West Seneca’s Matt Anderson, Team USA volleyball’s leader, in for another run at Paris Olympics

Jerry Sullivan

United States’ Matthew Anderson, center, celebrates a point with his teammates during a men’s volleyball preliminary round pool B match between Brazil and United States at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The decision wasn’t an easy one. But soon after the disappointment in Tokyo early this month, Matt Anderson knew deep in his heart that this was no way for his Olympic volleyball career to end.

He’s shooting for the Games in Paris in 2024.

“If I’m honest with myself, it was not too long after the loss,” Anderson said Monday from Isle of Palms, S.C., where he was vacationing with family. “But it needed to be discussed, and I needed to work some things out.”

Anderson, a devoted family man, has an 18-month-old son, Jamie, and a wife, Jackie, to worry about. The time commitment for his pro career is hard enough. Committing to the national volleyball program for another three years would be an even greater strain.

“As much as it’s a sacrifice for me, it’s a huge sacrifice for everyone around me, too,” said Anderson, a Buffalo native who starred at West Seneca West and Penn State. “I’m not foolish enough to not pay attention to that.

“I talked with my wife about it and my coaching staff with Team USA,” he said. “There’s certain things I have to manage as my body continues to take the load of training and playing overseas and with the national team. But I’m going for it. I’m 100 percent on board.”

Any why wouldn’t he be? Anderson, who turns 35 next April, is past his sheer physical prime. He will be 37 in Paris. But he remains one of the best players in the world, a 6-10 leaper who is renowned for his conditioning, work ethic and evolved attitude on mental health.

United States’ Matthew Anderson serves the ball during a men’s volleyball preliminary round pool B match between United States and Tunisia at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

“Matty is a true professional,” said U.S. men’s volleyball head coach John Speraw. “Because of his commitment to the game and his work ethic, he’s still playing at a remarkably consistent high level. Even though we didn’t have the result in Tokyo, I know he’ll come back even more motivated than before to try and do better in Paris. 

“So I’m excited at the prospect of a remotivated Matt Anderson.”

There’s some unfinished business for the U.S. squad, which failed to get out of its six-team pool and reach the Olympic medal round for the first time since 2000. With a quarterfinal berth on the line, the Americans lost their final pool match in straight sets to Argentina — 25-21, 25-23, 25-23 — and were finished in Japan.

Thus ended a difficult two-year stretch for the U.S. men, who had high hopes for Tokyo after riding Anderson to a bronze medal at the Rio Games in 2016. But the year’s delay due to the pandemic and a couple of injuries to key players compromised their chances for success in Tokyo.

Aaron Russell, the team’s top outside hitter and MVP of the 2018 Worlds, missed the Olympics after undergoing hip surgery. Taylor Sander, a key player and one of the world’s best leapers, wasn’t the same after shoulder surgery and a bad ankle injury that he tweaked in Tokyo.

The Americans still felt they had a good shot at gold, but their shoddy serving and passing were their undoing in Japan. Anderson did his best, but he said the team’s execution simply wasn’t there.

“I think our system and our training leading up the Games was correct,” Anderson said. “Physically we faced some pretty hard issues. Injuries are an unfortunate side of the sport. I take a little solace in knowing that we prepared as well as we could, and I had no personal regrets in my training 

“But it’s the execution. You had all the parts in place, but the execution wasn’t there, and that’s disappointing. If you don’t execute, the results don’t come.”

United States’ Matthew Anderson during the men’s volleyball preliminary round pool B match between United States and Argentina at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Speraw, who is the head men’s coach at UCLA, said he’s glad that it’s over. He said he wants to coach the team to Paris, but those decisions have to be made by USA Volleyball in the months ahead.

Anderson is enjoying a well-earned rest with his family, which traditionally gets together every couple of years in the summer. 

“We can’t do it annually,” he said, “but try to get together at least once every two years and catch up with each other. Also, let our kids play and know each other.

“Growing up in West Seneca, all our aunts and uncles and cousins were pretty much around there. We have all our memories from growing up and tons we wanted to pass down to our kids.”

Anderson and his wife, the former Jackie Gillum, make their home in her native Indiana. Their son, Michael — who was named for Matt’s late father and goes by Jamie — is now 18 months old.

“He’s doing good,” Anderson said. “He’s getting big, man. He’s 34 inches tall. He’s running all over the place.”

Next month, Jackie and Jamie will accompany Matt to Italy, where he has a one-year contract with Sir Safety Perugia, a professional team in the province of Umbria. He said the family will live in Perugia through the Italian pro season, which begins in the middle of October and winds up next May.

