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Kevin Schnepf, Published July 26 2012

Rekindling her Olympic rush

Like millions of others tonight, Janet Cobbs-Mulholland will plant herself in front of the TV to watch the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. Unlike millions of others, tonight’s grand march in London will rekindle a rush of Olympic memories.

She’ll recall getting her picture taken with Dream Team basketball player David Robinson prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in Barcelona. She’ll recall the chills that rushed down her spine when she and her American teammates entered Estadi Olimpic de Montjuic – where the Star-Spangled Banner and the roar of the crowd echoed throughout the stadium.

“Once you get out there, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Cobbs-Mulholland, a former North Dakota State University All-American who was a member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team. Today she is a mother of three living in Canada. “It seems like it was yesterday yet so long ago.”

It does seem like a long time ago when Cobbs, a standout athlete from Concordia Academy in St. Paul, came to NDSU to play volleyball. Named the Division II female athlete of the year in 1988, she still holds nine NDSU records.

“NDSU was very good to me,” Cobbs-Mulholland said over the phone from her home in Kitchener, Ontario. “I am proof that you don’t have to go to a big school to make it on a national team.”

Thanks to her astounding ability to spike, block and dig a volleyball, the girl from the small private high school and the unknown Division II college has seen the world. As a member of the U.S. National Team from 1989 to 1994, she traveled to Russia, Turkey, China and Cuba – a place where she readily admits she did not feel safe.

“As Americans, we weren’t always welcomed,” Cobbs-Mulholland recalled. “We didn’t wear anything that said USA on it when we were walking around or we would put tape over our suitcases so they didn’t know where we were from. We had to be very careful at times, which was sad.”

That was not the case in Barcelona in 1992 – the year the Summer Games helped people forget about the Bosnian War, the Rodney King riots, the earthquake in Nicaragua or even the presidential race between Clinton, Bush and Perot.

It was the first Summer Games in which NBA players were allowed to compete. That created USA’s Dream Team that included superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley – one player who made it a point to visit Olympic Village.

“The Dream Team stayed in the hotel, but Barkley wanted to spend time with the U.S. athletes,” Cobbs-Mulholland recalled of Barkley’s stroll with the U.S. volleyball team. “People from other countries hounded him for autographs, but he politely told them ‘Sorry, I want to spend time with my countrymen.’ That was cool.”

Cobbs-Mulholland was a role player for the U.S. volleyball team. But because her blocking and defensive skills were needed, she got to play extensively against The Netherlands – a match the U.S. needed to win to reach the semifinals.

The U.S. won before losing that semifinal match against eventual gold-medal champion Cuba.

“Many people said that was the gold-medal match,” said Cobbs-Mulholland, whose eventually ended up on the awards stand with a bronze medal draped around her neck. “That medal is heavier than you think.”

Cobbs-Mulholland, married to a police officer who used to play college volleyball at Southern California, is now an assistant coach at the University of Waterloo. She’s also the coach of two club teams that include her 15-year-old daughter Nicole and 11-year-old daughter Maddi.

When it comes to coaching kids, Cobbs-Mulholland resorts to her Olympic days – an experience in which she had to adjust from being the superstar at NDSU to coming off the bench for the U.S. National Team.

“I could’ve sat there and been bitter, but I had to be a good team player and that’s what I’m teaching kids now,” Cobbs-Mulholland said. “The best players don’t always make the best teams. We were just a good team because everyone understood their roles.”

So as a Canadian resident but still a U.S. citizen, what will Cobbs-Mulholland’s role be during the next two weeks of the Olympics in London?

“I will cheer for the U.S., of course,” she said. “Americans are so much more patriotic than Canadians. But I will cheer for Canada as well.

“I just love watching the Olympics. I love watching athletes deal with things when it doesn’t go well. I love watching their faces when they win. I love watching all that hard work pay off.”

Like it did for her in 1992.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com