Courtney Thompson

Olympic silver medalist Courtney Thompson is an extraordinary athlete with an inspirational story.

In a sport dominated by tall athletes, Courtney’s height is simply average. Throughout her storied career, detractors frequently—and incorrectly—predicted she could not compete at the next level. That was before she went on to lead her teams to high school, college and professional championships. That was before she earned one of only 12 spots on the USA roster at the 2012 London Olympics.

"What sets Courtney apart is, she battles. She owns the moment of competition. She’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up. She doesn’t back down from that. She makes those around her better." -Hugh McCutcheon,  Olympic gold and silver medal-winning head volleyball coach

But Courtney has gifts beyond her stature: she’s curious, she takes calculated risks, she learns from failures, she works long and hard and efficiently. Courtney trains, practices and competes with unbridled enthusiasm. More than anything, she is a willing and effective leader.

"Courtney has a presence about her that I've never witnessed in anybody else. She is 100% a leader." -Christa Harmotto, Olympic medal-winning volleyball player

And, because of those talents, Courtney is an outspoken and articulate ambassador for organized sports, particularly for volleyball. In short, she is an exceptional role model.

"Courtney Thompson gets it." -Marv Dunphy, Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball coach

Now 28 years old, Courtney spends much of her year playing professionally in Europe, often in less-than-glamorous venues. This season, she was in Łódź, a gray, sprawling metropolis in the cold swamplands of Central Poland. Like her USA Olympic teammates—who play in Russia and Turkey and Azerbaijan—Courtney sacrifices the comforts of home for the chance to compete against the world’s best … and because there is not yet a first-tier professional volleyball league in the United States.

"Incredible work ethic. The ability to get the most out of her teammates. To fit in. To compete at a fierce level. To play the parts of the game that aren't as easy to see or be rewarded for. I think Courtney is as good at that maybe as anybody I can think of right now." -Doug Beal, Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball coach and USA Volleyball CEO.

For four weeks in January and February 2013, our cameras followed Courtney as she trained and competed in Poland. She faced dozens of challenges, many of which are familiar to young athletes and their parents the world over: dealing with coaches, teammates, playing time, training methods, wins, losses, successes, disappointments and an uncertain futures. The documentary captures Courtney as she works through those challenges, usually in ways that are instructive and inspiring.

"Courtney's out of the ordinary. Her team rallies around her leadership. She moves the group forward, no matter how much adversity." -John Dunning, head volleyball coach, Stanford University.

In May 2013, we joined Courtney and her USA teammates as they returned to the gym in Anaheim. Reunited with her closest friends, she--and they--reflect on all that it means to train and compete at the highest level.

"Courtney works her ass off. I doesn't matter what anybody says, what anybody thinks. When you're on the court with her, there's a feeling we're gonna do whatever it takes to get the next point. Courtney's all in 100% of the time." -Kristin Hildebrand, captain, US National Team

On November 3, 2013, Courtney became the first female athlete in the long and storied history of University of Washington athletics to have her jersey retired.

On July 23, 2012, Courtney was the subject of a lengthy front-page feature, written by Jack & Leslie Hamann for the Seattle Times. Please take a minute to learn more about this exceptional woman and the sport she so passionately embraces:

July 22, 2012

Powered by her grandpas’ legacy
BY JACK HAMANN / Special to The Seattle Times

Courtney Thompson drove to the graveyard alone. She parked in Section 48, then walked down Riverside National Cemetery’s neat rows to the white headstone marked THOMPSON, WOODROW WILSON / CDR, US NAVY / WORLD WAR II, KOREA.

Hey, Gramps. I’ve been thinking about you.

It was May 18, 2012. If he had still been alive, Grampa Thompson would have turned 99 this day. His granddaughter, wearing her USA Volleyball National Team jacket, pulled out a birthday present.

“A couple of cold beverages. And I laid down my USA jacket, and I just sat there and had a drink with him. And told him what was going on; how fun it was, how hard it was.”

She told him how most everyone assumed she had roughly a snowball’s chance in hell to be an Olympian. How just last summer she’d been buried so deep on the Team USA setter depth chart that few would have blamed her if she’d simply quit. How she’d worked so relentlessly since, hoping to convince USA head coach Hugh McCutcheon to include her on the World Grand Prix roster, where 17 athletes would compete for the final 12 Olympic positions. In just six short weeks, she told him, they’d pick the team for London.

