Two years ago, the UC Irvine men’s volleyball head coach John Speraw decided to be a part of a dream. At the start of his college team’s run to a national championship, Speraw decided to start making a more challenging run at the international championships: the Olympic gold medal.
The journey has not been easy. Speraw was balancing two full-time jobs that became exceedingly demanding. Still, he wanted to succeed at the Olympics and was determined to put as much energy as possible into that goal. Surrounded by professionals and legends, the 2008 men’s volleyball team was one of the best teams in the world, which Speraw felt blessed to be a part of, despite all the difficulties he had overcome.
Then on Aug. 8, 2008, Speraw fulfilled what he called the “highlight of his athletic career.” With red, white and blue all around him, he walked in the opening ceremonies amongst the world’s best athletes under the lens of billions of people around the world. He and his two-year commitment had finally come full circle. As the Olympic torch was lit and the team got some rest, Speraw knew the opening ceremonies were something he would never forget.
And then tragedy befell on the men’s volleyball team.
The morning after the opening ceremonies, the mother and father-in-law of head coach Hugh McCutcheon had been attacked by a knife-wielding Chinese citizen. The attacker ended his life on the spot after murdering the father-in-law and critically wounding McCutcheon’s mother. The Olympic dream now had an unexpected cloud of tragedy and sorrow surrounding it.
“At that point I kind of just wanted to go home,” Speraw said. “I felt like I had been robbed of what a great experience that could have been.”
The next day the team had to face a very impressive Venezuelan team, and with poise and efficiency, they won their first Olympic match amid the tragedy. Speraw had taken on the role of assistant head coach with Ron Larsen stepping in for McCutcheon as head coach.
“As coaches you try to prepare your team for any contingencies that may occur,” Speraw said.
“Of course you can never predict a contingency where you lose your head coach.
Fortunately, we had actually done that. Larsen was the head coach when we went down to the Pan-Am games the summer before. Ron and I worked very well together and we did it again.”
Speraw and Larsen got their team out to a 3-0 start before McCutcheon was able to return to the team. The team responded to every part of the emotional journey with a collected determination to succeed in the most challenging tournament they had ever played in. After their first three wins, they made it four, then five and after beating every country that stepped onto the court, Speraw and his team made it to the gold medal match against Brazil, the defending champions.
Going into the tournament, they did not expect to go undefeated or win any type of medal. They only had hopes and dreams of getting to that final game. As Brazil came out and won the first game of the gold medal match, those hopes and dreams looked a bit out of reach. However, just as the team had played throughout the Olympics, they pushed through all adversity and beat the Brazilians to take the gold medal.
Speraw had achieved yet another highlight in his athletic career.
From June 1 to Sept. 16, Speraw had slept in his bed only 13 times. The emotional journey was something that he will never forget.
“You have to play these incredible teams under unbelievable pressure and you only get one shot or you have to sit around for another four years,” Speraw said. “But it was a tremendous experience and representing the United States is an incredible honor. I think the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal is incredibly unique and special.”
Speraw is unsure of the role he will play in the next Olympic Games, but is now focused on dedicating all of his attention to his team at UCI. His team this year is predicted to be a powerhouse in the conference and projected to go far come tournament time.