Editor’s note: This is the third in an occasional Road to Rio series on Penn State-connected athletes who are training for this summer’s Olympics.
The United States men’s volleyball team won three Olympic gold medals between 1984 and 2008. None of its rosters featured a Penn State alumnus.
That changed in 2012 when Matt Anderson became the first Nittany Lion to represent America in the Summer Olympics — in London. The team finished in fifth place.
Now, for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, two more Penn State alumni will be joining Anderson on the court –– middle blocker Max Holt, who graduated in 2009, and outside hitter Aaron Russell, a 2015 graduate.
The three former Nittany Lions are projected starters for Team USA, since they started most of the team’s matches during the 2015 FIVB World Cup.
With the three on the court, Team USA won the World Cup last summer for the first time since 1985.
The winner of the World Cup is typically a good indicator of a top medal contender in the following Olympics. Since 1995, every World Cup winner has earned a medal in the next Olympics. Twice in that span, the World Cup winner won gold at the following Olympics.
The U.S. team “is certainly a medal threat,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said, “but, they’re also a legitimate threat to win the gold.”
Russell’s goal always has been to play for Team USA. He played for the Boys’ Youth National Team and the Men’s Junior National Team, so progressing to the highest level of international volleyball seemed inevitable.
Russell caught the eye of U.S. coach John Speraw during his All-American junior season at Penn State.
Speraw, who is also the head coach at UCLA, became the leader of Team USA in 2013. He was an assistant coach with the 2008 team.
Speraw approached Russell at the Nittany Lions’ season-opening tournament of 2015 in Honolulu, asking Russell to meet with the coach in Anaheim, Calif., to discuss Russell’s post-Penn State volleyball career.
“Later on in the year, (Speraw) said he watched some film on me and saw how I improved,” Russell told a Penn State reporter in April 2015. “He told me he definitely wanted me out (on Team USA).”
Adjusting to international volleyball life rather easily, Russell has established himself as one of the more lethal attackers in the world. In the final three matches of the World Cup, Russell led the U.S. in scoring, posting 46 points.
Anderson, the most lauded player on the team, won the World Cup Most Valuable Player award in 2015. He also won USA Volleyball’s Indoor Player of the Year award three years in a row, from 2012 to 2014.
Talking about his former players during multiple interviews in 2015, Pavlik has said Anderson and Russell have a lot of similarities. He expects Russell to become an Anderson-like player as he continues to develop. Volleyball players normally don’t reach their full potential until they have had several years of professional experience.
The two players also look similar, which sometimes confuses announcers during competitions. They both stand 6-feet-9 and have dark hair.
“A woman asked me for my autograph, but before I gave it to her we asked her if she knew who I was,” Russell told Team USA communications manager B.J. Evans in October. “She thought I was Matt.”
Pavlik also said the two players have followed similar career paths. Anderson was the youngest player on the 2012 USA squad at age 25; Russell, who turns 23 in June, will be one of the youngest on this year’s roster.
Both Anderson and Russell started their collegiate careers as middle hitters before switching — and dominating — as outside hitters. Russell is an outside (left side) hitter and Anderson is an opposite (right side) with Team USA.
Holt played at Penn State with Anderson, and the two led the Lions to an NCAA championship in 2008. A middle hitter with the U.S. team, Holt was named best middle blocker in the 2015 FIVB World League.
Depending on the “last chance” Olympic qualification tournament in late May or early June, Penn State also could have two other former players in the Olympics. Carlos Guerra and Ivan Contreras, who is the assistant coach, would represent Mexico if its team qualifies.
Mexico will compete against Chile, Tunisia and Algeria for the final Olympic spot.
“In a perfect world where Mexico would qualify,” Pavlik said about the Olympics in Rio, “the percentage of Penn State graduates playing volleyball would be unbelievable.”
Matt Martell is a Penn State journalism student.