“So it’ll be good,” he said. “It’ll be a good time. What’s not to like about Italy? Good wine, good food.”

Anderson has enjoyed a stellar pro volleyball career. He started in South Korea, then played in Italy before moving on to Zenit Kazan in Russia for seven seasons. He played in Modena in 2019-20 before the pandemic hit. Last season, he played in Shanghai. 

He won 10 various national championships and four Champions League titles for Zenit Kazan, where his jersey has been retired. Anderson is a six-time U.S. indoor player of the year. He has won MVP in three international tournaments for the American squad. 

Matthew Anderson, of the United States, consoles teammate Torey Defalco, after their 0-3 loss to Argentina, at the end of the men’s volleyball preliminary round pool B match, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, early Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

But perhaps his greatest contribution was his outspoken attitude on mental health. In 2014, Anderson left his team in Russia, saying he was homesick and lonely and close to depression. He realized he hadn’t fully come to terms with the death of his father, who died of a heart attack at 56 while recovering from kidney cancer in 2010.

Mike was Matt’s hero and his biggest fan. He was an athlete who loved being around other people and played competitive softball until he was seriously injured in a fall from a roof in his 50s.

Anderson has said one of the toughest things about his father’s death was that he would never know Matt’s children. Matt had been looking forward to having Jamie around in Tokyo. It was a big disappointment when families weren’t allowed to attend the Games. He said it didn’t feel like a typical Olympics to him.

“I didn’t necessarily hate the fact that there weren’t fans,” he said. “The way I play, I don’t like to have to rely on exterior sources for the emotion and energy to play, especially in the tough matches. I like to look internally.

“But of course, having your fans, friends and family there gives you  another jolt pre-match. One reason why I still play the game is to feel that experience through other people, and especially the ones I hold dearest to me.”

Anderson is still keenly attuned to his mental health. He left his team in China earlier than expected last year. It wasn’t big news, same as in 2014. It didn’t create the global stir that Simone Biles did when she dropped out of the gymnastics overall in Tokyo, joining a recent surge of pro athletes who have addressed their mental issues. 

“He really was ahead of his time,” Speraw said. “Having the strength to lead in that way was an asset for our program. He leads by example — his commitment, his professionalism and obviously the decisions he’s made in the best interest of the team and his own peak performance. He’s always made the right decisions.”

Anderson said he didn’t have a strong reaction either way to Biles’ decision. It comes as no surprise to him that mental stress could wear down an athlete, even the so-called greatest ever. He was considered perhaps the best player in the world when he stepped away seven years ago.

“The physical is one thing,” he said. “The mental thing is another. Athletes are starting to pay attention to what the grind does to us, physically but mentally, too, and how it breaks us down and what it takes to actually put effort into your relationships and yourselves that make you better. Ultimately, it makes you better.

“I don’t presume to know what (Biles or Naomi Osaka) were feeling and I don’t assume to have the answers. As much as physical health is an individual thing, mental health is even more so, because it’s all in your head.”

Anderson agrees with Speraw that he leads by example. When he’s honest about the mental pressures, the younger players realize it’s OK to be open about it. When he puts in the extra time in his personal conditioning, the others tend to follow. 

Now that he’s committed to Paris, and a certain redemption for the U.S. men’s volleyball program, the other American players will surely watch and gain an extra surge of motivation for the future.

He won’t have to say a word.

“No,” Speraw said, “because all they need to do is watch him — in the weight room, out on the court and how he prepares himself every day. It’s been impressive to watch. That consistency of professionalism over the last eight years, nine years now, has really put him in a position to prolong his career.

“He’s been so good about taking care of his body and how he handles his strength and conditioning and his physical preparations. You’re seeing this a little more with other athletes. If you’re really dedicated to how you take care of your body, you can play this game for a long time.”

That means Paris, for sure. Anderson would join a select group of American men’s indoor volleyball players who have competed in four Olympics. Reid Priddy played in four Olympics from 2004-16. Loy Ball played in four, from 1996-2008. The U.S. didn’t medal in the first three, then won gold in Ball’s last appearance in Beijing. Something for Anderson to ponder.

Russian Sergey Tetyukhin played in a record six Games from 1996 through 2016. Three others have gone to five Olympics: Reinder Nummerdor of the Netherlands, Mauricio Lima of Brazil and Andrea Giani of Italy. 

Speraw said he wouldn’t put it past Anderson to play in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Anderson would be 41.

Keep in mind, this is what Matt told me before his first Olympics in 2012:

“I suppose when I get there,” he said, “I won’t want to leave.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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