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More than a dozen Olympic hopefuls were summoned to a single room three weeks ago in a Rio de Janeiro hotel.
The U.S. men's volleyball team had just been handled by the Brazilian national team 3-1 its first loss of the 2016 FIVB World League campaign. The Americans were playing nervously, stressed and just a little too tight for head coach John Speraw's liking.
So right there, in the same city the U.S. would return to six weeks later to vie for an Olympic gold medal in Rio, Speraw and the coaching staff told the players that plans to announce the Olympic team sometime in mid-July were now out the window. They were told that in one hour, each player would be informed whether or not he'd have a return ticket to Brazil the first week of August.
One of the eventual 12 Olympians was Taylor Sander. The four-time former BYU All-American outside-hitter, just like every other one of his teammates, felt the onrush of anxiety. All the soaring leaps off the floor he's known for, all the times his paw slammed a ball down into the corner of a court, all those moments it all led to this. The Huntington Beach, Calif., native could do nothing but wait and then listen.
There waiting for the 24-year-old was his green light.
"They brought me in and after they told me, it's just a special moment," Sander said. "I still think about it today. It's cool to see all your hard work paying off. It was a shocker. None of us really expected it to be that fast."
Four years earlier, Sander received notice that he was not bound for the Olympic Games in London via email. He was at home in Huntington Beach, a 20-year-old rising college star in Provo. It wasn't unexpected. The coaches told him that of the four outside-hitters, he was on the outside looking in. The previous regime was giving him a shot to prove himself, but it was more a matter of building experience for the next cycle.
In March 2013, Speraw, a two-time Olympic assistant, got the head coaching nod. Soon after, he and Sander spoke of what lied ahead.
"He had goals for me," Sander said. "That's when I thought about [Rio]."
'Oh my gosh'
Shawn Olmstead had seen Sander play. He saw how opponents struggled to contain the 6-foot-4 hitter with a 42-inch vertical. But it wasn't until an alumni game that BYU's future men's volleyball coach saw it unfold up close. Maybe a little too close. A former libero for the Cougars from 2000 to 2004, Olmstead spearheaded an alumni squad that a year prior actually beat the current men's team.
There was excitement to try and repeat. Sander ensured no such thing.
"Just his speed and quickness, none of our guys had really, up to that point, played against guys that quick and that fast," Olmstead said. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh. This kid is going to be really, really special.' "
During his senior year at BYU, Sander was named the 2014 AVCA Player of the Year. The accolades were stacking higher and higher. He's the owner of several BYU records. Later that year, he was named the MVP and Best Spiker of the 2014 FIVB World League final, pacing the U.S. to a gold medal in his first year with the national team.
"He's the new franchise player," USA middle-blocker and team captain David Lee said in 2014. "He's considered one of the best players in the world first year out. It's phenomenal what he can do."
During his playing days at BYU, Sander admittedly didn't think much about the professional volleyball scene. It wasn't until he starred with the U.S. junior team ironically in Brazil that agents started making inquiries. That's when he got his first taste that, as his volleyball career in Utah County continued to blossom, there was a scene after graduation.
In June 2014, he signed a contract to play in Verona, Italy. The eight-month seasons were taxing. He battled bouts of being homesick. He missed family and friends. The former global studies major was getting an enterprising course in professional life outside of the states. It helped diversify his game, he said. After two seasons in Italy, Sander and his wife will hit another country.
He signed a contract to play in Beijing, China, starting in September, a few weeks after Rio wraps up. The seasons are just five months. Globetrotting professionally and with the national team the last two years, Sander will want a break after Brazil.
When Sander was 6, he would crash his older sister's volleyball practices in Huntington Beach. Basketball was his first sport of choice, but little brother always looked on during the practice sessions. There were times when an errant hit rolled to him. He'd pick it up, give a good whack and then keep watching. Eventually, he picked up the sport. In fact, the club director of the same volleyball team suggested he try out.
"I was always able to jump high," Sander said. "That's helped me through the years."
It's an attribute synonymous with the former BYU high-riser. Olmstead was able to watch Team USA compete in Dallas during the FIVB World League final last week. In his conversations with those watching, the jumping ability was approached. As Olmstead tells it, folks he talks to say Sander's always playing "three or four inches" higher off the ground than everyone else.
Will Sander's ability lead to a starting role in Rio? That's up in the air. He's one of the 12 now, and vows to be ready for whatever position is presented to him by the coaching staff.
"I don't even think about that, really," he said. "I think we all have to be ready to play. I think whatever my role is, I'm going to embrace it. That's exactly how everybody on our team is going about it. We all want to play, but again, we want our team to be successful. However that is, that's how we've got to support each other. I think that's how we've been the last four years."
The No. 5-ranked Americans will compete in Olympic Pool A in Rio, which includes No. 4 Italy, No. 10 France, No. 10 Canada and No. 24 Mexico. And, No. 1-ranked Brazil. Their first official Olympic match this summer kicks off Sunday, Aug. 7, against Canada. Up next is Italy, before the big showdown against the hosts on Thursday, Aug. 11.
"Every team there is really talented," Sander said. "We're looking forward to playing every single team."
With a fifth-place finish in London still fresh in their minds, the Americans are out to replicate the finish of the previous Olympic Games when they won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008. In Rio, the U.S. may need to call on the former Cougar to launch himself off the floor and deliver those patented swats.
About Taylor Sander
Age • 24
Sport • Men's volleyball
Hometown • Huntington Beach, Calif.
College • BYU
Residence • Huntington Beach, Calif.
College career • Four-time AVCA All-American at BYU, three-time first-team All-American. Named 2014 AVCA Player of the Year. 2013 and 2014 MPSF Player of the Year. 2013 and 2014 MPSF Tournament MVP. BYU record-holder for single-match for aces with nine and career aces (182). Led Cougars to 2013 NCAA Tournament final.
International career • Named 2014 FIVB World League final MVP and Best Spiker, helping U.S. win gold medal. Made his national-team debut at the 2014 World Championship qualifier.
Men's volleyball in Rio
Dates • Olympic Pool A: No. 1 Brazil, No. 4 Italy, No. 5 U.S., No. 10 France, No. 10 Canada, No. 24 Mexico, Aug. 7-15.