Just two weeks ago, the U.S. men's volleyball players emerged one by one from their various international flights. For the last several months, each of the defending gold medalists has been competing on separate professional teams all over the globe. On Monday, they begin the most important event of the quadrennial: Olympic qualifying.
"I don't think the normal sports fan could even relate," said head coach Alan Knipe. "Imagine if the NBA never took any time off. These guys finished their long club seasons and they went right into the gym. But there's no time to worry about that. We have a few days to train and we have to get after it."
For the first time in history, the team will have the chance to qualify for the Games on its own soil. Due to a scheduling conflict, Puerto Rico gave up its hosting duties and USA Volleyball stepped in with a proposal to host the event in Long Beach, Calif., just a few miles from the team's training facility in Anaheim. The NORCECA event pits the best teams from a zone that includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and only the winning team earns an Olympic berth.
Team USA hopes the home-court advantage will offset their limited preparation time. The situation is not ideal, but when foreign contracts became ultra-lucrative back in 2000, top volleyball players began spending more time overseas than at home, heading back only for important national team tournaments such as the world championships, world league and World Cup.
"That's just the way the game is now, we don't get to spend a lot of time together," said three-time Olympian Ryan Millar. "The way you make a living is to play in Europe. I would imagine as a head coach it is probably a little frustrating to know that you're only going to have two weeks to try to qualify and really put your best foot forward. But it is the nature of the beast, it is just something that you have to deal with."
Dealing with adversity is something that this team knows all too well. At the Beijing Olympics, they faced an unthinkable tragedy the day after the Opening Ceremony. Then head coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law was killed and his mother-in-law was seriously injured while sightseeing in China. A man with a knife stabbed them both before killing himself. McCutcheon left the team to support his wife and family, missing the first several matches. In his absence the team had to find a way to put aside their grief and focus on what needed to be done.
"Some of the older guys on the team like Tom Hoff and Lloy Ball took over leadership positions and helped us younger guys," said Kevin Hansen, a member of the Beijing team. "They said, 'This is the Olympic Games. This isn't normal what happened, but we're going to overcome this together. Don't let this tragedy ruin all of what we worked for.'"
After a shaky first match against a lesser team they regrouped and came back strong for the rest of the tournament, winning gold by beating Brazil, the No. 1 team in the world. Somehow, the tragedy helped them raise their level of play.
"What it really did was make us look at each other and say, 'We know what we're doing and we know we can rely on each other. So let's just go out there and play the best volleyball that we can play and see what happens,'" said Millar. "It just so happened that the best volleyball that we could play was some of the best volleyball that has
Ten of the 12 members of that gold medal team have returned to try to qualify for London, but one of the two missing players left a very large hole in the American starting lineup. Lloy Ball, arguably the best setter in the world, retired from the national team after Beijing. Since his departure, the U.S. men have fallen from No. 1 in the world to No. 6.
Coach Knipe spent the last three years searching for Ball's replacement. He has rotated a number of players through the position trying to find the right fit. Setter is one of the most important positions on the court, so the constant changes have been difficult on both the setters and the hitters who have struggled to find their offensive rhythm. Three players are still battling for the starting spot -- Hansen, Donald Suxho and Brian Thornton.
Being this close to the Olympics without knowing the team's starting setter is much like an NFL team going into the Super Bowl without knowing who the quarterback will be. With less than 90 days to go before the start of the London games, Knipe says he will make his decision swiftly and get the chosen setter as much time with the hitters as possible.
"It has definitely been a challenge," said Suxho, a 2004 Olympian who missed Beijing due to injury. "It hasn't been easy for anybody, especially the hitters, to have different setters. If I want to make this team I have to play well, I have to keep a rhythm. But I think the competition makes us better players."
For Millar, a middle hitter who relies on quick sets that require extreme accuracy, the uncertainty has been frustrating.
"A lot of issues with the offense are usually dictated by the flow that the setter creates," he said. "Having that constantly change has been a struggle for us. I like the setters that we have in the gym right now, but we've got three setters ready and willing to fill two spots, so one of those guys isn't going to London. One of those guys who has been putting in a lot of time in the gym is not going to be on that team. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."
The U.S. men drew a favorable pool in the qualifying tournament so they probably won't face the toughest teams until the semifinals on May 11. They'll use the first few matches to work out the kinks and to hone their connection with the setter Knipe chooses.
In order to win the tournament, they'll need to play at a high level. Their toughest competition is the No. 5 Cubans, but both Puerto Rico and Canada are dangerous teams. When this tournament ends the team will have a rare training block before they head to into summer competition. Should they not qualify at the NORCECA event, there will be one more last-ditch opportunity, but it is not something the coaches or players are thinking about. They are singularly focused on winning this tournament and then training for the Olympics.
"I think what I've learned is how incredibly valuable our training time is, how precious every single contact with the ball is," said Knipe. "The fact that we get to try to qualify in Southern California is great for us. We have to go out and play the games, but I think with hosting this competition we've put our guys in a pretty good position to be successful."