You always praised me, Grandpa. But it was kinda embarrassing, you know? I mean, you sacrificed absolutely everything so the rest of us could live a wonderful life.

Compared to that, I’ve always felt kinda unworthy.

— · — · —

The city of Kent has long run an impressive kids’ sports program: plenty of courts and fields, lots of willing volunteers. Courtney Thompson was a product of that system; she played nearly every sport and loved wearing a uniform.

“Since I was little,” Thompson says,” getting gear has been, like, the best day of my year. I remember being in my first full warm-up suit in soccer. And I remember my Mom telling me that I couldn’t wear it to school again. Because I wanted to wear that sweatsuit every day.”

From the start, Courtney was usually the best athlete on the field. A moment captured on video shows 9-year-old Courtney dribbling a soccer ball end-to-end, blowing past defenders, scoring an acrobatic goal with ease.

Her brother, Craig, was seven years older and often her coach. He cut a deal with little Court: he’d give her one star for scoring a goal, and two stars for an assist. She quickly switched gears, sharing glory and endearing her to her teammates. It carried over to baseball, basketball and—eventually—volleyball. For setters, assists are the most golden of stars.

Craig was different than most coaches. He schooled his kid sister about the mental side of sport: how to think, how to study the game, how to react to adversity, how to carry yourself on the court. And he was always there to talk about other things: school or boys or just plain life.

“I always say I won the lottery when it comes to family,” says Courtney, “‘cause Craig has been the best older brother that you could ever ask for.”

Trevor, her other brother, is two-and-a-half years older than Courtney. “I grew up emulating everything he did,” she says. “I’d run around, trying to follow him and keep up with him. He’s a super-energetic, competitive person.

“I think I got those things from him.”

These days, Trevor is in the Navy, a veteran of several overseas deployments. He’s a US Naval Academy graduate, just like Courtney’s father, uncle, and Grandpa Cooper, her other granddad. Charles Grafton Cooper was a three-star Marine Corps general, born and raised in Mississippi. During the Korean War, Charlie led his unit up a hill under enemy fire, earning a Silver Star and a lifelong load of embedded shrapnel.

“Growing up, Grandpa Cooper was a little bit intimidating to me, for sure,” Thompson says. “He was a little more old school. And I think there was a point where he would have liked it if I wore a few more dresses, and was into more girly things.”

By the time she reached Kentlake High School, Courtney had topped out at 5 feet, 8 inches. She turned out for a sport every quarter. She made her high school volleyball team, and auditioned for a well-regarded club team called Kent Juniors.

“There’s this girl who was short and couldn’t really hit like the other players her age,” remembers Dawn Colston. “She had bad hands and bad form.”

But Colston, who would eventually become Thompson’s club coach and close advisor, saw something else.

“Confidence. And leadership. Two skills every great setter needs.”

Courtney’s confidence grew as she led Kentlake to three consecutive state volleyball titles. After the first championship, a newspaper photo featured strong, toned Courtney flexing and celebrating with an emphatic, wide-open shout. A friend’s mother saw the pose and disapproved, telling her son, “It’s so weird that she’s a girl, acting that way.”

“It was a gut bomb,” Thompson remembers. “With my intensity, I’ve certainly felt different as a female.”

Courtney never considered athletics and femininity mutually exclusive. As it turned out, neither did her boyfriends or most of her peers. They elected her student body president. She was class valedictorian. People liked her because, in life, as in volleyball, she was always dishing out assists.

“Her strength,” says her mother, Linda, “is that she makes people around her better. They know she’s got their backs.”

Most prep stars fade quickly after high school. Despite being named Washington state player of the year, few collegiate volleyball powers recruited Courtney. Too short. Small hands.

“It killed me—killed me,” she says. “It adds fuel to the fire. I wanted to prove them wrong.”

At the University of Washington, Jim McLaughlin was taking over a program that had never been among the elite. He’d been a setter in college, worked closely with the US Men’s Olympic Team, and won a national title with the USC men. During his first UW recruiting season, he saw Courtney in action.

“I just got a vibe. I watched her energy. I watched her drive. I watched her compete. And I just loved those things. Those things outweighed her height and her blocking ability and all that stuff.”

