Elite sportsmen have more than what meets the eye. They are obviously very good in their chosen sport, but success at the highest level isn’t a direct consequence of how skilful a sportsman is. In fact, competitions are often won and lost by what happens between an athlete’s ears. What is, however, common of almost all successful elite sportsmen is their work ethic. The willingness to push themselves hard in training, adopt and stick to a healthy diet, their insatiable hunger to succeed, and the natural enthusiasm for their sport.
David Lee, an Olympic gold medallist with the US national volleyball team and who plays as a middle blocker for Kochi Blue Spikers in the Pro Volleyball League, is the embodiment of a successful elite sportsman. Seeing him work out in the gymnasium, you can tell that he thoroughly enjoys his profession. He is enthusiastic about being in top physical condition, which will aid his performance on a match day. He is also an extrovert, and re-energises himself by sharing a joke with his fellow pros when the training gets hard.
David shares his journey as a volleyball player.
The gold medal you won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the bronze at Rio eight years later tell us your stature. But where and how did everything begin?
It started in Alpine, California, a small town in San Diego, where I was born. My first exposure to volleyball was when I was 14, and we played outdoors on a black top. It was 10 kids versus 10 kids, no rules whatsoever; just a net and a ball. And from there, I attended Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, and played for their freshman team. That was my first time playing in a league. After that, I was recruited at 16 to play for Seaside Volleyball Club, also in San Diego, and that was more of an elite team. They took the best players from our city (San Diego), which has about three million people, and created a team that would go and represent us on the national stage.
David Lee (first from right) leads the singing of the of the U. S. national anthem after the team had clinched the volleyball gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pro offers began to pour in for Lee after this triumph. - GETTY IMAGES
So, from 16 to 18, I played club volleyball for Seaside and then I was recognised by Long Beach State, the university I attended, and was given a scholarship to play the game. I spent four years at Long Beach State and we came second in the national (league) in 2004. It was the Olympic year in Athens and I honestly wasn’t a good enough player at that time to play for the national team.
There was a summer league in Puerto Rico, where I took my first professional contract in 2004 and that was the beginning of my career. In 2005, I made my debut for the national team. It took about two years for me to earn a starting position and then luckily enough I won (an Olympic) gold medal at the age of 26. And from there, my career took flight. I could do anything at that point; I had many options (to play) for professional clubs in Europe and Asia, and so, from there I started to play at a higher level with the national team and also with professional clubs.
What inspired you to take up volleyball?
I enjoyed the sport from a very young age. My parents put me in every sport; I played American football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball. In the time when I was between 12 and 17, I thought I’d be a basketball player. But, because of my frame when I was 16 or 17, I was kind of skinny, I decided that volleyball was a better fit for my athletic body type. I could see myself becoming a really great volleyball player, whereas I wasn’t going to be a centre in basketball.
When you started, was an Olympic gold even part of your thinking?
No, it came much later. (The thought of) Olympic gold came when I was probably in my senior year in college; I thought there was a chance for me to become a good international player. In my junior year in college, I played in the University Games in (South) Korea, which was in 2003, and we won the bronze medal. And from there, I really had the passion to play for the US, because representing your country in these multi-sport events and doing well is something that inspired me to play in the Olympics.
Coming to the Pro Volleyball League, how did everything come together? How were you contacted?
I have a lot of contacts with European agents. I think Baseline (Ventures) reached out to some of these managers to look for players. I was free at that time and an agent from Finland approached me with Baseline’s interest in finding a player who could represent (a team) in Pro Volleyball.
How has your experience been in India, mingling with players such as Ukkra (Mohan Ukkrapandian)?
Very good, very positive. My team is full of guys who want to learn from more experienced players like myself. It’s been a nice open atmosphere here and people aren’t egotistical as far as who they are. (For example), Ukkra has a very big name in the sport in India, but he was also very willing to learn and try to adapt to the styles that myself and Andrej Patuc brought to the team.
