The U.S. Men’s Volleyball team ended their Olympic run on Aug. 1, losing to Argentina at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo.
It was Set 3, 0-2 and 23-24. The U.S. team was behind, both in sets and score. Argentina was up to serve. The U.S. needed one defensive stop — one moment to take the game back.
The U.S. team faced a similar position in 2016 against Russia, which ended as a U.S. comeback victory after the team won the last three sets. U.S. starting middle blocker and UCI alumnus David Smith was confident they could do it again.
The whistle blew. The U.S. men received Argentina’s serve and spiked it towards center court. Argentina retaliated. A smack resounded throughout the crowdless arena as Argentina’s wing spiker hit the ball. Smith, however, was able to block the spike, and the ball fell onto Argentina’s side of the court.
Smith’s right hand stung red from the block. It was over in just 10 seconds. As he landed with his other two teammates, Smith saw the ball was completely in the blue out-of-bounds area. Game over.
The crowdless arena shook like an earthquake, reverberating with cheers and applause from the Argentinian players and their coaching staff. The U.S. side was quiet as the U.S. team — faces distraught, frustrated and defeated — watched them celebrate. Some sat with their heads in their hands, on the verge of breaking. They never expected this result. Smith was speechless.
After a moment of celebration and sorrow, the teams lined up on their respective court sides and exchanged thanks to each other. Both teams held their emotions out of respect. Then, the line broke, and they headed to the locker rooms. The U.S. team walked silently into the empty hallways.
“I was deflated,” Smith said. “I didn’t have this rush of emotions like I thought I would. I know a lot of the guys kind of broke down and were crying angry, and I was just kind of numb. Like, I was shocked, I was deflated. It wasn’t what we dreamt what would happen and what we thought was going to happen.”
Smith, 36, has played volleyball professionally as a middle blocker since graduating from UCI with a civil engineering degree in 2007. Because the U.S. has no professional indoor volleyball teams, he’s spent a majority of his postgraduate life in Europe, playing for teams in Germany, Spain, France and now Poland.
Traveling from country to country, uncertain about how long he’d live in each one, was a struggle for Smith. However, support from his wife, who was always alongside him, helped with the stress of his nomadic lifestyle. Over time, he learned how to handle moving to foreign countries constantly, but becoming a father and a full-time athlete has proven to be a challenge all on its own.
Residing in Poland and currently playing for the Grupa Azoty ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Koźle volleyball team, Smith finds it difficult to converse with his son’s Polish teacher. The language barrier has proven itself to be quite an obstacle. Since the teacher does not speak English, it’s difficult to understand what she expects or what his son needs to receive the best education.
But no matter what challenges may appear, Smith finds a way to overcome them. With his degree in civil engineering and playing abroad for over a decade, he faces each struggle head on.
“I figure it out, and for me, it’s been worth it to figure it out. I enjoy what I do and enjoy the opportunity and the unique experiences that it gives my family so it’s worth it,” Smith said.
Even though Smith has played volleyball for the majority of his life and has competed at the Olympics three times, he had never imagined he’d be doing it professionally. Ever since he was a kid and while studying at UCI, he always considered sports a hobby before anything else.
Born nearly deaf in 1985 in Panorama City, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Smith was the middle child between his older brother and younger sister. For most of his life, he was raised in Santa Clarita. He was homeschooled until second grade due to his hearing disability. His mother worried about how he would integrate into a classroom environment without her care.
Once Smith’s family secured a bigger house in Santa Clarita, Smith enrolled at a nearby school. To accommodate him for his disability, his teacher used a microphone that was directly connected to a special set of hearing aids. After watching in-class videos, Smith would take the cassette home and watch it with his mom. Pausing every 10 seconds, Smith would read her lips as she repeated the dialogue back to him.
“For me, it felt like a really normal childhood. I was with the rest of the kids, at recess with my favorite subject … I had to make the small adaptations to make sure I could get the information I needed in class but wasn’t — to me at least — anything super out of the ordinary,” Smith said.
Over time, Smith cherished his friends and those around him. At some points in middle school, people would pick on him for his hearing. Still, he was always surrounded by a great group of friends who had his back. With his friends’ support, he was confident.
“I don’t think there was ever a moment where it was completely demoralizing for me. Yeah, there was a moment to pick on me, but at the same time I had a good group of friends around me who accepted me for what I was, and they didn’t really treat me differently,” Smith said. “They may have to repeat themselves a few times here and there, but other than that, I joined the same clubs that they did. I played the same sport, I did the same classes.”