“He just wanted me to be me and to work hard,” Thompson says. “And I trusted him and believed him.”

They started slowly, but fed off each other’s energy. McLaughlin was ecstatic to coach a player who was endlessly curious and utterly unafraid to work. He taught her everything he knew about footwork, eyework, pace and positioning. She took pride in her serving and her defense. She became such a capable blocker that two of Washington’s best scoring rotations were when Courtney was in the front row.

With Thompson as team leader, Washington became one of the nation’s top teams, a position they’ve never relinquished. At UW, volleyball now outdraws every other sport, male or female, except football and men’s basketball. During Courtney’s era, UW won its first volleyball national championship and reached the Final Four three times. After the 2005 season, Thompson was named the best collegiate female volleyball player in America.

And Grandpa Cooper, the US Marine Corps general, took note.

“She made him realize that you can be a feminine woman in a feminine world, and yet be confident and athletic,” says Courtney’s father, Steve. “Courtney really changed his entire perspective.”

— · — · —

In 2009, Thompson was in Thailand with the US National Team when the call came: Grandpa Cooper had died. All those years later, the shrapnel he took on that Korean hill had finally claimed his life. He was to be buried at Arlington National Ceremony.

“I called my grandmother, and I was crying,” Thompson says. “I told her I felt I had to leave the team to come to the funeral. She broke down and said, don’t even think about it. You know your Grandpa would want you to live your dream.”

The dream included occasional time with the National Team, plus a decent salary playing professional volleyball, first in Puerto Rico and then in Switzerland. But with each passing year, more and more wonderful setters were graduating: UCLA’s Nellie Spicer, Penn State’s Alicia Glass, Cal’s Carli Lloyd, among others. All had their eyes on the London Olympics. Several moved ahead of her on the depth chart.

“I think that’s been one of her greatest challenges,” says Linda Thompson, “is how do you know you should keep working hard? Or should you be taking this as a sign of, you know, wow, I’ve done great, and I’m done now?”

“Anyone who’s on this team, at this level, is wired a little differently,” says Courtney. “And we’re all really hard on ourselves. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, who you’re playing for, if you’re not playing well, it’s difficult.”

She decided to take a calculated risk: while her main competitors signed with elite European professional leagues, Courtney returned to Puerto Rico. She’d compete at a lower level, but she’d get a chance to lead a team hungry to win.

It worked. She led her underdog club to the Puerto Rican professional championship. Reinvigorated, she returned to the USA gym and fought her way back into the top three.

“She’s always been a great competitor. But she hasn’t always been, technically, a great setter,” says McCutcheon, the USA coach. “And to her credit, she’s worked very hard. And she’s made significant changes. And that’s allowed her to be where she is today.”

Many in the volleyball world were shocked when McCutcheon selected Thompson and Minnesota’s Lindsey Berg as his two Olympic setters, bypassing Alicia Glass. But those who know Courtney best say that they are not surprised. She beats the odds, they say, because she lives and breathes old-fashioned values: hard work, and attention to even the smallest details.

“The better you get at something,” says Steve Thompson, “there’s less big stuff to work on. But there’s always small stuff to work on. And that small stuff can really make a difference.”

“To become great is really, really hard,” says McLaughlin. “And Courtney’s standards are frickin’ off the map. There’s nothin’ that kid doesn’t believe she can do. And I love that.”

— · — · —

As she stood up to leave Grandpa Thompson’s headstone, Courtney wished him happy birthday.

It means so much to me, Gramps, to wear the USA flag on my jersey. Because it’s kind of a way that I can say, Hey, I’m representing this country, too. I’m able to play a sport for a living, you know? And I’m representing all that is good about this amazing country and what my grandpas sacrificed for.

As she headed back to her car, she left her USA Volleyball jacket behind on his grave. She had never felt worthy of her grandpas’ praise. Maybe now, though, she’d earned it.

Jack and Leslie Hamann produce the Seattle Times News Partner site Volleyblog Seattle,


  1. Very inspiring, had the pleasure to meet her at a High Performance Coaches Clinic in Colorado Springs, she is an amazing person.

  2. I remember playing against Courtney in club volleyball. She stood out then just as she does now. It is great to see a local girl get so far in the game.