Taylor Sander: How I have become an ambassador for American volleyball around the world

Rio 2016 bronze medallist Taylor Sander talks with Olympic Channel about his monster vertical jump, playing pro ball in six different countries and making a "strong push" for gold at Tokyo 2020

Taylor Sander is a born leader.

A global volleyball celebrity with a superhuman vertical jump and scorching spikes, the 'Sandman' brought all that boom to Rio 2016 and helped bring USA men's volleyball back to an Olympic podium.

Now he's become one of Team USA's most well-travelled and experienced players, is feeling good after that shoulder injury and surgery and he wants gold at Tokyo 2020.

With one of the most stamped passports in the game, the match-winning outside hitter has played in the U.S., Italy, China, Qatar, Brazil, and now is loving his time at PGE Skra Bełchatów in Poland.

"They have a very unique style of volleyball," he tells Olympic Channel, "obviously they're one of the best teams in the world with great players... and the fan base is so passionate... it's like playing in the NBA."

All that, and he's still only 28, turning 29 in March before the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, "I think right now I'm in my the prime prime age of being a professional volleyball player, I'm feeling good, feeling strong," he says.

Sander knows that the USA men's volleyball team were once the dominant Olympic force winning back-to-back golds at LA 1984 and Seoul 1988, and again at Beijing 2008.

Sander wants to use all his international experience to help get the team back there again, ready to "help the team in many different ways, whether it's being an emotional leader or, you know, having a lot of passion and trying to have positive energy. Those are the things I try and bring to the team."

Ambassador

Right now he's loving life abroad, "it's a big blessing," says Sander, "not too many people have the opportunity to go and learn new cultures, live with other people and really embrace the people they are and make friends with them.

"I have a lot of good friends that I've played with in Italy, Brazil and China, it's a blessing to be able to try and inspire other people and show them a little bit of what American culture is like, what we are like as people and also being open to receiving their lifestyle.

"It's really cool experience."

Right now in the city of Bełchatów in central Poland, about 160km from the capital Warsaw, Sander is taking it all in:

"Obviously they're one of the best teams in the world and they have a lot of really good players here that I didn't even know because they don't play on the national team, so it's a really strong league.

"Poland, as a fan base, is really passionate about volleyball, it's very popular here so it's like playing like in the NBA, they really respect volleyball, they play in very nice gyms and it's fun to be here and experience it."

Sander has a family connection in Poland too, his brother Brendan is also an outside hitter playing with Cerrad Enea Czarni Radom in Radom city.

"My brother is also playing here in the city like two hours away," says older brother Taylor.

"So that's a big a big thing for me to be close to him so we could support each other. And he's on his second year here now, so he told me, you know, life is good here and that he likes playing in this league."

"We really don't know when Taylor Sander will be back on the court, but he's closer than farther. And when he comes back..."

Reads the Tweet from Sander's current club in Poland below.

Pick one!

So if he had to choose one from all the places he's lived?

"I think I would pick Brazil because it was summer all year, it was hot every day and the people there are amazing. They're so nice, they were great for me and my family and they really helped us.

"That's why (Brazil are) defending gold medalists at the Olympic Games"

"Brazil was really special and I really enjoyed it there. Yeah, just the work ethic, those players really are grateful to be professional volleyball players, they come to work every day and they work hard, it was important to see that and to embrace that.

"And that's why they're defending gold medalists at the Olympic Games, because they have that mentality. And so it was really nice to see and something I really learned from."

Taylor Sander: The biggest jump in volleyball?

Sander is a great ambassador for the game, and for the U.S., but he's also pushed the boundaries of the game physically and technically.

When you talk about Sander's volleyball game, most watchers go straight for that monster vertical jump.

Officially his spike measures in at 345cm (136in) and his block 320 cm (130 in), but they say he goes higher.

With that climb he reaches heights that open up angles to him that simply aren't there for other outside hitters, and he's the king of the 330° smash, finding all sorts of angles to blast past walls of blockers.

If passion is an important word in his armory, then so is precision, shot choice, and an instinctive reading of the play.

