Matt Anderson, the best volleyball player ever to come out of Buffalo, was understandably deflated last week when the IOC made the inevitable decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics.
“Of course it’s a bummer not to play in the Olympics, because we had a lot of things planned,” Anderson said by phone from Indianapolis early this week. “But as a good friend of mine said, ‘Man makes plans, and God laughs.’”
Throughout the world, people are coming to grips with that harsh reality as the coronavirus scuttles plans and upends lives. In most cases, it’s a lot worse than being told you’ll have to wait a year to take a run at the gold medal that narrowly eluded you four years earlier.
The last 10 weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions for Anderson and his fiancee, Jackie Gillum. In late January, he flew from Italy to their U.S. home in Indiana to be with Gillum for the birth of his first child, Michael James (after his late father, Mike). They call him ‘Jamie.’
A few days after Jamie’s birth, Anderson flew back to Italy for a big match with his professioal team in Modena. His mother, Nancy, went to Indianapolis soon after to help with her 10th grandchild. A week later, Jackie and the baby flew back to their home in Italy.
But right around that time, the COVID-19 virus hit northern Italy with a vengeance. Modena, which is outside Bologna, is about 100 miles from Milan. It was close to the epicenter of the pandemic. “Six days later,” Anderson said, “they flew home.”
“Once they left, it rapidly progressed in that country and it was scary,” Matt said. “It went from guys saying, ‘This is nothing, it’s going to be fine’ to ‘OK, we’re going to play with no fans in the gym’ to ‘We’re not even training’ to ‘We’re in a complete lockdown.’
“That was all over the course of four to five days.”
Finally, with Italy and the volleyball season in lockdown, Anderson flew home to Indiana to be with his wife and baby. Naturally, he worried about his own health. He hasn’t been tested for the virus.
“I called the health board here in Indiana, explained the situation,” he said. “They said, ‘Quarantine at home for two weeks, take your temperature and if anything comes up, we’ll try to get you tested’. That was two and a half weeks ago and the tests weren’t readily available here. They still aren’t.”
Anderson said he’s fine, though he’s getting a little “itchy” to get back on a volleyball court. When he left Italy, there was still hope the Olympics would go on. The U.S. men’s team had tentative plans for preliminary workouts and games. That’s off now.
Yeah, you plan and God laughs. Mike Anderson was his son’s biggest fan back in the day. He would lead the cheers during Matt’s college days at Penn State. Back in 2009, after Matt joined the national team, Mike and Nancy, began planning for the 2012 London Olympics.
But early in 2010, Mike died of a heart attack after surgery for kidney cancer. Matt, a West Seneca West graduate and the youngest of five children, took it very hard. Family is everything to him. He has tattoos all over his body to prove it:
A tree on his upper left arm symbolizing his family and the Buffalo community he loves; four roses on his wrist for his four siblings; the Anderson family crest on his rib cage; his father’s initials and his birth and death dates. He also has a tattoo of a blue puzzle piece, signifying the fight against autism. His nephew, Tristan, is autistic.
This is one deep and devoted family man. Now, two weeks before turning 32, Anderson is a father himself. Maybe the coronavirus dashed his plans to win another Olympic medal (he led the U.S. to bronze in Rio), but it’s a blessing to spend more time with the baby.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “For sure. This is going to be the longest stint I’ll have at home with no trainings and I can really focus on just being a dad and understanding everything that goes into that — like waking up in the middle of the night with him, taking turns getting him out of the room so the other person can sleep, feeding him and taking him to the doctors, just everything that goes into it.
“It’s amazing how many bottles you have to wash.”
His mother got a chance to spend time with the baby on her trip to Indy, though she can’t travel from Western New York for the time being due to the crisis. She had enough time to see that becoming a father was the joy of Matt’s life.
“He had a really good dad!” Nancy Anderson said, her voice breaking. “So I love seeing it. It’s gratifying. I’m glad he did watch and listen. He seems to be absorbing it all. Before the baby was born, he was a little nervous here and there. I said, ‘You had the best! What do you think you’re going to do to this kid?’”
One day when Nancy was visiting, a delivery came to the house in Indy, addressed to “Michael Anderson.” Her late husband’s name. She hadn’t seen it in printed in some time.
“I was like ‘Wow, it really is true!’” she said.
There were around 25 family and friends planning to go to Japan for the Olympics, which would be Anderson’s third. He was the baby of the U.S. team in London, two years after his father’s death. Matt was the team leader in his prime in 2016, when he was arguably the best player in the world. The U.S. suffered a crushing loss to Italy, of all teams, that summer and Matt lifted them from behind in the bronze-medal match.
This past year, he returned to play professionally in Italy, where he had played in 2011-12. At Modena, he would play with a couple of teammates from the U.S. team, Max Holt and Micah Christenson. Anderson said it was less stressful playing in Italy than Russia more about personal improvement than an obsession with winning.
Plus, he loves the Italian culture, which he described as “good social therapy.” The notion of social distancing is the antithesis of the Italian ethos, which might have been a factor in the rapid spread of the virus there.
“I’m truly an introvert,” he said. “So this virus keeping me, quote unquote, trapped at home isn’t entirely out of the ordinary for me. But what I like about Italy is the social aspect of the culture. Something as simple as going out to dinner isn’t a small thing in their culture. It’s a big production.”
Anderson has achieved virtually every possible honor in volleyball. He has been the U.S. indoor player of the year six times, including 2018-19; he has led the American team in scoring every year since 2011; he was MVP of the 2015 World Cup and the 2019 Volleyball Nations league; his jersey hangs in the rafters for Russia’s pro team Zenit Kazan, where he starred from 2012-18.
“I think I’m past my physical prime,” he said, “but I think my mental game is getting better. I’m starting to understand the intricacies of the game a little bit better, and understand and be OK with not being perfect on the court, slowly.
“As athletes, we try to be perfectionists, so when it’s not perfect you know that there’s room for improvement. And you hold onto errors and losses longer and harder, because now at this point in my career, I’m on the back end of it. I’m looking at three, four maybe five years if I’m lucky of being physically there and competitive to a point that I’ll enjoy playing.”
You don’t plan for such things, but if he’s still playing at a high level in four years, Anderson could compete in four Olympics. The Tokyo Games have been moved to next July 23. The 2024 Games are in Paris. For now, he shelters in place, like most Americans, and waits for life to return to normal. He and Jackie are still planning to get married in Aug. 29 in Zionsville, Ind.
Life goes on. Anderson’s dad never got to see him in an Olympics, but it’ll be an emotional time when he finally gets to take part in them as a new father.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “I think having a son in general, being able to name him after my father, it brings up its own emotions. It’s heightened. It’s the Olympics, the biggest stage in sport. Everyone knows it. He would only be four or five months old — but I could have looked back in 10 or 20 years, when he’s a little older and can understand the emotions and the hard work that goes into it — and shared that with him.
“But you know, we’ll do it next year. Hopefully, everything is safe for families to come, and he’ll be there.”
That’s the plan, anyway.