CINCINNATI — Prior to when Olympic gold medalist Jordan Thompson enrolled at the University of Cincinnati in 2015, the Bearcats’ Volleyball team had never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. She committed to coach Molly Alvey’s 3-29 program with the goal of four years of solid playing time.
By the time she left, she had set the UC single-season record for kills (827 in 2018), the NCAA record for kills per set (6.27) and was named a First Team All-American in her final season.
On Saturday, Thompson returned to Fifth Third Arena to lead another group, as more than 30 local high school and middle school volleyball players took part in the inaugural Jordan Thompson Camp Powered By Under Armour Next.
The invite-only event allowed these high-level players the opportunity to connect with and compete against one another on the Bearcats’ home court, in addition to, of course, a few hours of learning from an Olympian who grew both on and off that same court.
“I hope to share wisdom and knowledge that I’ve learned along the way and pass that on,” Thompson told the athletes. “I’m really awkward, so I’m easy to talk to. I want to be a resource for you guys.”
The invitees received custom-made uniforms designed with Thompson and her connection to UC in mind.
Camp opened with the athletes’ own personal media day, which included headshots, slow-motion video and Tik Tok dances that showed a true taste of the increasingly important role that social media plays in the world of college athletics, particularly in women’s sports.
The buzz of laughter and loud music echoed throughout Fifth Third Arena, and by the time the drills began, the competition was fierce.
However, the atmosphere retained its joy.
The camp roster featured top talent of varying ages. It included athletes who have played together for years on local club teams, as well as others who have played against one another and those who have never met.
Among the represented clubs were two of the top teams in the nation — Tri-State Elite (OH) and Elevation (OH). The highly-rated recruits included outside hitter Lucy Arndt (2023), libero Kelsey Niesen (2024), middle blocker Faith Young (2024), outside hitter Sophia Adkins (2024) and setter Ryan Hicks (2025).
But regardless of team or individual rankings, Thompson reminded every athlete that they had the potential to succeed.
Through a variety of drills and challenges — sometimes forcing an athlete to play a position she wasn’t necessarily used to, while other times being thrown into a random group and expected to find synergy — all 30-plus campers managed to find a little success.
Three MVPs found a lot of it, as Hicks, Young and 2024 setter Kiana Dinn took home the top honors.
“It was a great experience for me,” Hicks said. “Experiencing new players is really important to any athlete. Getting to learn from everyone is really fun.”
In between drills, Thompson answered questions about all aspects of her career, whether it be her favorite moment as a Bearcat (when the team finally swept rival UCF at home) or her preferred hype music (Afrobeats).
But the responses that seemed to resonate the most with the athletes were those detailing the individual journey of someone so talented and full of effort that she became a starter in what was only her second full summer with Team USA, and how the journey hasn’t really been individual at all.
“I love that it’s a team sport,” Thompson said. “I’m doing something that can’t be done alone.”
Thompson credits Coach Jackie Richter, her volleyball coach during freshman year of high school, as a mentor whose guidance majorly impacted where and who she is today.
“She was the first coach to see a lot of potential in me,” Thompson said, “even when I didn’t see that potential in myself. I remember, it wasn’t even just about volleyball. It was those little things that she instilled in me and she really helped me to see the potential that I had and gain that confidence.
“I think when you have those people in your life, it’s really important to hold them dear because they’re pouring so much into you.”
Even in the face of adversity, Thompson has used these lessons to push through and continue to grow and thrive. She cited two specific injuries that knocked her down — the first being a torn UCL while in college, and the second being an ankle injury at the Tokyo Olympics that sidelined her for much of the Olympics after scoring over 30 points against top-seeded China.
“I think I’m still processing that one,” Thompson said. “But it taught me that there are those beautiful moments in life where you’re on this mountaintop. Things were happening that I never even imagined were possible for me as a player. And then to get injured and not be able to step on the court again at the Olympics made me realize that everybody’s journey is different. There’s a lot of beauty in those differences. I think you can have that mountaintop experience, and your teammate next to you can be counting down the minutes until it’s over.
“Gratitude is really huge as you move through life. I think that helps me stay joyful. I’ve learned a lot from my injuries that really have nothing to do with the sport, but just growing as a person.”
Caroline Makauskas is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also writes about college basketball for Blue Ribbon Sports and covers a variety of sports on her TikTok @cmakauskas. Follow her on Twitter @cmakauskas.