Utahns figure to play big roles in Olympic volleyball storylines
Two four-time Olympians. One team loaded with Cougars trying to defend its gold medal, the other armed with local prep legends aiming to finally seize one. A coach who switched sides, and a former collegiate national champion trying to break through and earn a spot for the first time.
Oh, and don't forget the beach guy.
Yeah, the state of Utah will be contributing a lot to the volleyball competition at the 2012 London Olympics this summer. All told, six players who either grew up or played collegiately here could compete there for the United States not to mention former Brigham Young University player and coach Hugh McCutcheon, who led the American men to a historic gold medal four years ago at the Beijing Games and now coaches the top-ranked women.
"Here was a chance to do the same thing, but with a completely different group," he said. "It's really been great."
Ryan Millar and Logan Tom can easily say the same thing, in a different way.
Both are expected to compete in their fourth Olympics, as two of the most important players on their respective teams.
Dynamic duo • Now living in Alpine with his wife and two sons, Millar played at BYU, as did national teammates Rich Lambourne and Russell Holmes Â Millar and Lambourne led the Cougars to the first of three national championships, in 1999 and coached them briefly, while Tom grew up in Salt Lake City (she lives now in Long Beach) and launched her illustrious career from Highland High School.
Millar figures to become only the second American male volleyball player to compete in four Olympics, while Tom will join the commensurate women's group that could grow to just six.
Only 163 American athletes across all sports Â winter and summer have competed in four Olympics, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
"To be able to have the longevity that I've had and to be able to go to four has really sunk in as something special," Millar said, "and I'm kind of taking it that way."
Nobody has had a more varied experience than Millar, either.
In his first Olympics, his team lost every single match at the 2000 Sydney Games. Four years later in Athens, with McCutcheon as an assistant coach, the American men finished fourth, just out of the medals. Finally, in Beijing, they won gold just two weeks after McCutcheon's father-in-law was killed in a random attack at a historical attraction in Beijing.
"It's gone from total heartbreak to total exuberation," Millar said.
While Millar and his fellow former Cougars were standing on the top of the medal podium in China, Tom and her teammates were just one step away. The women took silver behind Brazil in 2008 Â they have never won gold but under McCutcheon have perhaps assumed the role as Olympic favorite. They're ranked No. 1 in the world, and aiming to become only the second team to win the FIVB World Grand Prix for three straight years.
Veteran setter Lindsey Berg has said they're a gold-medal team.
"The great thing about our team is we have very different players who play very well together," Tom said. "So we don't rely just on one thing or one player or one person. If something's not working, we always have something else to go back to. We don't close ourselves off."
In the hunt • Tom is not the only Utahn on the women's team, either.
Orem's Kristen Richards is hoping to earn a spot, too, after the former national champion and All-American at Stanford (just like Tom) missed the cut as an alternate four years ago. McCutcheon said Richards has a shot, but plays an outside hitter position stacked with talent. She is expected to join the national team when it travels to Thailand next week for its final preliminary round games in the FIVB World Grand Prix.
"She's in the hunt," McCutcheon said.
While the indoor teams are expected to be named next month, Jake Gibb already has locked up his trip.
The Bountiful native and 2008 Olympian finished fifth in Beijing, and had been in a tight battle for the second of two American spots in London. He and partner Sean Rosenthal clinched the berth at the final qualifying event in Rome on Saturday.
Second act • But the biggest storyline in London probably will revolve around McCutcheon, who somehow managed to hold things together in Beijing despite his family tragedy that made international headlines.
Can he become just the second coach ever to win Olympic gold with both a men's and women's team?
The native New Zealander said he made his move from the men's to the women's team in part because he felt as though his journey with the men had "run its course, I guess, for lack of a better term. I didn't feel like going on another four years and reinventing the same wheel was going to really allow me to maximize the opportunity that I have in this international volleyball environment."
McCutcheon had been with the men's team for nearly eight years, and was "intrigued" with trying to apply his principles and philosophies to "a different population."
It didn't hurt, either, that he wound up landing a job as the women's coach at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, near where his wife and former national team player Elisabeth Bachman grew up. He starts after the Olympics.
"It all seemed like it was part of a bigger plan," he said with a chuckle, "but it really wasn't."
Major adjustment • Not everybody was thrilled about it, though.
"It was really hard, I'm not going to lie," said Millar, who had played under McCutcheon in one capacity or another since he was 17 years old. "It was disappointing. Mostly because a lot of the guys in '08 thought we could go on a nice run â¦ because we had a great core group of guys who were ready to come back and just dominate."
Instead, he said, "we almost had to stop completely and then redefine ourselves as a team" under new coach Alan Knipe, the longtime Long Beach State coach who had relatively little elite international coaching experience when he replaced McCutcheon in 2009. "That took a long time, and in certain ways, it's still happening. It's just what happens when you have a new coach and you have a new system."
Although she certainly has been pleased with the results, she said it wasn't easy getting used to a coach as "laid-back" as McCutcheon, who "just teaches a completely, technically different kind of volleyball" than the series of more rigid Asian coaches who have led the women's national team in recent years. It took some time to adjust, she said, just like the men â¦ until at some vague point last year she felt things really coming together.
Millar said he has noticed and said the women are "just so much more dynamic" under McCutcheon, who is "doing a phenomenal job." His men's team is ranked sixth in the latest FIVB World Rankings, by the way, and Millar said he's "optimistic about our chances" in London because of its potent mix of experienced veterans and powerful younger players.
"It's just a good feeling we have," Tom said. "It was something that kind of grew. It was like, 'Oh. Feels good.' You know what I mean? 'I can like this. It's nice. It's cozy here.' "
It will feel even cozier if she and her teammates Â heck, maybe all half-dozen of those volleyball-playing Utahns Â are standing on the top of the podium in London next month, precious gold medals around their necks.
Utahns on the floor
Six players who either grew up in Utah or played collegiately here could suit up for the United States in volleyball at the 2012 London Olympics:
Player Discipline Local Connection
Ryan Millar Indoor Lives in Alpine, played and coached at BYU
Rich Lambourne Indoor Played at BYU
Russell Holmes Indoor Played at BYU
Jake Gibb Beach Grew up in Bountiful, attended Bountiful High School and University of Utah
Logan Tom Indoor Grew up in Salt Lake City, played at Highland High School
Kristin Richards Indoor Grew up in Orem, played at Timpanogos High School
Bountiful's Gibb headed to London
Beach volleyball player Jake Gibb, a Bountiful native, reached the finals of the last Olympic qualifying event on Saturday to clinch at spot at the 2012 London Games with partner Sean Rosenthal. The two finished fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Gibb and Rosenthal had been in a tight race with Matt Fuerbringer and Nick Lucena for the final American spot in London.
But by reaching the semifinals at the FIVB Grand Slam in Rome, Gibb and Rosenthal assured they would finish with more points in the qualification process. Then, they went on to defeat Sascha Heyer and Sebastian Chevallier of Switzerland 21-14, 16-21, 15-10 to reach Sunday's final against defending world champions Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti, who beat Fuerbringer and Lucena 21-18, 14-21, 25-10 in the other semifinal.
Defending Olympic gold medalists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers had already locked up the other American place in London.