Sometimes she dreams in Japanese. More and more she dreams in English. Yoko Zetterlund has a Swedish father and a Japanese mother, was born in San Francisco and grew up in Tokyo, but she suffers no identity crisis. Zetterlund knows exactly who she is: the reserve setter on the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team. Tonight she has written on the back of her right hand, in Japanese, Make everything possible. "That's because when a backup like me gets into the game," Zetterlund says, "sometimes things seem impossible."
Japan had jumped to a nine-point lead in the first set against the U.S. when American coach Terry Liskevych changed setters. Volleyball is overburdened with emotion—its players celebrate and console each other with every side out—but Zetterlund slaps hands with more insistence and waggles her fingers to call plays with more emphasis than anyone. She is a reminder that Olympic passion can elicit not only tears but also smiles.
Zetterlund could have played for Japan, if only it had wanted her. When she was growing up, she was called gaijin—foreigner—because of her mixed heritage. "I was kinda sad when I was little," Zetterlund says, "because I wished I could be part of their world. I worked hard to understand Japanese culture. I hung in." She played volleyball while attending prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, where the game was not much better than in U.S. college intramurals.
She did not impress the Japanese federation. In 1991, at the age of 21, she was given a tryout by the Americans. Zetterlund didn't understand how all the words she heard on the court related to volleyball, but she set well enough to make the 1992 team. Atlanta was her second Olympics. When the players broke the huddle after a timeout, no one yelled "U-S-A" with more fervor.
The U.S. women's volleyball team finished a disappointing seventh in Atlanta, but personal gold medals are won every day in what Pierre de Coubertin called a festival of extreme effort. The impossible took less than two hours, as Zetterlund helped the U.S. come from behind to beat Japan, and at the postmatch press conferences, when Liskevych said, "Yoko did a great job," Zetterlund lowered her eyes. And smiled.