For almost as long as Cynthia Barboza can remember, there has been something special about the Olympic Games—“Olympic magic,” she calls it.
“Before I even started playing volleyball, I knew that the Olympics were a dream of mine,” recounted Barboza, 25.
“Maybe some kids put small, glow-in-the-dark stars on their ceiling, but I drew Olympic rings, cut them out and put them out there...I wanted a piece of it, I wanted to be a part of it.”
Barboza has nearly fulfilled her dreams in a sport that can only be described as a game of millimeters. In fact, Barboza, a three-time alternate for the United States’ women’s volleyball squad, has been about as close as one can be for more than a decade without joining her team at the pinnacle of athletic competition.
In 2004, the Olympics first became a legitimate possibility for Barboza, then a 17-year-old student-athlete at Wilson Classical High School in her native Long Beach.
Despite the fact that Barboza was the youngest athlete with the national training program and “probably millions of reps” behind most of her competition in the process, she insisted she was “in the mix” before ultimately not making the team.
Barboza was hit hard by the snub—“I was definitely devastated,” she noted, in retrospect—but she was nevertheless determined to improve and crack the squad in 2008.
Four years came and went, and Barboza, then a star athlete and political science student at Stanford, was told that she would once again be resigned to watching the Games from home.
“That day, I cried. I cried really hard,” Barboza admitted. “It’s really hard. I made huge strides as an athlete between 17 and 21. When you get similar feedback, it’s like, ‘I’m in the exact same position?’ The second time around was way more devastating than the first.”
Off the court, Barboza graduated from Stanford in 2009 and, from there, played professionally in Japan, Russia and Italy from 2009-2012.
For the past several years, Barboza played with the national team, helping it qualify for the Olympics once again. But as the qualification process went on, Barboza realized she would be something of a long-shot to make the team.
“It wasn’t surprising to me, based on personnel,” offered Barboza, when asked if she was surprised when told that she would be an alternate for the third time in as many cycles. “I went into my final meeting with thank-you letters for everyone on the coaching staff.
“I knew in my heart that they would say, ‘Thank you for everything that you contributed, but we’re going in a different direction.’”
In years past, Barboza was hit hard by being named an alternate. She insisted that this year’s snub, although devastating in its own right, was different.
“Everyone in our gym is good enough, it’s just about finding that magic mix,” Barboza said. “And I think they did the right thing. There’s a little bit of peace in that, when you know that you weren’t a part of the right fit.
"I’m not saying, ‘Oh, I got screwed, I’m better than so-and-so,’ I don’t believe that was the case. I think the team is going to do really well and I feel connected to it. Even if it wasn’t playing on the court, I feel really connected to the team. I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of everyone who made contributions to this team.”
After three cycles—in which she has been in the mix for each competition before ultimately falling short of joining her squad at the event—Barboza isn’t certain if she’ll make it to the Olympic Games before she walks away from the sport she loves.
This doesn’t exactly sit well with her: “I think I will be disappointed if I don’t make the Games,” she admitted. But Barboza, who may pursue the 2016 Games on the beach volleyball circuit, isn’t dwelling on what has happened in the past, but is looking forward to the future.
“I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in life. I really believe in serendipity—there’s a plan for me out there,” said Barboza, who hopes to someday get her MBA and put her education to work in the business world.
“If I close my eyes, cry and drop my head down, with my tail between my legs, I can’t see what door life is opening up for me. It’s a difficult period—I just, kind of, had a dream of mine crushed—but I’m going through the rest of my life with my eyes wide open.”
“Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see what comes next.”
Ed Kapp is a Regina-Saskatchewan-based freelance journalist. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.