by Murat Colakoglu
-First of all, let’s start with a classical question: How did you start volleyball?
I started playing volleyball when I was 15 years old. There were several sports activities at school. We played all the sports but when I played volleyball, I realized that there was something special about it. So I decided to try out for the school team. After playing, I enjoyed it very much.
-Then you have your first official champion title at high school in Arizona.
Yeah, I was 17. It was the year before I graduated. We won the state championship that year.
-Then at Loyola Marymount University in California, you become the first All-American in school history and you gain several honors there. Can we call those honors as the first demonstrative signals of a future legend?
I would say that I was late to the game. Even though I was having that success, I didn’t completely understand or know where volleyball was going to take me. I just knew that I loved to play and that I continued to be better. So I think that’s what’s always driving me: the desire to get better.
-Did the people you looked up to while you were growing up or the ones you were playing with start playing at a younger age than you did?
One of the problems with volleyball in America is that there is not a lot of exposure. It is difficult to look up to somebody playing because you don’t see great players playing. Of course, when I was playing my peers would be the ones I would want to emulate. But as soon as I was exposed to the highest level of volleyball, around the times I debuted in the national team or my first year in Italy, then it became a new target when I started to see the greatest players of the game.
-Your debut to the senior national team comes at 1999 Pan American Games. Then you took part in the group that trained for Sydney but you did not end up there. Could you please tell us a bit about that process?
The 1999 Pan Am team was a young team. We were playing against the first team of Brazil starring Giba and also all the great players of Cuba. That was the first time I met with real volleyball. Later, I could have made a decision to stop playing for university and only train with the national team to have a chance but there would have been no guarantee that I would have made the team. It would have made my chances better but I decided to pass on this opportunity and stay in college and finish.
-So you think the absence of a professional volleyball league in America is a disadvantage?
By and large, it is a disadvantage. It puts those of us who want to continue to play in a very difficult situation. You have to be very serious to do it and you have to be very good at a very young age because there is no league. But it hurts the US because some of our best players won’t be at their very best until they are 25, 26 or 27. Maybe by this time, they would have been working at a bank or might have had another job. So this is the big problem: To not be able to keep more people playing the game prevents you from having a bigger pool of players to choose from.
-Around 2003, you have already become one of the indispensables of the US national team. And in 2004, you fall short of the bronze medal in Athens. Previously, you talked about being late to the game. How do you evaluate that process of coming late but still climbing to the top in a very short period of time?
In 2001, I have started playing full time for the US national team. Then came the World Championships in ’02 and then the road to Athens. I learned a lot from those games. It was my first Olympic Games at Athens. You learn how big the event is. You learn what it takes to win. I left Greece with a crystal clear picture of how I must prepare for the next time. And also during the preparation at the Games, I began to appreciate the national team more. I truly realized the importance of the Olympics and how special it is. This was important for me because playing in the national team every year and playing overseas require a lot sacrifice. You are away from family and friends. I had to move from California to Colorado but in that moment, I understood what I needed to do and I was excited to do it and this was a good change for me. Moving forward to 2005 and all the way to 2008, I had a better perspective and understanding of how to best prepare for it.
-In every country, playing for your national team in Olympics is a great honor obviously. But for the US from what I have observed, it seems to me that it is truly unique for the Americans in the way you approach to your international games. What do you think is the main reason for that?
I think that those of us who have chosen to play volleyball as a profession and are able to do so live so much out of our country. This is my 13th year of play. I’ve spent more time outside of my country than inside. So to have those opportunities to play together, to speak the language and to be able to represent your country is a special thing. One of the special abilities of the US is to be able to play together as a team.
-Yes, definitely. That’s what you are always applauded for.
That’s why I think we are so good at playing as a team. Americans also have a good reputation to play well abroad – maybe more so than other countries because if we don’t play good, we don’t have a job. We must play good. In some countries, you may play so-so one year and just go to another city to play for another team. But for the Americans, if we play bad one year, we don’t have a job the next year.
-Then we have the next quadrennial leading all the way to all the glory that you had in Beijing with Hugh McCutcheon. The most striking thing about the US national team is that you peak just at the right time just before the Olympics. For example, in 2008 you won the World League and then you went on to win the Beijing Olympics. Despite all the bad luck McCutcheon had in Beijing, the group managed to stay together. How did you achieve that amazing feat?
Well, Hugh McCutcheon, I think, is one of the greatest coaches in volleyball. He is very special because not only can he teach the game with technique but he can also speak to the players in different ways that are most effective. Very early in the quad, we wrote goals as a team. At the time, we as players thought this was a little bit silly. But to look back now, it was so important that we put on paper that our goal was to win Olympic Games. It included how we were going to win in what particular fashion and how hard we were going to play as a team. Then every day we measured our practice and games. In my opinion if McCutcheon would have stayed our coach for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, maybe we could have rivaled the dominance that Brazil has shown over a long period of time. For sure this last quad would have looked very different because we had a gym culture that was very special, very serious and very committed to being the best that we can each be.
-That commitment was apparent back then even on your faces when you walked out on the court.
Yeah, we were very sad to see him go. These past four years have been very difficult because culture has been very different.
-Maybe the team was not able to adapt Alan Knipe’s culture, technique or strategy?
It was a very different culture. I hope now that Doug Beal can find the right fit for the national team coach because in my opinion it is the most important role in men’s volleyball. Even amidst all the difficulties in men’s volleyball in the US, there are still enough players to be great. I would like to see US one day not only to be great in the year of Olympics but to be a great team the year after, to try to win another World Championship and the World Cup. There was so much change in coaching from Doug Beal to Hugh and to Alan and now to a new one that to find that consistency has been difficult.
-The team that clinched 2 Olympic gold medals and a bronze medal from 1984 to 1992 was absolutely a legend. Do you think we may also say that USA found that new legendary group with your generation?
I think if you are not preparing like you are going to win, you are not going to win. You don’t win by accident. That’s all I know.