There were times on the road when it seemed almost everywhere the United States women’s national volleyball team went -- some tiny arena or an airport on the other side of the country -- somebody knew Jordan Larson. Usually, they were from Nebraska.
So the brother of one of Larson’s teammates came up with a nickname for her that has been repeated enough times now she’s been left no choice but to answer to it.
That’s how Jordan Larson, from Hooper, Neb. (population 830), became known as “The Governor.”
Many of her teammates came from larger cities and played college volleyball at larger schools than Nebraska, but it’s Larson who is often recognized, or at least approached, receiving friendly hellos.
It’s a sign of the impression Larson left playing at Logan View High School and later as a Husker. Also, the respect the people in Nebraska have for female athletes, especially one as beloved as Larson.
Not too many small-town Nebraska kids can say they have competed in the Olympics, but now “The Governor” is in London, hours away from participating in her first Summer Games, and with the support of the whole state behind her.
The U.S., which plays its first match Saturday, is ranked No. 1 in the world and is attempting to win the gold medal in women's indoor volleyball for the first time. Larson plans to take part in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies in London but may leave early to rest before the first match.
There are 14 former Nebraska student-athletes at the London Games, but 25-year-old Larson is the only one who grew up in the state and is the fourth Olympian from the Husker volleyball program.
The hometowns of the other 11 U.S volleyball players are much different from where Larson called home. Two players are from California, two from Hawaii and one from Florida -- states where beach volleyball adds to the culture of the sport and helps hone the all-around skill of players year round.
None of the players on the Olympic team came from a town as small as Hooper. Destinee Hooker, who played at Texas, is from San Antonio, with a population of 1.3 million. Those players may have had easier access to high-level year-round training.
Hooper is a few miles north of Fremont. Students in Hooper attend Logan View, which competes in Class C-1.
Years ago, there was speculation Larson may transfer to play at a larger high school, but she stayed where her parents went to school. Her dad Kevin just retired from teaching.
Angie Svec, Larson’s coach for three years in high school who now works at an advertising office in Hooper, says the town is behind Larson.
“We just printed out a huge banner that they’re putting up outside of the town Friday that says, ‘Hooper, Neb., home of Olympian Jordan Larson,’” Svec said. “They added on another sign under the Logan View Schools sign that says, ‘Home of Olympian Jordan Larson.’
“There is a lot of pride here. We’ve been selling T-Shirts in honor of Jordan and Team USA, and we’re having trouble keeping them around. There are a lot of fans that are just very proud to know they have someone coming out of such a small town representing our country. It’s kind of a big deal.”
During high school, Larson made the trip to Lincoln to play club volleyball. It was while playing on junior national teams in the summer -- with a few players who now also are on the 2012 Olympic team -- that Larson was able to see that her Olympic dream might be possible.
Larson believes coming from Hooper helped her more than it may have hurt her.
“I think it helped me, just realizing where I came from is special,” Larson said. “The percentage of it happening is so small. I practically knew everyone in my town, and now they’re all cheering for me. It’s humbling and exciting, too.”
It’s one of Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook’s favorite stories to tell, how growing up in Hooper shaped the humble, hard-working person Larson became, but also how much better she was than most of her competition.
During a visit to her home, Larson told Cook she had only one request. She wanted Cook to come watch one of her high school matches. It would mean a lot to the school to have the Nebraska volleyball coach at a match, she explained.
“I said, ‘Sure’, and went up to her Senior Night in Logan View,” Cook said. “After the match, I think she thanked everybody that came. It took 45 minutes, and then I finally got the chance to talk to her and meet all her grandmas and aunts and uncles.
“The other thing I remember about that match, they played one of their rivals, and the (opposing players) were actually putting their hands over their head when Jordan would hit the ball. It was fun.”
While at Nebraska, Larson earned first-team All-American honors in 2006 and 2008, played in the Final Four three times and helped Nebraska win the 2006 national championship.
Several things in Larson’s life have changed since she graduated in 2008. She played professionally in Puerto Rico after college, and now in a more lucrative professional league in Russia. The past four summers, she’s been a starter for the U.S. national team, based in California, that plays in international tournaments.
Larson married Luke Burbach in 2009. Being away from her husband for long stretches has been hard. They live together when Larson plays in Russia in the winter, and Burbach will be in London along with 10 family members and friends, including Larson’s father and stepfather, her former Nebraska teammate Amanda (Gates) Sjuts and coach Svec.
Also difficult during Larson’s journey was losing her mother, Kae Clough, following a courageous battle against breast cancer in September 2009.
Larson and her mother talked about the Olympics in the time before she passed away. Kae told Jordan she’d always be there cheering her on.
“She was my best friend, and someone I could tell everything to and just really understood me as a person,” Larson said. “She’s one person that I wish more than anything could be here and be joining in this celebration.”