For three-time American Olympic volleyball player Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson ’09, the 2020 Games may have been the most difficult yet. Not only did she compete during the pandemic with Tokyo in a state of emergency, but Gunderson returned to this year’s competition as a mother.
On the women’s volleyball team at Stanford, Gunderson helped lead the team to three consecutive NCAA Championships and was twice named Pac-10 Player of the Year.
Gunderson has never been one to back down from challenges — and the road to the 2020 Games was no exception. She continued her training while pregnant and rejoined the national team soon after giving birth in Nov. 2019. Just a year and a half later, Gunderson bounced back for her third Olympics.
“I know that she’s such an inspiration to so many women who want to be moms and continue their athletic careers or other careers,” former teammate Cassidy Litchman ’11 said. “She’s just pulled it off, like everything else in her life, with so much grace and resilience.”
Litchman added that Gunderson stands out even when she competes alongside the best players in the world. Indeed, after finishing as the top team in their pool, the United States beat the Dominican Republic in the quarterfinals, and then Serbia in the semifinals; Gunderson played a key role in those successes.
Gunderson started the semifinal match with strong serving, and also delivered a crucial kill and block, winning the second and third set. During the final match on Aug. 8, the U.S. Volleyball Team defeated Brazil to receive a gold medal.
“I could not be more proud to have played with Foluke, to have known her in college and to see where she’s at now,” Bryn Kehoe ’09 said. “Not just as an Olympian, but also as a mother. I think it’s fantastic and amazing what she’s been able to do. It just goes to show how incredible her work ethic is.”
Gunderson was an essential member of the women’s volleyball team during her time at Stanford, despite having never played club volleyball. She was a three-time First Team All-American, and graduated with the best career hitting efficiency (.446) of any NCAA Division I player.
Gunderson went on to compete in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, where she won bronze and silver medals, respectively. In 2018, Gunderson received the USAV Women’s National Team Co-Player of the Year award, and in 2019 she celebrated her induction into the Stanford Hall of Fame.
Gunderson’s teammates described her as an individual they both respect and value, on and off the court. Long-time friend and teammate Cynthia Wilkes ’09 said that while she is a phenomenal athlete and a great teammate, she is an even better person and friend.
“She wasn’t afraid of getting down in the trenches with you when you were at your worst or things were at their worst and helping you figure out how to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Wilkes said.