US volleyball star took a break to restore balance in life
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Matt Anderson's older sister realized he really must be struggling in order to call home with news for his family that he needed an extended break from volleyball.
Joelle Vanegas remembers it well nearly two years later, and also recalls her reaction once the worries for her brother had eased and she knew he would be fine.
Vanegas threw out a little tough love.
''You're the best player in the world, Matt. Suck it up, and get back out there and play,'' she told him.
Eventually, he would find his way back, and Anderson will lead the Americans into their Olympic opener Sunday night against Canada.
But he first took that much-needed mental break from the grind of his sport, the one that has taken Anderson around the globe and landed him largely isolated in Russia for eight months of the year playing professionally.
The star outside hitter hesitates to use the word ''depression,'' yet knows he experienced some symptoms. In late 2014, he was in a deep funk and made that daunting decision to step away from volleyball and rediscover a balance in his life.
''I think I was experiencing some depression-like moments in my life. You get down on yourself when you're trying to be the best and be perfect. When you're like that for a while, you don't get that success, even if it's a small simple thing, it can bring you down,'' Anderson said. ''I wasn't able to let it go when I left the gym, so it was bringing me down the whole day, not just in the moment. So I had to address it.''
He lost his father, Michael, in 2010 after a kidney cancer diagnosis and a heart attack. Two years ago this month, cousin Keri Ferraro Reisch was killed in a car crash.
Each time, still in shock and grieving, Anderson quickly returned to his volleyball work with little time to be comforted by those closest to him.
So, when he called home to West Seneca, New York, that day, his sister understood. She has watched his love for nephew Tristin, who has autism. Anderson has a tattoo with the boy's name and a puzzle piece on his inner right forearm to support him.
''It was that a lot of things had happened to our family,'' Vanegas said. ''When my dad passed away, he had to be back in Korea right after the funeral. When my cousin passed away, he had to be back in Russia. He missed births of his nieces and nephews. He felt he was pulled away from all he was.''
Stepping away even for a couple of months is rare for elite athletes. Yet everyone in Anderson's inner circle knew he just needed time, and they were quick to offer support.
Those who know him well believe the 29-year-old Anderson is all the better now for having taken that break.
''I went home, I went back to the place where people know me as me and not the athlete, my family, friends that like hanging out with me not because I bring this aura of celebrity around with me,'' he said.
U.S. coach John Speraw had been on the job about a year and a half when Anderson came to him.
''Nobody does that, so when a player comes to you and says, `I need this,' you know this is not a cursory thought, he's given it a bit of consideration,'' Speraw said. ''I knew what place he was in and what he needed, and I was 100 percent supportive - `Take a breath. How long do you want to breathe?' - For me it was indefinite.''
Speraw figures many volleyball players face similar situations.
The sport has no U.S. professional league, so many American men and women competing in Rio have only recently returned to the U.S. base in Southern California from abroad to prepare for the Olympics.
Reid Priddy, beginning his fourth Olympics at age 38, spoke with Anderson throughout the process two years ago. Priddy, who is married and a father of two, was in Italy earlier this year finding his rhythm as he worked back from reconstructive knee surgery.
Priddy also has taken time off - perhaps just not in such a public way as Anderson.
''This is a hard life. I had this desire personally to be connected to community, to start a family, and when you're buzzing all over the world, it's just not a reality,'' Priddy said.
''Sometimes you just need to dress yourself in the morning, literally wear clothes that you want to wear. You're not putting on team clothes, you just need some autonomy,'' he said.
Anderson has flourished, thanks to family, friends and the U.S. team.
''You always have to try to be better than yourself, not try to be better than anybody else,'' his sister said. ''That is how Matt continues to grow.''