Smith was not only absorbed in his school work but also dedicated a lot of time to sports. He played any sport he could, including basketball, track and field, and baseball. However, soccer was the one sport he was utterly obsessed with.
Since he was five years old, Smith played alongside his brother for small soccer clubs. A few years later, he continued playing club and joined some travel teams that gave him the opportunity to play with other kids his age. Competing on the field and earning a team win; it was euphoric. He was then introduced to a variety of other sports — he was intent on trying them all.
“I just always found myself on a soccer team or baseball team basketball track and field,” Smith said. “I was always on a team, I was always going to practice. That’s where all my friends were and that’s what we did. I enjoyed doing it and [it allowed me to have] another group of friends I hung out with.”
However, joining all these sports teams and simultaneously pursuing a great student life ate his time away. Still, Smith found pockets of time for his family, which were usually spent at church on Sundays. Rarely would he skip spending dinnertime with them, or writing for his youth group on Wednesdays with his siblings. Additionally, summers were dedicated to family road trips. Hectic as it may have been, he enjoyed his youth to the fullest.
Once Smith began high school, he was limited to only a select few sports. Being 5 feet 10 inches tall during his freshman year, he made the decision to pursue his favorite sport of soccer. Since soccer only spanned the winter season, he wanted to tackle another seasonal sport. He tried out for football in the fall, and he quickly learned it wasn’t for him, noting that the physicality of the sport was too rough.
Instead, Smith remembered his older brother playing volleyball in high school two years ago, so he decided to try out as well. It fell perfectly into his schedule since it was a spring sport, and he could thus easily manage his time.
As his junior year quickly approached, he realized his body had been astronomically growing; he was around 6 feet 6 inches tall when he entered his senior year and felt too tall to continue playing soccer. Smith also noticed he was gaining the attention of collegiate coaches in volleyball. With his lengthy build, he felt more comfortable in volleyball, and he decided to devote himself to the sport.
Graduating with honors and being approached by several coaches, Smith wanted to attend a school that offered a solid engineering program along with a D1 sports team. He decided to attend UCI at the last minute, abandoning his original choice of UC Santa Barbara. It wasn’t long until Smith realized that UCI was the perfect fit for him.
At UCI, Smith was an electrical engineering major while playing both intramural sports and team volleyball. He decided to change his major to civil engineering during his sophomore year after he realized he didn’t find a “click” with the subject matter. He instantly fell in love with his new major since it allowed him to explore the thought process behind lengthy problem solving.
“My girlfriend, now my wife, would ask, ‘Oh, what do you got tonight for homework?’ I’m like, ‘I have three problems that’s going to probably take me like four hours. Literally three pages of work to solve one problem, but I loved it, I loved the challenge. It was what I needed,” Smith said.
Playing preseason games in the fall, having a full season in the winter and conditioning during his off time, Smith had little time for himself. Yet, he loved every moment of free time he could scrape up.
“I didn’t mind it, I wasn’t ever stressed. Obviously, finals week was stressful but I was enjoying what I was doing,” Smith said.
Despite his easy-going approach to this new way of life, he soon began to feel an evident pressure from collegiate games. Playing D1 volleyball was something much bigger than he was used to.
“I was actually playing a bigger portion of the year, so my freshman year I started getting jumper’s knee because my body wasn’t ready for it,” Smith said. “The level’s way higher, the tempo way faster and it’s the same thing from when you go from college to professional. Another level up and everybody’s technical ability and just the speed of the game is a lot faster.”
Lifting weights, watching films, working on a team system and understanding what tempo the team needed to run — there were a flurry of miscellaneous technicalities he had to pick up. Unlike in his previous volleyball career where everyone played a simple “receive, pass, hit” style, Smith had to specialize and focus on his abilities as a middle blocker. He learned how to efficiently block the ball — not simply pass it — and how to pressure the spiker in front of him.
“Now, I wasn’t the most athletically gifted kid on the court anymore. I had a bunch of other guys that were at my level, and so I had to find other ways to create those margins and separate myself,” Smith said.
Working laboriously on his skills as a middle blocker and building chemistry among his teammates earned him a spot on the starting lineup. Over time, the team learned each other’s playstyle, each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and who to count on in tight situations.
Smith and the Anteaters would go on to win 29 games that same year, finishing first in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Later that year, they went to the NCAA and brought home the first place trophy, winning the program’s first national title on May 5, 2007.
