It's the summer of 2016.
The tournament has just ended, and I am holding a stunning bronze medal in my hand.
On the podium, next to us, there are also Alison and Bruno, from Brazil.
We had just beat the best of the best in the world circuit so we deserve a little moment of glory.
I am not dreaming.
And it's not a typo.
The last big appointment of the Olympic season ended on a high, but something doesn’t feel right inside of me.
It doesn’t because, despite being 2016 and even though there is the Brazilian team, that is not the podium of the Rio Olympics, but the one of the World Tour Finals.
My partner and I did not go to Rio, despite qualifying within the top 16. The best-ranked teams do go to the Games, and this alone would be a purely meritbased foundation.
I, however, was born in the United States, and the competition here is quite fierce. It certainly more fierce than in any other country in the world, except for Brazil,
perhaps. So, being in the right place in the ranking is not enough. You also have to be within the country quotas, which simply means being one of the first two teams of the nation.
Not only that: there are two different rankings. There is the Olympic one, which considers the results of the previous year and a half, and the one of the World Tour, in which are included the same identical teams, and which takes into account a shorter period of time.
The first list rewards the outbursts, the great victories, more. The second one, instead, gives value to the continuity of the performance.
But the circuit, at the elite level, is so restricted and competitive, that the two rankings are often the same, and the variations that can be found from one ranking to the other are minimal.
We were one of those variations.
Short parenthesis in history, in which something is determined not only by merit, but also by a dry mechanism, conceived on paper, that is the same for everyone, but unfair for someone.
At the closure of the qualifications for Rio 2016, we were the second-best American team in the World Tour ranking but only the third-best in the Olympic one.
And we had to give way to those who preceded us.
It's weird to be good at something and not have the opportunity to show it to the whole world on the most important stage.
A feeling that remains suspended throughout your life.
Logic struggles to surface in your mind.
To tell you that everything, after all, is understandable.
But what you feel actually looks like a puzzle, made of as many pieces as the hours you worked to get there. A puzzle that will miss the last piece forever.
The Olympic Games try to be open and embrace as much humanity as possible, and I understand that. But it is also true that there are places, and there are disciplines, where being the third-best in your country also means having an honest chance for an Olympic medal, which in this system is taken away from you automatically.
As long as my merit is worth a virtual Olympic medal, I should be able to take my chance on the sand, regardless of the desire to make the Games a moment of global participation.
The team who went to Rio in our place came in last, in a very strange twist of fate. Throughout the entire course of the competition, I have tried to cheer for my compatriots, who are, also good friends, and I really mean it.
People who deserved to be there as much as I would have deserved it.
But something inside me, deep down, really wanted to see them lose.
I had mix emotions and I was in a confused state.
Two weeks later, on the podium of the World Tour Finals, holding my bronze medal, I thought the worst was behind me.
That result, achieved in a context that was even more competitive than the Olympic Games, because it lacked national quotas, gave a new justification to my ego.
I was 28 years old and I was at full strength. The other teams were getting older and the new Olympic four-year term would be my consecration.
I didn't even know how hard it would be.
During the season I had lived with a tiny problem at my ankle.
Nothing serious, of course, but still a constant annoyance that weakened me all year long and forced me to play thanks to some cortisone injections.
Which is why, grounded the last ball, I went straight to the operating room, for a nice cleaning.
An absolutely routine surgery.
When I got back, however, in the weeks of training, I began to feel strangely fatigued, a feeling that became more intrusive and annoying every day.
I trained and I couldn't recover.
I took the court and the muscles were becoming more and more stiff and tired.
I completed the entire approach to the season, convinced that sooner or later I would find the lost brilliance. However, just a few days before I left for the first tournament, there came the cold shower: my blood values are off and the doctors advise caution.
A week off.
Then a month, then two.
I got to the point where I couldn't walk or sit without feeling pain.
It was like a widespread feeling of extreme fatigue, coming from within and consuming your muscles and bones, making everything sticky and difficult.
When we did a biopsy of a piece of muscle that had been removed from my thigh, the diagnosis arrived.
It's called dermatomyositis, and it's an autoimmune disease that takes over the whole body.
The brain sends a message to the body, which in response triggers the pain.
Like a short circuit.
The only possible causes, the doctors told me, could be the surgery or the stress; or perhaps a combination of both.
It took me two full years to get back to playing.
24 months spent in terrible physical pain, and with the need to face myself, my whys, and my fears.
I went deep into my thinking, being honest about my means, and ready to accept everything I would find.
I got married, and then, when I found my balance, we drew a road map for my return, because my desire to go to the Olympic Games has been my main motivation to keep going from day one.
After months and months of waiting and hard work, I returned to the field. As luck would have it, I did so during the very first qualifying tournament for Tokyo 2020, which was only a 3 star tournament, but which thrilled me as if it were the first of my career.
We won the event, and for one night I went to sleep at the top of the Olympic rankings.
My obstacles, however, were not over yet. Because after the country quotas and the illness, a broken hand was the cherry on my cake, to make me lose some very valuable 5 star Olympic qualifying events in a 4 year run which, for me, had already been halved at the beginning.
When I look at my sporting experience, it is impossible for me to feel exactly like others do. I hate complaining, and that's certainly not what I'm doing here, but it is equally undeniable that on the road to the Olympic dream, numerous factors make my journey very complex.
But more than anything it’s simply just different than that of others.
I'm on this unique path that is just for me, filled with my own challenges.
With no comparison to others or judgments taken on from the others.
I’m done with comparing myself to opponents like I did for Rio’s olympic quad. It’s just about doing the best I can on my particular journey. Four years, plus one due to the pandemic, later, I find myself once again playing my fate up to the last point, up to the last tournament, to truly enjoy an adventure that in my heart I still feel I deserve.
And perhaps the real question lies right here: what makes an athlete an Olympian?
Having been there?
Having deserved to participate?
Having dedicated your entire life to the Games?
Or simply feeling it?
The last page of my book is still to be written, but it won't be a long read, because everything will be decided soon. I am sure that, depending on the sport, the best in the world don't always go to the Olympics, because everything also depends on the era you live in, the discipline, the country where you were born and your fate.
And it is precisely for this reason that, no matter what happens and no matter what result comes, no one will ever feel, in their heart, more proud of me.
I’ll always be proud of myself and my effort, no matter the result as long as I know that I did everything in my power to achieve this goal.
This carries a lot more weight in my heart than someone else labeling me as an Olympian or me being able to get the olympic rings tattoo.