Other than that, the people in general and the fans in Kochi were incredible. They supported us the entire time, I really loved interacting with them and everyone here has been really welcoming. I had the opportunity to do a road show in Kochi. We went to different regions (like) Pala, (went to) the stadium of Jimmy George and I got to meet some of the current players in the university and everyone was awesome. They are really excited about volleyball and there’s a lot of good volleyball players here as well and my experience in that regard has been exceptional.
Our team has done a good job of having recreational days alongside good training days. So, we had a day at the waterfalls, a day at the beach, and a day at the waterpark. So, they are actually letting us see some of India and not just the gym. PVL, Baseline and the Indian Volleyball Federation have done a really good job in making the sport look awesome on television, (putting together) a product that’s really enjoyable for the fans and also for the players.
What are the basic differences between Indian volleyball and countries such as the US, Italy and Poland, which dominate the sport?
I think here you have some older systems that are still being utilised, whereas the rest of the world is adapting to a different style of play. In India, they are still using the system like China and Japan, based on a lot of combination offence, which most of the world has given up. They (the stronger teams) are using a more spread offence, trying to spread the blockers of the opposing team out, so that there’s only one blocker versus one attacker. Whereas here, you have a very old system with everyone coming into the middle of the court, which makes it easier, in my opinion, for the blockers to be effective.
Also, they (Indians) are lacking a systematic structure; they are lacking a block-and-defence structure, also an offensive system structure. Right now, a lot of these players have the god-given talent of jumping high and being very explosive. But they are missing some of the structures that some of these other countries have in place based on a longer history and a culture that has a style associated with that country.
When you say style, how different is it?
Russia, USA, Brazil, Italy — all these countries are in different continents, but they all have adopted the same type of volleyball. Some of them are better in specific skills than the others. Say, the French team is a really good defensive team. US and Russia are known for their blocking skills. But, to be honest, a lot of these teams have adopted the same style of play and that’s what’s making them successful.
A lot of teams are now risking everything on their serve. So, you can see a team like Calicut (Heroes) here being very successful, because they risk everything on the serve. It’s the same with the Italian team, the US team, Brazil, Russia — they have a very aggressive serve. The guys who aren’t jump-serving also have very effective floating and tactical serves. So, a lot of teams around the world have adopted this style of winning and losing, or living and dying, on the service line. Whichever is the best serving team that day will probably win. In India, you’re seeing guys still taking it very easy on the service line and trying to win (the point) with block and defence, and this is a hard thing to do.
So, is it similar to Roger Federer outserving his opponents?
Yes, it’s a bit like Roger Federer, whose style is based on serve and volley. You see some of these American tennis players, who are 6’2, and all they are doing is serving. They can’t volley to save their lives. (John) Isner is a good example.
Power serving in volleyball is akin to the serve and volley game in tennis, like the one practised by the legendary Roger Federer. - AP
As a senior member of the side, how much input do you give in training?
I give a lot of inputs, I think, sometimes too much. And there needs to be a separation between a player and coach, but now we are blurring these lines. But, in all honesty, I don’t mind taking up that role and I think it’s helping some of the guys.
You turned pro in 2004! How do you keep yourself going?
I do a really good job in maintaining my health. I am always active; I don’t let myself take more than two weeks off. Because, if I take more than two weeks off, it’s really difficult to get back in shape. I have a pretty healthy diet, I exercise all the time and I am very mindful of how my body feels. I have a very good awareness of my body, in (terms of) what needs to be stretched, what needs to be stronger to compete at this level.
But, in all honesty, I didn’t think I’d be playing this long. I think I probably have two more years left in me, but that’s a stretch. In 2016, in an interview after the Olympics, I told them ‘I’d have two more years with the national team,’ but I didn’t. I planned to end my career with the national team in 2018, but I stopped in 2016.
At this point, I am just seeing how long I can continue playing at a high level without doing any serious damage to my body.