'll be making my way to Chipotle here in a few minutes, but first, I must finish what I started.

So where did we leave off? Ah yes, we were heading to the great city of Beijing! And what better way to travel than via a four-and-a-half-hour (that might be a stretch) train ride through the country side of China. Once we settled in at the most luxurious hotel I've ever seen, we headed to the gym. There, we met the Pac-12 All-Star team, which has also been touring China, for a "short" scrimmage. They initially wanted to play three sets to 15 points, but after we took seven straight sets, their coach finally called it quits. We had gone a week of only playing Chinese teams, so it was motivating to see some familiar foes in an international setting. They were our peers, but we were fired up to compete.

The night ended with permission from the coaching staff to go adventuring through the Beijing Olympic Park. After roaming the grounds, we found ourselves staring at the “Bird’s Nest” – a.k.a. the Beijing National Stadium that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, among other things, in 2008. It was unreal. The history that saturates the air in there completely took my breath away. We soaked it in as long as we could before walking back through the fence of reality. It couldn't have been more like a scene straight out of a movie, that ended with us girls, arm in arm, giggling about our adventure all through the unfamiliar streets of Beijing.

The next day started bright and early with a bus ride to the Great Wall of China, which is guaranteed to be one of the coolest places I'll ever see in my life. The history behind the Wall alone was enough to make me stare in awe, but let me tell you, the pictures do not do that place justice. I had to drag my jaw on the ground for all 67 floors we climbed! It was absolutely breathtaking. 

That same night, my newfound partner in crime, Tia Scambray of the University of Washington, and I decided to make ourselves one with the Chinese people. We thought we were only buying bamboo hats, but that was before we laid our eyes on the most classic Chinese dresses you can imagine. We each bought one and had just the event to wear them: that evening’s 2016 China - U.S. Super Women's Volleyball Challenge opening banquet.

Our team and staff got a good laugh at our outfits at the banquet, but they did not appreciate them nearly as much as the numerous Chinese fans who requested pictures with us all night long. After the opening speeches from coaches and sponsors, dinner was served. We did our best all night to fit in with all of the customs of our gracious hosts. However, we dropped our first match of the tournament the next day in five sets against the Chinese Junior National Team. It was close, but they played really clean volleyball and provided us with high-level competition. Lucky for us, we still had an opportunity to make it to the finals by the skin of our teeth.

With that match constantly stirring in the back of our minds, we set off for our next adventure - The Forbidden City. The Emperor of China back in the day (Zhu Di, or the Yongle Emperor, of the Ming dynasty) had built this small city for himself – and thousands of his closest friends – to call home. Within its giant walls, there were enough rooms so that the Emperor could stay in a different room every night for 26 years if he so pleased. Yes, it was ginormous. Thankfully, it was also gameday that day, and with a request from the coaches to "stay off our feet,” we didn't have to walk to each individual room. Even the short tour, though, was still mind blowing and impossible to really grasp.

Okay, back to volleyball. That afternoon, fired up and determined to make it to the finals, we defeated our opponents in three sets! We celebrated the win in what the locals call "Old China,” which houses years upon years of history and culture. We squeezed in one more authentic Chinese meal, which I would be lying if I didn't tell you we had stopped enjoying on day three. Then, the staff had a surprise for us. 

We walked down the dark streets of the city to the only building still awake and full of life. We could not contain our grins as they explained we were in one of Beijing's most precious places that houses a giant vault filled with letters that hold the hopes and dreams of future Olympians who will compete for gold in Beijing in 2022. And they wanted us to be a part of it. 

We each got a half an hour to let our dreams spill right out of our hearts on to the blank sheets of paper. We then placed our letters written to ourselves in envelopes that had our home addresses printed on them, and the staff locked the letters in the vault. I'll be seeing that letter again in 2022 when they mail them out right before the Winter Olympics. We spent the rest of the night with tears in our eyes and butterflies in our stomachs as we shared our dreams with one another and held each other tight. I will never forget that experience.

The final day in China arrived, and we had to make sure it is one of best yet. We rose at the crack of dawn to do what we girls do best - shopping! And this wasn't just any kind of shopping. This was Silk Market shopping where the price tags mean nothing and your bartering skills mean everything. Four hours of finally putting my strong-willed, unceasing arguments to good use, and man, did it pay off! Four Ray-Bans, two North Face backpacks, one pair of Yeezy shoes, a set of wireless Beats headphones, and a single, gorgeous Marc Jacobs watch later, I was drained. It was then nap time, which was followed by film and dinner, and finally - game time. Championship game time.

And y’all ... We did it!

We beat the same team who got us the first night in four sets and are bringing home the gold! There could not have been a greater end to the tour.

Following the championship match, we clung to every last moment together as teammates that final night. We hit the pool followed by the spa, danced through the hotel in our robes, exchanged snacks and smiles, relived our many memories, laughed until we cried, and eventually fell asleep snuggled up in the same bed.

I'm already missing my 11 best friends and realizing no one will ever quite understand the experience of a lifetime we just shared together. My heart is overwhelmed with gratitude today for everyone who had any part in making the trip happen. And that includes you, for following along and taking the journey with me from afar.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart!