Players jump to block Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson at the net, but rarely do they succeed. You can spot the disappointment of defeat in an opponent’s face as Gunderson effortlessly offsets a spike past all countermeasures. Watch her play as a middle blocker with Japan’s Hisamitsu Springs professional volleyball team, and you begin to wonder if she’s subject to the same natural laws that apply to the rest of us. In many ways, Gunderson is larger than life; at 6 foot 3 inches, she towers over most of the other players on her team.
But volleyball wasn’t Gunderson’s first sport. As a freshman at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, she ran track and played basketball until coach Lisa Zielinski persuaded her to work the net for the Raiders. Gunderson led the team to a state volleyball title during her senior year. “I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by great coaches and fantastic teammates who showed me the ropes,” she says.
Colleges took notice—Stanford specifically, where Gunderson played for four years. She graduated in 2009 with a degree in human biology and an impressive volleyball record, finishing with the best career hitting efficiency of any NCAA Division I player. Then, Team USA came knocking. As an Olympian, Gunderson became something of an alchemist, taking a 2012 silver medal and a 2016 bronze medal for the United States and turning it into gold at the 2020 Olympics.
Now living in Japan and playing volleyball professionally, Gunderson’s prolific career continues—despite being worlds away from home and the only American on the Hisamitsu Springs squad. “My husband and son are with me, so I have some semblance of a normal life,” she says, noting that she relies on the help of an interpreter to ease communications with her Japanese-speaking teammates.
Gunderson says she never dreamed her career would be so successful—or so long. “I never set out to have a long career in volleyball,” she admits. “I didn’t even know the professional world existed when I started.”
At 34 years old, she’s still got her head in the game. But she is also mindful that someday her life on the court will come to a close. “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do once I finish my career, but I do know that I want to do something in medicine,” Gunderson says. She adds that she’ll build upon the knowledge and degree she earned at Stanford, which inducted her into its hall of fame in 2019.
But for now, it’s all volleyball, all the time. “I think what’s helped me the most is the fact that I never looked too far ahead,” she says. “I’ve kept my head down, put in the hard work, dreamed big, and tried to treat others the way I would want to be treated. And above all, I’ve been blessed.”