Eternal Flame

On and off the volleyball court, two-time Olympian Courtney Thompson has been an irresistible force for good

It is no exaggeration to describe Courtney Thompson (BA 2007) as an unstoppable force. Always has been.

With passion, drive and charisma bordering on the supernatural, Thompson led the Husky women’s volleyball program to three NCAA final fours and a national championship before winning a world championship and two Olympic medals, forging a championship professional career overseas and then transitioning into coaching and motivational entrepreneurship.

All these achievements, however, were far from pre-ordained.

“My entire career I’ve felt like the underdog. I’ve always had to prove myself,” Thompson said after the 2012 London Olympics. “But that’s a comfortable position for me.”

Overachieving underdog

As a kid, Thomson played every sport that would have her: soccer, hockey, softball, baseball. But volleyball, which she took up in middle school, became her favorite.

Topping out at 5-foot-7 in a sport of giants, Thompson was never going to dominate the game’s martial lexicon of attacks, spikes, cuts and kills. So, she became the catalyst, the quarterback, the setter. She graduated from Kentlake High School as student body president, valedictorian and captain of three state championship volleyball teams.

Courtney Thompson in her Husky heyday.

The collegiate power programs, however, were not interested.

Their loss was the UW’s gain. Jim McLaughlin, in his first year coaching the perennial also-ran in the mighty Pac-10 Conference, saw in Thompson precisely the kind of overlooked gem that would deliver Husky volleyball to the nation’s elite.

“I just got a vibe (the first time I saw her play),” McLaughlin told the Seattle Times. “I watched her energy. I watched her drive. I watched her compete… Those things outweighed her height and her blocking ability.”

Sure did. After four years of voracious learning, inspiring leadership and infectious intensity, Thompson became the most-decorated student-athlete in UW history. She rewrote national and conference assist records, was a three-time All-American and Academic All-American (carrying a 3.55 GPA at the Foster School of Business), and received the 2005 Honda Award, honoring the best player in college volleyball. More importantly to Thompson, the teams she played on reached three NCAA semifinals and won the 2005 national championship.

Olympic dreams

After graduating in 2007, she found the international game to be different. Difficult. After failing to make the team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, getting to the 2012 London Olympics was going to take superhuman dedication. “I decided that either I walk away and say this wasn’t meant to be,” Thompson recalled, “or I’m going to do absolutely everything I can to make it.”

As usual, she opted for absolutely everything.

From fall to spring, she played professionally—relentlessly—in Switzerland and Puerto Rico, delivering league championships in both.

Summers were all about making the world’s top-ranked volleyball team. Competition was fierce. But Thompson clawed up the depth chart. She finally cracked the first team at the 2012 FIVB World Grand Prix, sparking a US comeback victory in the gold medal match.

A month later, she was named to the 12-woman roster headed to London, a moment that rendered the usually effusive Thompson “speechless… I wanted to shout, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t do either or anything in between.”

That USA team marched undefeated to the gold-medal match, with Thompson stepping up from a reserve role to lead a three-set sweep of the Dominican Republic in the quarterfinal. The Americans’ magical run ended in the final, though, by a galvanized Brazilian squad.

Four more years

Thompson might have retired with an Olympic silver medal. Instead, she worked tirelessly to earn another shot at gold. Offseason, she competed in the premier professional leagues of Poland and Brazil, where she played among some of the best players in the world (and many stars of the American team’s biggest rivals).

And she kept her place in USA Volleyball, helping the team secure the 2014 FIVB World Championship. Now a veteran, Thomson became the inspirational talisman of a young collective, as chronicled in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times.

She returned home from Rio with Olympic bronze. Not the gold she had dreamed of, but hardly disappointment.

For Thompson, the journey has always been as sweet as the destination.

“Some people train for the big moments. But I love playing this game and being with this group of girls every day,” she said. “The past four years were an incredible experience. I’ve grown a lot as an athlete and as a person. But what really motivates me is how much more I have to learn. I just want to do it even better next time—and enjoy every second of it.”​

Inextinguishable spark

After finally retiring from competitive volleyball, Thomson turned her energies to the Give It Back Foundation, which she co-founded with a few USA Volleyball teammates to empower girls and support community organizations around the country.

Thompson helped found the Give It Back Foundation with some USA Volleyball teammates.

She also joined Compete to Create, the coaching and mindset training firm co-founded by Dr. Michael Gervais and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. In 2021, Thompson joined the coaching staff of the women’s volleyball program at Stanford University.

But she’ll always be remembered as a Husky. And one of a kind, at that. In 2013, Thompson was the first woman to have her jersey retired in Alaska Airlines Arena. In 2018, she became the third volleyball player inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame.

In 2016, the infectious passion that Thompson displayed on and off the volleyball court was featured in “Court & Spark,” a documentary film inspired by her indomitable spirit.

At the 2017 Business Leadership Celebration, Thompson was named the Foster School’s “Dynamo of the Century.”

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.