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USA Women's Volleyball: Davis grinding to the end

Nicole Davis crouches, digs in, lunges and dives. She scurries about and mops the floor with her own perspiration.

She grinds.

For 18 years of high-level volleyball, including starting for two USA national teams that won Olympic silver medals and two NCAA championship teams at USC, the 5-foot-4 libero has been about getting to the next ball, executing the next dig, and facilitating teammates who then finish the play and collect the glory.

But at age 32, in the final set of an illustrious career that has also included a globe-trotting professional experience, the Costa Mesa resident is beginning to plan for a future beyond the next serve.

"I am now the oldest player on the team, which is really weird for me, because I remember vividly being the youngest player, you know," said Davis, whose Team USA, ranked No. 2 in the world, will compete against No. 1-ranked Brazil in the USA Cup exhibition series that opens Saturday at 7 p.m. at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. "My first year with national team, I remember how intimidating and overwhelming it was, so it's fun to be on the other side of the coin, now."

Davis has made enough coin, both domestically and internationally, to live what she calls a comfortable lifestyle, though there is nothing comfortable about the manner in which she generates income.

"We don't get up every morning excited to get our butts kicked," Davis said of a training regimen she estimated is 70% practice and only 30% matches. "There was a definite point in the middle of my first Olympic cycle in 2006 where I just wasn't happy. We were training eight hours a day and I didn't feel like I belonged, or that I was getting better. I didn't feel fulfilled. I didn't have clarity and kind of lost my way and I thought about being done.

"What's hard about this job, is that you kind of have to be all in and you have to put your heart out there and be vulnerable. But more often than not you're not going to make it. The last Olympic cycle, there were 88 women that trained with us over the four years. We took 12 to the Olympics, so it's really difficult to be vulnerable and all in on something and not knowing if it's going to work out for you. You're always teetering on that balance. Is it going to work out? Can I be all in? Can I make the people around me better? Can I make my competition [for the position] the best she can be while also making me the best I can be? So that's what makes this so difficult."

Davis, however did what she does: rallied. She pulled up her knee pads and kept willing herself to starting assignments and silver medals in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as well as the 2012 Games in London.

She grinds.

A pair of concussions cost her most of her summer in 2013, allowing Kayla Banwarth to join the starting lineup at libero and relegating Davis to a backup role she is still battling to overcome.

Grinding still.

"Now I'm kind of crawling my way back," said Davis, who played with Newport Harbor High product and beach volleyball star April Ross at USC. "I would say I'm in the No. 2 spot now, but I've improved a lot from last year, and that's what it's about. I've also started in two Olympics and we're supposed to take 14 players to the Olympics in 2016 [in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil], which means we will take two liberos. To me, this is such a special group that in whatever capacity or role, I want to be involved. I want to be in that 14. If it means I'm not starting, then I'm not starting. If it means that I'm starting, then OK, I'm going to take care of any opportunity that's thrown my way. That's the mind-set I have now."

It's a mind-set that has marked her career, and created a high level of respect from teammates, opponents, fans and coaches alike.

"Nicole [known as Coley in the USA volleyball program that trains in Anaheim] has had a lot of success in volleyball and done a lot of great things," said Karch Kiraly, the U.S. women's head coach who was an assistant for the 2012 Olympic team. "But for me, the thing to admire about her most is that she had a very tough year in 2013 and didn't earn the right to travel to any foreign competition. She has some injuries and some other issues, but she has fought through those and brought her game up to the level where she has earned the right to compete for USA again."

Kiraly said Davis is battling Banwarth for the top nod at libero. Banwarth is scheduled to start Saturday at UCI, while Davis will start Sunday's match against Brazil, set for 5 p.m. at USC's Galen Center.

"[Davis] is a viable option to start," Kiraly said. "It was an easy decision to have her start at Galen Center, because she played at USC."

The libero position, a designated defender who can't hit or serve, came into existence on the NCAA level when Davis, then a defensive specialist, was a junior at USC.

"I became the first libero, played there two years at USC, then went on to the national team," said Davis, who is also a black belt in karate.

"When I started playing volleyball [as an eighth-grader in Stockton and later at Stockton Lincoln High] I was an outside hitter," she said. "I jump really well, but playing against girls [at the net] who are 6-5, 6-6 or 6-7, I'm at quite a bit of a disadvantage. The introduction of the libero position definitely opened up an opportunity for me to compete at this level."

Davis said she believes her level of play continues to rise.

"I still feel like I'm getting better every year and I'm 32," she said. "I would say that no one on the team has reached their peak. I see continual improvement."

Much of that improvement over the years for Davis has involved enhancing her leadership qualities.

"At my first Olympics, I was just one of the ducklings following the older ducks around, trying not to step on anyone's toes," Davis said. "In 2009, Hugh McCutcheon [Team USA's coach at the time] definitely asked a lot more of the liberos, in terms of our role and being a leader, being outspoken and directing things. That was a new experience for me. Trying to be a leader to somebody who is 10 years older than me is pretty difficult, but there is certainly a way to do it. And the culture of our team is set up so that can happen. It's not a top-down hierarchy, so learning to be a leader, on top of being someone who is supposed to be good at passing and defense, has been one of the biggest changes in the role for me the last couple years."

There are likely only a couple more years left for Davis on the national team, and she has begun thinking about a transition into a more traditional job.

"I'm starting to think about the end of my career," Davis said. "I am trying to get my feet wet and explore some other things and network and talk to as many people as I can and keep my eyes open for opportunities. I think as Olympians, we have a unique set of opportunities available to us that aren't normally available to a lot of people.

"People ask me if I'm going to coach and I'm open to it. But I think I'd be very selective about what job I took. A lot of people kind of fall into coaching, because it's a natural transition. I have no desire to fall into something. I want to really go hard into something and make sure It's something I'm going to be passionate about. I'm passionate about being challenged and you can put me in any environment and I'm going to thrive on being challenged."

But for now, she is grinding toward Rio.

"We're constantly talking and trying to figure out how do we do this better than we did it before," Davis said. "If we can figure that out, then we have a really great chance at succeeding."

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