On the Brink of Greatness


Anna Chung | Photography Intern

Anna Chung | Photography Intern

Anna Chung | Photography Intern

Anna Chung | Photography Intern

Michael Brinkley came to UC Irvine with two goals he wanted to accomplish as a member of the men’s volleyball team by the time he graduated: to win a national championship for his school and to gain the coveted title as Volleyball Magazine’s All-American. In just his first two years as an Anteater, he achieved both, citing the championship win his freshman year as “one of the coolest moments of my life.”

And the number of photos he’s tagged in on his fans’ Instagram accounts with captions like “I’m so happy I got to meet one of my favorite liberos EVER” and accompanied with starstruck hashtags like “#flawless” and “#lifeiscomplete” are proof enough of his recognition as an all-star libero.

Yet Brinkley is pretty proud to be recognized for another accomplishment.

“I go to the Wahoo’s on campus more than I ever should and it’s so bad that they know my order,” Brinkley laughed. “Multiple workers know my order: burrito bowl with carne asada and black beans. I really love Wahoo’s.”

To say that the 5’10” Brinkley has built an impressive resume as a volleyball player is an understatement. His UCI Athletics online bio alone is peppered with titles –– his 280 digs as a libero last season ranked him fifth in the UCI single season records, and he was the only player to play in every single set. He also currently holds the university’s second-place all-time record for successful digs, numbering to an outstanding 769.

To Brinkley, the big numbers and important names are merely stepping stones to his bigger dreams, some of which include going professional after graduating –– “that reminds me, I should start looking for an agent” –– and eventually earning a position on the Olympics team.

“The 2020 Olympics,” Brinkley said affirmatively. “Hopefully. I’m giving myself a deadline.”

His volleyball beginnings date back to ever since he can remember. Brinkley was born on Oct. 15, 1992 into a family of outdoorsy, nature-loving sports fans. Growing up, his dad placed him and his older brother into baseball and soccer. He found that he had a natural athletic talent and he loved winning games, whether it was ping-pong or darts, but in sixth grade while away at a family church camp, he discovered his real love while engaging in a game of beach volleyball.

Brinkley began playing in leagues, then moved on to club volleyball as a member of the esteemed Balboa Bay Volleyball Club, where he’d attend weekly practices not too far from his home in Huntington Beach. He also played all four years at Edison High School, scoring titles such as the Best Defensive Player three years in a row, and he spent his free time as a high school student coaching the girl’s volleyball teams.

Things became serious when he received the opportunity to play in the Junior Olympics … and became a gold medalist.

“That’s when I thought, ‘okay, wait, I’m actually good at this,’” Brinkley remembers. “Every little kid dreams of becoming a professional athlete, but at that moment I knew that could actually happen for me.”

Brinkley became an Anteater after his recruitment trip to the campus where he found himself getting along well with his future teammates and loving how close it was to home, but not before he committed to Long Beach State first … for three hours.

“But I’m WAY happier that I decided to commit to Irvine,” he said –– it’s a thought of relief that passes through his mind every time the ‘Eaters play a game against Long Beach, when he begins to wonder how different his life would be on the other side of the net.

He’s more than happy that Irvine is just a half-hour away from home in Huntington. Go to any home game in the Bren and Brinkley’s parents will always be sitting in the same bleacher seats, cheering for their boy. His mom prays with him on the phone before every game.

Brinkley is close to his family and when he’s not doing warm-ups and running drills with the team for two hours, five days a week, he tries to go home every Sunday night for a home-cooked meal. Proudly identifying as hapa, half Chinese and half white, Brinkley loves going home to family traditions and is looking forward to visiting his grandfather in China in the future.

If he can, Brinkley also tries to take his golden retriever puppy to the dog beach –– her name’s Daisy and he’ll gladly whip out photos of her on his phone as soon as you mention the word “dog.”

As a libero, Brinkley enjoys the challenge of “who’s better” –– the attacker versus the digger. But it’s more than that. The libero has control of the back court and acts as the team’s backbone, telling teammates where to go and how they can improve. The libero has to be a people-person.

It makes sense, then, that after coming into UCI as undecided/undeclared, Brinkley eventually selected a major in sociology with a minor in education.

“At the end of my time as a professional player, it’d be a dream to become a coach at a college for women’s volleyball,” he said. “I love learning about social groups and seeing the ways we change in college.”

He takes pleasure in being a support system for his teammates –– also his best friends –– during practices, games and travels, and he always tries to find ways to contribute to the ‘Eaters’s morale. He takes it upon himself to be team DJ, always mixing the warm-up CDs with EDM and songs by his favorite artist, Ellie Goulding. Last year, he designed the men’s team’s jerseys, a simple feat, as he usually doodles in the margins of his notes in class –– his mom is an art teacher and his older brother is graduating from art school this year.

Even off the court, Brinkley enjoys bringing people together. The libero lives in an house in Newport Beach with five teammates, and he likes to spend his mornings running just outside his front door to play beach volleyball with them.

“More volleyball, I know,” he chuckled. “You’d think I’d be sick of it.”

Brinkley has an army of teammates, coaches and fans who don’t doubt his ability to come home in 2020 with a gold medal in men’s indoor volleyball swinging from his neck.

But why volleyball?

He becomes thoughtful, looking down while whispering “why, why, why,” racking his brain for an answer.

“You know, I’m not the tallest in this sport. I’m not the fastest. But I make the most of what I’m given,” Brinkley said.

“I … I don’t know. It’s just a love.”