Micah Christenson attempts to block a shot against Iran at the FIVB World League at Carioca Arena on June 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Five years ago, Micah Christenson was featured in Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Faces in the Crowd” as a dual-sport athlete from Honolulu who led Kamehameha-Kapalama High School to both volleyball and basketball state titles in his senior year.
He was raised by his father, Robert, and mother, Charlene, who played basketball and won three volleyball national championships, respectively, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
So by the time Christenson graduated high school, he had more knowledge and experience when it came to leading teams than many athletes do by the end of their careers.
Playing with poise and resolve, the 23-year-old setter will now be a vital part of the U.S. men’s volleyball team competing at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, where he’ll make his Olympic debut. Christenson was one of 12 men named to the team last month following a four-year selection process. The team is made up of two Olympic gold medalists, four returning Olympians and eight newcomers.
“To realistically say I thought this was going to happen at such an early age or just happen in general, I didn’t think it would,” Christenson said. “Being here on the Olympic stage, it’s pretty surreal.”
Christenson is by no means a standout star, though, and the squad does not have a poster face.
Rather, the squad is a conglomeration of parts — an ultimate team — that will look to jump back to the Olympic podium after finishing fifth at the London 2012 Games.
The U.S. men are No. 5 in the FIVB world rankings and will compete in Rio in Olympic Pool A, which also includes world No. 1 Brazil, No. 4 Italy, No. 10 France, No. 10. Canada and No. 24 Mexico.
Having qualified for the Games by winning the 2015 FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Cup, Team USA has had ample time for its players to mesh into cogs that make the wheels go round.
“The buy-in from everybody is contributing to an ultimate team idea,” Christenson said. “It’s really easy to get results-oriented or be angry at other players or yourself or at how the team is doing in the moment. But I think we’re very good at seeing the process and the big picture of where we’re trying to go, and we’ve all bought into the same journey.”
Christenson is the youngest setter to have ever competed for the U.S. national team, having started at the senior level at age 20, and he now plays professionally in Italy. He said he’s among the new batch of players who have “made waves in their first, second or third year on the national team,” to help prevent a void from developing between the squad’s veterans and newcomers.
Leading the way on the veteran side are outside hitter Reid Priddy and middle blocker David Lee, who were both members of the Beijing 2008 Olympic gold-medal-winning team. This will be Priddy’s fourth Olympic Games, tying him with Lloy Ball for most Olympic appearances by a U.S. men’s volleyball player.
Middle blocker David Smith, readying for his second Olympic Games, has been helpful in building that bridge between the younger and older players to keep the team unified.
“It’s kind of strange to think of myself as one of the older guys. I think everybody on our team splits the leadership role,” Smith said. “This team has been in the making for several years now. Everybody feels like they have a voice and can speak up if they see something — from every player to everyone on the coaching staff.”
Smith was born nearly deaf and relies on his teammates to annunciate their words so he can read their lips and calls on the court. He knows as much as anyone how important team collaboration and communication is.
“We’re united and focused on what we want to do,” Smith said, with just a month to go before the team heads to Rio.
“You should always have an appreciation for the guy on your right and the guy on your left, because you’re in it together for the long run. If you dread hanging out together, it’s going to make for a long summer.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.