HOMEBUSH BAY - The only thing missing from Sarah Noriega's Olympic experience is her pillow.
The six-foot two-inch U.S. volleyball player said she has carried her own fluffy pillow for more than two years of international travel with the team. Somehow, it got left behind as the 24-year-old headed down under.
But Noriega, who lists Ulysses, Ka. as her hometown, said it would take more than an absent pillow to shake her focus off the fierce matches scheduled for the coming days.
"Right now the team is really gelled and we are really focused," she said. "It makes it really easy to play with all that working for us."
The scores from the team's first three preliminary matches earlier this week speak to their rhythm. China was defeated Saturday by the U.S. during their first match. Noriega scored 14 of the team's 95 points.
On Monday, the American women crushed Kenya 75 to 38 during a 55-minute game. Wednesday Croatia fell to the U.S. women, with Noriega scoring 10 of the team's 75 points.
She credited the team's early Olympic successes in part to a tough international traveling schedule. The team plays in the states less than six times a year and just completed a month-long stay in Asia before heading to Sydney.
"The jet lag hasn't been a problem," she said, acknowledging many American athletes have blamed poor performances on the drastic time changes. "I think we were already accustomed to changing time schedules, and the more you do it, the faster your body adjusts. I'm becoming a real pro at this."
Her parents, Noriega said, are feeling the effects of travel. They are rarely able to attend their daughter's international competitions and are having trouble adjusting to the 15-hour time difference, Noriega confessed. She said their attendance at her first Olympic games is important - they've never seen many of the teams she's been playing against since she joined the team in 1997.
"I'm always telling them about this team or that team, but they've never been able to see many of them," she said. "Now they get to see what I've been telling them about for so long."
Thursday, on a break from competition and two-a-day training sessions, Noriega and her teammates took time to watch the U.S. men's volleyball team compete.
"I've always wanted to be at the Olympics," Noriega said, watching crowds of Olympic spectators stream past her into the volleyball stadium. "I think I expected to feel different, to have a little more nervous energy, but I feel good. This is just like any other international competition, but on a much grander scale."
With 108 international competitions and three world championships under her belt, Noriega said she feels amply prepared for her Olympic debut.
"Being on the medal stand would definitely be the topper to this whole experience," she said. "I think people have treated us as the underdog here, and it's been thrilling to prove them wrong. I'm having a very good time."
Noriega has started every game and been key in the team's victories, but she said fans have yet to see the best from the team.
"I think we've got a lot to show and people haven't seen everything, yet," she said, adjusting her sunglasses with her patriotically painted fingernails.
While the Olympic experience is exciting, Noriega said it's taken a lot of discipline to stay focused. Tight security, changing rules in Olympic Park, traffic congestion and hectic competition and practice schedules have forced the entire team to keep remarkable concentration, she said.
"All these little things can get to you if you're not careful," she said.
The biggest test of the team's mettle will come Friday (9/22) as they face the Australians. Cheering at all Olympic venues has reached deafening decibels as Australians enthusiastically try to scream their teams to victory. But Noriega said the U.S. women are ready for any challenge.
"In our heads, we'll be pretending they are cheering for us," she said, smiling. "We've competed in places where the crowds have been really out of control, so we are ready for this. We can handle it."