Aaron Russell celebrating a point in the men's semifinal match against Italy at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug.19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Aaron Russell has had a lot of standout moments in the past few years, from winning a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with the U.S. men’s volleyball team to getting married.
Another highlight, however, was winning the FIVB Volleyball World Cup in 2015.
Four years later, that remains the last time major championship for the U.S. men, and Russell and his teammates hope to repeat when the 2019 edition begins Oct. 1 in Japan.
“We definitely want to win,” said Russell, 26, an outside hitter. “We want to repeat. It’s also kind of the last big competition before the Olympics so I think it’s going to be good preparation for us and a good test for us to stretch our limits.”
It’s already been a big summer for Russell and the U.S. men. The huge check off the top of the to-do list came in August when they officially qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a sweep of their pool at a qualifying tournament in the Netherlands. Russell led the team in scoring for the first two of three games there, helping the team earn its 10th consecutive trip to the Olympic Games.
And despite not joining the team until the final matches of the FIVB Men’s Volleyball Nations League and battling through a knee injury, he still helped the U.S. team win the silver medal in Chicago back in July.
The chance to play on home soil doesn’t happen often, especially with Russell living overseas nine months out of the year and playing professionally with Italian club Diatec Trentino. To get to host the Volleyball Nations League final round in Chicago was especially satisfying, Russell said.
“Maybe it took some getting used to, because we’re all so used to playing out of the country and having fans yelling at us,” he said. “To be in the final and having people yelling supporting us, it’s kind of a different feeling but it was definitely a lot of fun to play in front of Americans.”
It also provided the opportunity to expose younger fans to the game and perhaps inspire them to start playing as well.
“I know we influenced a lot of kids, especially people learning to play or maybe wanting to play when they get older,” he said. “It’s always cool to play in front of them and talk to them after and try to grow the sport a little.”
Growing up in Ellicott City, Maryland, Russell didn’t have the chance to play on a team with his high school. Boys’ volleyball wasn’t offered, and Russell had to hone his chops playing with a club team and starring in soccer with his school team.
He came to volleyball relatively late, Russell said, despite the fact that his father, Stewart, played indoor volleyball at Penn State and later beach volleyball. When Aaron was 13 years old, his older brother’s team needed players to fill out their roster for a tournament, so Aaron got the call. He said he didn’t really start, however, until he was 16 years old. That was also with his brother’s team, and playing with older kids helped him improve enough that top colleges began recruiting him. Russell ended up picking Penn State, just like his dad.
Russell said whenever parents or kids ask him about learning volleyball when they live somewhere like he did where there aren’t as many options, he encourages them to just watch as much as they can.
“When I started getting involved in volleyball I watched a lot of international play online and I think that really helped me a lot because I could see different movements they were making and what the did in certain situations,” he said. “I’d go to practice twice a week and have some new attacks, new shots to try, and that always kept me engaged and wanting to improve.”
Russell went on to a stellar career at Penn State, where he finished ranked fourth on the school’s all-time kills list and second all-time in aces, served as captain and helped the team reach the 2013, 2014 and 2015 NCAA DI-II national championship tournaments.
From there he not only helped the U.S. win bronze at the 2016 Games and the 2018 world championships but was also named MVP of the 2018 FIVB Club World Championship and best spiker at the 2017 NORCECA Continental Championship.
Now the U.S. will look to him to play another key role at the quadrennial World Cup. Four years ago, he said, the Americans were fortunate with their result. Despite going undefeated until the last three games, they lost to Poland and were afraid they might not even make it onto the podium. Thanks to two more wins, a loss from Poland and tiebreakers that went in their favor, however, they won gold for the first time in 30 years.
“You can play really well but because of one match not medal,” he said. “We got a little lucky last time.”