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Scott-Arruda headed to her fifth Olympics

Danielle Scott-Arruda never really thought she was very good at volleyball.

"When I started getting recruiting letters in high school, I thought, well, there must be something to this," she said. "My coaches' first response when I blocked a ball, they just looked at each other and smiled. I was like, 'Oh, sorry!' and they were just nodding their heads."

It's a good thing others saw her differently. Today, Scott-Arruda is a five-time Olympian in the sport.

The 39-year-old middle blocker is headed to London with the No. 1-ranked U.S. women's national team, vying for its first gold medal in volleyball.

She has been a mainstay on the U.S. team for some 18 years, but her only podium finish at an Olympics was in 2008 when the women took the silver, losing to Brazil in the final match.

And her long career hasn't been focused solely on the national team. Like many elite volleyball players, she earns a comfortable living playing professionally overseas, most recently in Brazil.

"I've been really blessed physically," she said. "I haven't had many injuries. I think I broke my finger once, a few days before the 2000 Olympics. I have nagging aches and pains, but they're the kinds of aches that any athlete would have."

The Baton Rouge, La., native played volleyball along with basketball and also ran track in high school. Unconvinced that volleyball was her sport, she also played basketball at Long Beach State, where she was the first woman to earn conference first-team honors in both sports. As a junior, she helped the 49ers to the 1993 NCAA title in volleyball.

Scott-Arruda had a fifth year of eligibility remaining in basketball at Long Beach State, but U.S. national team coach Terry Liskevych thought she'd be a good fit on his squad. Two years later, the 6-foot-2 Scott-Arruda started at middle blocker in her first Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"I felt like I was most free in volleyball," she said. " I was kind of shy growing up. In basketball, once you had the ball all the attention was on you. I felt like in volleyball — and I probably learned it more as I was growing in the sport — that it wasn't just about me."

Scott-Arruda took time away from the national team in 2010 for the birth of her daughter, Julianne. But she didn't miss a beat, returning to help the United States win silver at the 2011 FIVB World Cup to qualify for the London Games.

Motherhood has had its challenges for Scott-Arruda because her commitments to the national team and her professional team have her playing nearly year-round.

"I think I just do what I have to do and go with it. I'm really blessed that my mom is retired. So I have comfort in knowing that Julianne is being taken care of even when I'm not with her. I don't have to have a nanny," she said. "The team I played with in Brazil, they adored my mom and my daughter, so they were able to travel with me on all the away games. So I've been really fortunate with my situation."

Known as Dani to her teammates, Scott-Arruda served as captain of the U.S. team that recently won a third straight FIVB World Grand Prix title in Ningbo, China.

The U.S. women's team is coached by Hugh McCutcheon, who led the men to the gold medal in Beijing. Other repeat Olympians on the 12-player roster for the London Games include setter Lindsey Berg, outside hitter Logan Tom and opposite Tayyiba Haneef-Park. First-time Olympians include opposite Destinee Hooker and outside hitter Jordan Larson.

The U.S. women have never won gold in indoor volleyball, which became an Olympic sport in 1964.

"I think we have a great team. One of the strengths is that there is so much talent," she said. "Besides the skills, I think everyone is focusing on just being the best team we can be. It's not about any one person — although of course there are people who score more, there are people who defend more and there are people who may pass a bit more — but it's all about the team. And that's what you need to be successful in volleyball. You can't do it by yourself."

Scott-Arruda can't say if this will be her last Olympics. She is the first U.S. volleyball player, male or female, to make five Olympic teams. Russia's Yevgeniya Artamonova-Estes will play in her sixth Olympics in London.

After her playing career, Scott-Arruda would like to move into coaching and devote more time to her Baton Rouge-based nonprofit, the Believer in You Foundation, which helps out kids with scholarships in education, arts and sports.

Asked why she has had such longevity in a sport that is notoriously hard on its athletes, Scott-Arruda paused for a bit.

"Miracles from God?" she asked herself. "I have to give God a lot of the credit for my physical ability. But being a spiritual person has helped me with my different struggles and challenges. And it's helped me stay positive, which is the main thing, isn't it?"