What is it like playing overseas?
It’s kind of a mixed bag. It obviously depends on where you are playing and for who you’re playing. I was blessed in the four countries that I played in to play on good teams the whole time. I’d like to think some of that had to do with me, but some of that had to do with luck too. Not only did I play for teams where I got every paycheck, which is usually the first reason that people don’t like overseas, you don’t always get paid. I received every penny I was ever promised and I played with unbelievable players, unbelievable coaches, in unbelievable volleyball areas.
The level of training is different. My first year, right after ’96, I went for three years to Japan. It was a great four-month, short season, but it was the most intense training of my career. I played for an old school team. There is a hierarchy. If the big boss man in the company walks in the gym, we stop practice, we bow. If he tells you to set the ball underhand, you set the ball underhand. I mean it was old school, Japanese style.
I remember my first week there we went to training camp in the mountains, we practiced twice a day and after the last practice, I’m exhausted. They throw a weight vest at me. I’m like ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ And he’s like ‘we’re running home.’ We were staying three miles away, uphill. I weigh 235 pounds right now, I came out of Japan and I weighed 209 pounds.
On my team you’re only allowed one foreigner and Japan was a perfect move for me after ’96. Because of all the things I did as the player at that time, setting was probably the worst thing to be honest with you. Even though I was the setter. So having to go to Japan where the hitters were not very talented, not very big, and if the ball is not perfect, they cannot hit it, was perfect. After three years of setting there, I became a complete setter. It was the perfect thing for me. And so each place I went helped me to develop as a player. I did not learn Japanese by the way, we had a translator. Just too difficult. Different characters, they read from up to down not even left to right and to be honest I had no interest in learning Japanese.
After that I went to Italy. I did learn Italian, I’m fluent in it and it’s my best language that I know. Sarah and I loved Italy. It’s the mecca of volleyball. I played in the city of Modena that has won 11 championships. The last one they won was actually with me in 2002. I played with the greatest names of the game, Gardini, Giani, Cantagalli. Played against the greatest, during that period of the ’90s and 2000s. It was the best league in the world.
After learning how to set in Japan, Italy taught me how to play volleyball. These guys showed me how to be a winner, showed me how you dress, how you eat, how you sleep, how you prepare, how you focus, how you communicate. There was a reason why Italy won back-to-back-to-back World Championships in the 90’s and I got to learn from those guys. That’s really where my career started. I just took off after that.
In Greece, we loved it. We lived in Thessaloniki, we lived on the water. It was beautiful. We didn’t learn Greek, mainly because everyone spoke English perfectly. It was a tourist area, so they are used to having foreigners there. So I got to play for the first time with other Americans. I played with Clay Stanleyand Tom Hoff there for a team called Iraklis. We had Dyer going to school there we had some other Americans and their families. It was by far the most relaxing experience.
That’s where I became more confident. Because believe it or not,I really wasn’t that confident. After Atlanta and the poor showing we had, I lost a lot of confidence. I thought ‘I’m going to Atlanta, I’m going to win a gold medal, life is going to be perfect, I’m 24 years old.’ And then all of a sudden we don’t make the medal round, play like crap. What do I do now?
I went to Greece and we won 46 matches in a row between the Greek league and the European Cup Leagues. Went to finals back-to-back years in the European Championship. So it just gave me all the confidence I needed to play for the USA team in ’04 and ’08. I was actually relatively happy with everything, but I just got an offer from Russia I couldn’t refuse. I told the wife OK, let’s go for one year and then we’ll pack it in. And then six years later, I found out Russia is not that bad. Obviously, financially they’re amazing.
I played for a team in my five years that won four Russian Championships, Three Cups, another European Cup, won the Olympics during that time with the national team. Then I went back for a sixth year just with a different team to play with Clay one more time, just to fill the coffers one more time and finish on a good note and we did.
I learned some Russian, but half the players spoke Italian, my coach spoke Italian. So that’s how we communicated. He’d translate to me, I’d translate to Clay and so it all worked out great. I loved it.
Were there lonely times? Absolutely. After the family leaves and goes back home and before playoffs start it would be about a month. It is lonely. Luckily, with today’s media and satellites you have ESPN, you have some ways to communicate through Skype and what not. But you know, it was painful as the kids got older not to be there for the recitals and the games and the parent teacher conferences.
Luckily I was just blessed to have an amazing wife and kids that know that I love them and Daddy is doing what he loves and eventually he won’t be able to do it anymore and I will be home. Sixteen years I played overseas. I wouldn’t trade any team, any city, any country I ever played in. I couldn’t have written it any better back when I decided to play volleyball instead of basketball.
What was it like raising the kids in different countries?
As the kids got older it was just tougher for them to stay the whole time. Do you want to integrate them into the domestic school where they have to learn the language? Or if you’re lucky you’re in a city where they have international schools. So my son, Dyer, started out when he was four at a preschool in Greece in Thessaloniki. We found an international school, his teacher actually had moved from Cleveland back to Greece and he went to school the whole time there.
When he was in kindergarten, we started to short the time a little. So I’d go alone for the first month or two, they’d come for the middle three months and then I would stay for the last two months. That way the kids could have some continuity, know the kids in their class, come with their dad and then go back and finish with their school classes.
We tried everything. One of my teams in Russia paid for a teacher to come over, bought her an apartment and a car and Dyer would walk to her apartment everyday for school. Just last year my wife and I decided that now being in 4th, 5th grade, he is doing things that we know. We know math and science and history so we actually home schooled him. So that was very rewarding not only for him but for us. Obviously it got tougher as the kids got older, but we tried to make it work the best we can and the kids have done excellent in school especially this year being here the whole time. And I think it worked out pretty well.