Men’s volleyball coach John Speraw and former All-American water polo players Rick Merlo and Jeff Powers returned to the UC Irvine campus this week after medal-winning trips to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Speraw served as an assistant coach on a U.S. squad that overcame adversity – as well as defending champion Brazil in the final match – to claim its first men’s indoor volleyball gold medal in 20 years.
“Being able to walk in the opening ceremony was probably the greatest moment of my athletic career,” he said. “And then it was surpassed when we won the gold medal.”
Despite the Olympic atmosphere and its possibilities for distraction, Speraw explained, his veteran-led team demonstrated an ability to focus on its event.
“You recognize that this is a volleyball tournament and things can happen,” he said. “And then you also recognize that this is only once every four years, so it’s a special opportunity.”
Speraw plans to apply some of the training and athlete development tactics he’s learned with USA Volleyball to the UCI program.
“Hopefully we’ll see some Anteaters on future Olympic teams,” he said.
Merlo and Powers, along with fellow UCI alumni Ryan Bailey and Tim Hutten, helped the United States earn the silver medal in men’s water polo. It was the first time the United States had reached the medal podium since it won silver at the 1988 games in Seoul.
“It’s everything you’d expect and then some,” Merlo said of his first Olympic experience. “It’s what you dream of it being as a kid.”
Team USA may have lost the gold medal match to Hungary, but its statement at the games was loud and clear.
“Going into the Olympics, no one thought we were going to do anything,” Powers said. “We came out there and showed the world that the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with in water polo.”
He also was glad to be able to share the experience with the three other UCI alumni on the team.
“We have our own little family here at UCI and we’re pretty good friends,” said Powers, who shared a room with Bailey during the games. “I think the UCI boys had a good showing at the Olympics – we all played pretty well.”
Though it’s been a few days since Merlo received his silver medal, the feeling of accomplishment is still sinking in.
“It’s awesome to have this around my neck,” he said, holding his medal. “It’s a dream come true…every second I spent in the pool was worth it.”
With this year’s additions, UCI athletes have earned 24 Olympic medals: six gold, 17 silver and one bronze.
For Powers, who also competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the Beijing experience is particularly special.
“This one’s a little sweeter,” he said, “because we got to bring home something.”