“Looking back, I’m really fond of them because I think we did something really special together. The four of us seniors ended up playing professionally too and that wasn’t common for Irvine at the time. Winning the national title started something special at UCI and they’ve been able to continue, it’s obviously a very rich program,” Smith said.
His collegiate career ended on a stellar note in 2007 — he was named an NCAA champion, first team All-MPSF and led the nation with a 0.559 hitting percentage. Volleyball, a sport that Smith saw as an activity he did simply for fun, gave him a sparkling future — something he had never imagined.
While taking an extra year to finish his engineering degree, UCI Men’s Volleyball team head coach and then assistant coach David Kniffin invited Smith for dinner during the 2007-2008 school year. He introduced Smith to an agent, granting him the opportunity to play professionally overseas.
Upon hearing Kniffin speak, Smith’s mind was already racing.
Still dealing with senior projects and schoolwork, Smith put the offer on hold and continued with his rigorous education in hopes to land a secure job post-graduation.
A few months later, he was contacted again, this time by U.S. Men’s Volleyball team head coach and former UCI head coach John Speraw. As the national team’s training facility moved from Colorado Springs to Anaheim that year, Speraw offered Smith to attend practices as an “extra body.”
Smith immediately accepted the offer. He began practicing with Olympians and building a connection with them, even before graduating. The game he played for fun was turning into something much bigger than he ever anticipated.
Smith’s future was shining bright. He graduated and obtained an engineering degree in 2008, married his then-girlfriend and went to Hawaii for his honeymoon.
Smith momentarily put his career aspirations aside to focus on his new marriage and his relaxing trip. He wanted to enjoy the moment, something he rarely had the chance to do.
Although Smith’s flip phone lit up periodically during his trip, he ignored it. Spending a few days away from what the future held eased his mind; however, he and his wife agreed it was the responsible choice to check some emails despite it being their honeymoon. Upon opening his email, he found an email from an unfamiliar sender: “TV Rottenburg.”
Soon after, he realized the subject of the email. It was a contract offer. A club in Rottenburg, Germany asked him to play overseas professionally.
Without thinking twice, Smith accepted the offer.
“I literally never thought I’d be a professional athlete, at least definitely not volleyball. We don’t have a professional indoor volleyball league so I didn’t know that was an opportunity or an option. [It was] an avenue to make an Olympic team. You’re not going to make the Olympic team unless you’re playing professionally,” Smith said.
Smith savored the last few days of his honeymoon, ecstatic about how smooth his life was going. A very uncertain wrinkle had ironed itself out.
It did take some time for Smith to grow accustomed to life abroad. Living in a primarily non-English speaking country, having to interpret German signs and exploring unknown territory was a huge change for Smith. This was his first time abroad as well. However, the club provided almost everything for him, and it made it easy to have volleyball as the one and only thing he needed to worry about.
As the year went by, he adapted to the German setting, culture and language. He was making a name for himself, proving himself to be a talented middle blocker. Just as a full year abroad quickly approached, the list of the U.S. national team was released. Smith perused the list to see if anyone he recognized was on the team, but only found one familiar name.
He had been given another opportunity to pursue the sport professionally and continue on to play for a national team.
From then on, Smith’s volleyball portfolio grew as he played for many other teams across Europe. Throughout his career, he has won several awards, including bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and more recently, the CEV Championship League with his current team, ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Koźle.
As of now, Smith plans to return to Poland for a second year and defend the Polish title in the European Champions League. He also looks forward to competing in the Polish championship where they previously finished in the final three, hoping to help his team to take first in the tournament.
As for the next Olympics, Smith is still deciding what to do and has yet to provide a definitive answer. The loss to Argentina left a bitter taste in the U.S. team’s mouths, and he is more hungry than ever for a gold Olympic medal. Instead, he is looking forward to the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship in Russia to redeem himself from the 2020 Olympics.
With the Olympics over, Smith is spending the remainder of the summer in Orange County. Still, he feels like part of him has remained in the arena in Tokyo. Despite the sour emotions from losing, he knows there is much to learn and grow from the experience. With that, Smith will ponder on potential vengeance for the next Olympic Games, seeking gold.
“It took a lot of processing in my mind to kind of come to grips with it, but I think I’m still a little bit there. It hasn’t fully settled in yet. And that’s fine, it doesn’t really have a time limit that I have to process it, but I’m still working through it,” Smith said.
Avi Gokool is a 2021-2022 Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com