So where does that jump come from?

"Everybody always tells me how high I jump," he laughs. "And to me, it's just like normal. You know, I don't feel like I'm jumping too high or anything like that. So whatever people want to call me, it's OK. I really I don't measure it so much.

"I know my highest was like forty five inches (115cm off the ground), but, yeah, it's mostly natural, thanks to my parents for giving me good genes.

"I also grew up playing beach volleyball many times a week so, you know, playing in the sand and jumping so much, you get a lot of strength in your legs and it helps being able to control your movements and your jumping.

"So I think that's one of the big things that helped me when I was young for sure... the more experience you get, the more you know how to take care of your body, every year you learn something new, how to improve, how to feel better.

"The last couple of years, besides my shoulder, I've started to really notice a change in my body, and it just comes from a lot of hard work off the court as well as, you know, a lot of weight lifting, a lot of physical therapy and rehab exercises, things like that, you learn more as you go on."

Taylor Sander Injury -"My shoulder's good"

In early September while he was getting ready for the FIVB International Olympic Qualifier, Sander suffered a serious right shoulder injury, and despite rehabilitation efforts he decided the best option was surgery.

That meant he'd miss the entire season and his contract with pro Russian team Dinamo Moscow did not come into force. The USA volleyball team qualified for Tokyo 2020 in his absence.

Then, right when he was about to return, boom... COVID-19.

"I had shoulder surgery last September," Sander explains, "and so I was in the middle of rehab when corona hit and I was just coming back to playing volleyball, so when I was coming back, everything closed down."

The situation in Poland, as it is across Europe and much of the world is difficult, and he says the virus has struck his club side hard.

"Half of our team is in quarantine right now with coronavirus." - Taylor Sander

Taylor Sander's comeback

"Luckily, I had built a gym in my garage to work out and and be able to stay in shape. But it was crazy. I mean, it was it was nice because you were able to spend a lot of time with your family and be home and and enjoy different aspects of life.

"It's been a unique experience, I think you could go about it two ways, you could be negative about it or you could find, you know, some light and move about each day with some kind of purpose. And so I've tried to do that the best I could."

And what about the injury, is he fully recovered?

"My shoulder's good. Yeah, it's it's been a crazy process, but I'm feeling good now and happy to start hopefully playing again if if everything's OK.

"I played a couple of matches and then I had a little bit of a flare up. I needed to start for a little bit. And so now I'm close to making my return."

"A strong push" for Tokyo gold

With the USA Sander has won the FIVB World Cup and World League, bronze at a World Championships, and his decorated club career includes the CEV Champions League, national and continental titles across the world.

With all that precious metal in the bank what does the Olympics mean to him?

"It means a lot... It's the pinnacle of our sport and it's going to be the hardest tournament to win. There's too many good teams in the world right now. And so for me, I'm excited for the challenge in Tokyo next year.

"You know, I just I really just try and be myself, I try and work hard every day to try and bring good energy, even if I'm not feeling my best try and lead by example and kind of have that contagious energy to help my teammates.

"I'm a very relaxed guy and very laid back... I try and play calm and collective and be able to not think too much."

"Hopefully we can make a strong push for the gold medal." - Taylor Sander

When you ask him who his inspirations are, Sander looks to his USA teammates.

"Some of the guys on my USA team really inspired me, like Matt Anderson, Micah Christenson, just to name a few. Those guys bring it every day. They work extremely hard. They push me. Those are just a few, everybody on the national team pushes me."

But even though time with his USA teammates has been limited, Sander is keeping his eyes on the prize.

"I got to practice with some a little bit last summer, it was very limited, we couldn't get the whole team together because of Covid rules in California.

"We're just excited to hopefully get back to each other next summer and gel well and hopefully we can play in VML before the Olympic Games. I know everybody on our team is very professional and they're all playing for really good clubs.

"So I know that they're all going to be fine with volleyball and they're still going to be great volleyball players, so when we come together, it's just going to be a fun reunion and hopefully we can make a strong push for the gold medal."