It’s not unusual for volleyball players and athletes in other sports to think their careers in terms of Olympic quads. And what happens in the four-year period between each edition of the Games offers a pretty accurate portrait of the different stages of an athlete’s career, which has certainly been true for Brazilian Natalia Pereira.
The outside hitter is one of the longest standing members of the Brazilian national team and has seen and experienced a little bit of everything since she first wore her country’s jersey in 2005.
The quad leading up to the London 2012 Olympics ended in the best possible way for Natalia and Brazil with the South Americans taking gold in the British capital to win their second Olympics in a row. Natalia, however, almost missed those Games.
After leading Brazil to victory at the 2007 FIVB Junior World Championships, and receiving the MVP award, when she was only 18, she earned a spot in the senior team, shortly after the 2008 Olympics.
She lived up to expectations in each of the next three years, helping Brazil win the 2009 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix and finish second at the 2010 and 2011 editions of the tournament, as well as at the 2009 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Champions Cup and 2010 FIVB Volleyball Women's World Championship.
She was also solid at the club level, guiding Osasco Audax to victory in the Brazilian Superliga and to a second-place finish at the 2010 FIVB Volleyball Women’s Club World Championship.
However, in June 2011, Natalia was diagnosed with a tumour on her shin and had to have surgery.
Her rehab didn’t go as well as expected and she had to undergo a second procedure in December, but the timeline was tight for a recovery process that would get her ready to play in London. With a lot of hard work and support from head coach Jose ‘Ze’ Roberto Guimaraes, however, Natalia made it to the Games and was part of the gold medal winning squad.
“This medal reflects my dedication and the fact that I never gave up”, she said after the tournament. “After the first surgery I still had pain and when I was told I would need another operation, I was scared about not being ready for the Games and even for the future of my career. I allowed myself to be sad and to cry for three days and after that, I started working and having a positive attitude about my situation. I can’t tell how thankful I am to Ze for having waited for me and I tried to repay that by helping in any way I could, even if I wasn’t in my best shape.”
The following four years were particularly rewarding and saw Natalia grow her role with the national team. The outside hitter secured a starting position with Brazil and helped the team win the 2013 World Grand Champions Cup and the 2014 and 2016 editions of the Grand Prix (she received the MVP award in the second of these tournaments).
The final chapter of that cycle was not as exciting, however, with Brazil being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Rio 2016 Olympics to finish fifth after back-to-back golds. But it showed the world Natalia was ready to be a leader for the team in the years to come, when some of the most experienced players, like Sheilla Castro and Fabiana Claudino, were set to step away from international competition.
“I feel ready for the task,” she said, shortly after the Rio Olympics. “I’ve always prepared to not only give my best on the court, but also to help my teammates. I’ve been to two Olympics and two World Championships and have quite a few years with the national team. I’ve played with great leaders like Fabiana and (libero) Fabi (Oliveira) and learned a lot from them. I’ll try to use all of that to make us stronger in the next quad.”
Another step in that direction was playing outside of Brazil for the first time in her career. Natalia spent four of the five club seasons leading up to the Tokyo Games in Europe (two with Fenerbahce, one with Eczacibasi and the current one with Dynamo Moscow) and had a stellar season with Itambe Minas in Brazil in 2018-2019. In five seasons she helped her club teams win two national league titles, three national cup trophies and two silver medals at the Women’s Club World Championships.
She was also solid for the Brazilian national team, helping the South Americans triumph at the 2017 World Grand Prix and taking silver at both the 2017 Grand Champions Cup and the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.
At 32, Natalia is a very different player to the one who won gold at the London Games in 2012. The Tokyo Olympics will mark the end of another four-year period, but could also mark the end of her international career.
“I’ve been committed to playing in my third Olympics in Tokyo but after that, only time will tell,” she revealed. “I’ve been dealing with some injuries over the last years and I see it as a sign that my body cannot handle this rhythm for much longer after 15 years. So, if I want to extend my club career for a few more years, I might have to step away from the national team. But I still dream about winning the World Championship, so who knows what will happen?”
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