Q&A with Riley Salmon

An unlikely hero raises the bar—and some good questions—for volleyball USA

Team VBM
Riley Salmon

Riley Salmon is completely unassuming. One of those guys you can’t get to stop smiling. The kind of guy that you know would literally give you the sweatshirt off his back. Shocker is that if he did he might just have a USA National Team jersey under it because Salmon happens to be one of the top left-side hitters in the world. The fact that he was on no ones radar prior to being scouted at Open Nationals in 2000 is as troubling as it is amazing. Amazing because he now has an Olympic Gold Medal around his neck. Troubling because his skills could have gone completely unnoticed at the national level—and they were. We caught up with a guy National Team teammates now call, “A flat out ‘stud’,” but who many did not take a second look at until, like an episode of Heroes, his super-abilities and preparation met opportunity in the form of a savvy recruiter.

JO: Don’t take this the wrong way but you don’t look like an Olympian.
RS: When I first started playing people used to say I didn’t look like I could walk and chew gum.
JO: The chewing thing is probably even harder with a big piece of Beijing Gold around your neck.

JO: So let me get this straight. You’re a manager at a warehouse, you get an unsolicited call and suddenly you’re playing Division I in Italy?
RS: Basically, yes. I was grinding my way though the qualifying tour for the AVP on the weekends. I worked for General Electric as a warehouse supervisor. I was in charge of shipping items to other GE company’s as well as receiving our shipments. I received a call from an agent telling me he had one spot on a team that was traveling to Europe to place guys on teams abroad. I consulted with my then fiancée and we had to make a decision in 24 hours. We said give it a shot. I left with no expectations. I landed a job playing in Italy in the second division and played against the top players in the world in one of the best leagues in the world. It was quite a change from the community college level.

JO: That’s ridiculous. The agent was UCLA great Tim Kelly right?
RS: Yes sir. It was a wild ride through Europe to start out my career. I was very thankful to Tim Kelly and his USA tour and all the guys that helped me that trip.

JO: So, my info says you go from playing for nothing a month to playing for $20,000 a month. Does the money change how you approach the sport?
RS: Don’t want to talk about it on a monetary level.

JO: Okay no money talk—understood. But how about integers? How many zeros?
RS: I’ll just say it was a nice step up from my GE shipping and receiving salary. I focus on my family. I just take a look at them and know I have to stay ready to play for us to live out here in Southern California. I also think health is a necessity for longevity in our sport. I have had a few injuries and as I get older I know I am one injury away from a desk job.

JO: You have played for a lot of great coaches. If you had just one to play for who would it be?
RS: Tough question. Doug Beal was in my face all the time and constantly not accepting mediocrity. He really knew how to push me to get the best out of my ability when I was young. Hugh McCutcheon knew exactly what to say to me to let me know that I could be a huge factor on a very good team.

JO: You got hit up for a drug test violation in 2009. What was that like?
RS: I tested positive for a banned diuretic in 2009. I came down with a case of E. coli while playing in Turkey. I lost around 20 pounds, came back to the USA where they did numerous tests and found out it was E. coli. I was then placed on numerous medications and one of them acted as a diuretic as well as a blood pressure medication. I did not do enough research on the drug and it was illegal. The FIVB gave me a four month ban, which is the minimum, as they concluded I was not deliberately trying to mask a drug test.

JO: What does the U.S. Team need to improve upon now to win gold again? Is it technical, chemistry what?
RS: We need to improve in everything. I think over the last two years we have lost some ground. When I see Russia, Brazil, and now Cuba who is in our zone, they have all taken big steps forward as to where it looks like we are treading water. We can improve a lot on our preparation, dedication and effort. If I had to pick one thing it would be much more effort. That is the one thing we can control every day, every second. We have to demand it from each other.

JO: Even though the U.S. won gold it seems like you guys still never get the respect. What’s your take on that?
RS: Respect has to be earned. Over and over and over. If I can have respect from my teammates that’s all I would want. We can’t control respect from other places. Men’s volleyball in the USA is not a power house. Respect of each other is all I have ever wanted.

JO: The diablo tattoo. Explain?
RS: The diablo tattoo is something I did when I was very young; it often reminds me of how wild I was and to try to stay on a certain path. It is very difficult to explain to your two kids why you have a diablo on your shoulder. Not recommend to our youth!

JO: So often it does take a certain amount of, well, rage, to play. Do you experience that? Or was it hard to separate sometimes - maybe when you were younger?
RS: When I was younger I played a lot on rage. Then I was taught that rage will almost never hit through a 6’10” Russian block. Being calm and smart was much more effective. The diablo still comes out in practice from time to time.

JO: You leave in two days to go play. Where are you going?
RS: I am leaving for Kuwait to play in the Kuwait Volleyball Club. There are a few other Americans in the league but none on my team. I will be away from my wife, two kids and the good ole USA for five months. I know nothing of the culture. I am always open to learn more about our world and I look forward to this challenge.

JO: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Safe travels.
RS: My pleasure. Hope to catch up with you all from Kuwait. Thanks for the time. •

Originally published in February 2011

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