“Crazy” times for USA Olympians as men, women deal with postponement

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YSA Olympic postponement 3/26/2020-Lauren Carlini-Dinamo Moscow
Lauren Carlini sets for Dinamo Moscow in the Russia Super League

(Note: Updated 5 p.m. Thursday with quotes from Chiaka Ogbogu, thanks to Megan Kaplon.)

John Speraw used to leave his house in San Juan Capistrano at 4:30 a.m. for quiet time and to beat the traffic for his 68-mile drive to UCLA.

Now to go to work he walks over to what used to be his dining room. And his dining room is not overburdened with office supplies or coaching tools.

“We had this antique map of Paris,” he said with a laugh. “It’s about 4 by 6.

“And I just started drawing with a dry-erase pen all over it, because I needed a dry-erase board.“

And that was before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

Now Speraw, both the UCLA men’s coach and USA men’s Olympic coach, is attending to both jobs in ways he never imagined.

“Planning out the season, all the prep that goes into matches, practices every day, staff meetings, player meetings. And I was like, ‘I’m going to have tons of time.’ But I have less,” Speraw said.

“It’s crazy.”

Crazy pretty much sums it up.

We talked Tuesday shortly after the Olympics were officially postponed, but Speraw — like all of us — knew it was coming. 

“It was interesting for me because I wasn’t surprised, and, yet, at the same time it was just sad,” Speraw said. “The athletes and coaches put in all this time for four, eight, 12 years or a lifetime of dreams into that moment and there’s this four-year period that’s a crescendo to that moment and all of a sudden that moment moves. And it was a little sad to see.

“The priority is clearly everyone’s health. Family health. Athletes’ health. The positions that athletes were being put it to continue to train or potentially qualify … and certainly the general public health is a priority. The Olympics are sport. We know sports are important, but not as important as the lives of our parents, our grandparents, and players.”

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone associated with the Olympics who questions the decision.

“I think that it is sad and a huge bummer,” USA veteran Matt Anderson, back from his team in Italy, told us, “but also the best option for the safety of and fairness to all of the athletes.”

“Tokyo 2021. The timing is different but the goal is the same,” the USA’s David Smith said on Instagram. “Making the most of what I have at the moment to keep moving forward in the direction of my dreams.”

Both the USA men’s and women’s teams had qualified for the games. Most of the players for those teams are pros and with their leagues shut down, most are back in America and waiting.

“Of course I wanted to get the chance to compete for the Olympic team this year,” said USA setter Lauren Carlini, back from her team in Russia. “I’m bummed. I’m bummed because I felt like I put myself in a good position leading up to this summer mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

“The best way to put it is I felt like a caged lion just waiting to be released. And now they told us to pump the brakes and wait another year. I’m glad they are going to only postpone it by one year, and not two years or cancel it. That would have been absolutely devastating and my emotions would be way different than they are now.”

Everyone’s emotions are probably drained.

USA veteran Jordan Larson wrote on her Instagram, “While yesterday’s news wasn’t the most ideal, it was the best outcome for what’s happening in the world around us. It doesn’t change my attitude or desire to want to continue on this path and the journey ahead.”

Said USA teammate Chiaka Ogbogu, “My initial reaction was that I was disappointed but not surprised. I was only disappointed because of all the emotional and physical energy I had put into prepping for what I had hoped would be the best summer of my life thus far. But then I immediately snapped out of it and remembered that I am now in quarantine due to a highly contagious virus that is terrorizing the entire world. The health and safety of the athletes involved, all those working for the Olympics, and the general attending public is WAY more important than my own personal desires. 

“The conversation amongst the team has just been about how we can help each other out through this time and how we can utilize this time to make sure we put ourselves in the best position possible come next year.”

John Speraw: “The girls have decorated my ‘office,’ which is the dining room. Little Hailey taking a nap as I was talking to (USA assistant) Brian Thornton.”

That’s the plan for Speraw, who lost two seasons, his UCLA men’s and the Olympics. The upside is he’s not traveling — this is a guy who lives out of a suitcase — and is getting family time. After all, his daughter Hailey couldn’t be there to sleep on his shoulder when he’s working at UCLA or at the USA training center.

“We’ll carry on. We’ll start making plans for next summer or whenever the Games will be, and we’ll keep moving on, stay focused on the goal,” Speraw said.

The USA men’s team is primarily made up of younger players, but even the veterans like Anderson, Smith, and Max Holt aren’t old enough to be concerned about a year’s delay.

Another huge consideration is the preparation and fitness of the athletes, and not just in volleyball.

“No question,” Speraw said. “Everybody’s holed up at home and they’re trying to figure out how to do workouts in their house. Most of our guys don’t have access to a gym.

“And I also think once the (Volleyball Nations League, including a stop in Pittsburgh in May) was canceled, we spent time trying to figure out how to get some matches so we had some friendlies and some competitive opportunities under our belt before the Olympics. And truth was it wasn’t going to be nearly as much as normal.

“The chance that the level of play was going to be lower was really high.”

And that raised the risk of injuries, as well, and the likelihood of subpar performances across the board. What’s more, quite a few sports — beach volleyball for one — is still in the qualification process.

“We were at least qualified,” Speraw said, “but we were still trying to figure out how we were going to reach peak performance and I don’t think that we would have.”

In Speraw’s case, he had whittled his roster to 25 players, but still needed to get to 12 for the Olympics.

He admitted he’s not sure when to make those cuts, especially since the date of the 2021 Games is not set.

“There are still so many unanswered questions,” Speraw said.

On the women’s side, coach Karch Kiraly has been in close contact with his players, Ogbogu said.

“Karch has been great with communicating to us all step by step, so we all were prepared from when the postponement decision was final,” Ogbogu said. “His message is just that we can always find positives in every situation, and we will continue to put in the work to hopefully do what no other U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team has never done.”

Carlini is almost sure to be in the USA final 12, but: 

“Now it is just a matter of taking care of ourselves, our bodies, and knowing it’s OK to feel a little sad,” Carlini said. “But that moment can’t last. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves for long, because guess what, everyone else is experiencing the exact same thing. 

“We are all wading through uncharted territory and trust me, no other teams in the world feel sorry for Team USA. We get back up and we start the grind again, in whatever capacity is allowed given the current circumstances. 

“So yes, I’m bummed, we’re bummed, but we are going to make the most out of it and focus on what we can control. Tokyo 2021. We’re on our way.”

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