Team USA’s men’s volleyball roster for the Rio 2016 Olympics featured eight first-time Olympians, four of whom are younger than the youngest player from the 2012 squad. One of these four was Micah Christenson, who graduated from USC last year.
Months before Team USA played in the 2012 Olympics in London, Christenson made his USC debut. As a freshman, he was named 2012 AVCA and Volleyball Magazine National Newcomer of the Year and 2012 MPSF Freshman of the Year. He made All-MPSF second team and was the only freshman named to the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine All-American second teams.
“Micah was a leader from the moment he walked on campus, and [he] set our team to the Final Four and a National Championship appearance,” former head coach Bill Ferguson said. “He had an immediate positive impact on our teams at USC. He was ultra focused from before day one. He has a matureness beyond his years; [he is] very attentive to fine technical detail and has the ability to retain tons of information from film study.”
Years before attending USC, the Hawaii native exhibited his innate ability to set a volleyball like no American before him. At age 16, Christenson became the youngest setter ever to play for the United States in a world championship when he represented the Boys’ Youth Team in 2009.
The bright setter ultimately came to USC to pursue the goal of making an Olympic team. After deep playoff runs in 2011 and 2012, the Trojans were considered a perennial powerhouse, believed to be capable of reaching the championship every year. But Tony Ciarelli, Christenson’s former teammate at USC and Team USA, noted that was not the case.
“I’m sure he thought we would be in the Final Four and in the NCAA Championship multiple times after that year,” Ciarelli said. “We all thought that, but that’s not how it works all the time.”
Christenson’s final three years at the Galen Center were turbulent times for the program. While he developed into the nation’s best setter, the team never managed another run to the Final Four. It had a losing record in 2013 and Ferguson was let go after the 2015 season.
Still, Christenson, a three-year co-captain, three-time AVCA All-American and two-time winner of the Off the Block Lloy Ball Award — presented to the nation’s top collegiate setter — always cared about the team first and foremost.
“The fact that he was about the team’s result meant everything when it came to the chemistry of the team on a day-to-day basis,” said USC teammate Chris Lischke, who graduated in 2015.
Lischke and Christenson talked a lot about playing for the national team and — one day — the Olympics, and Christenson’s opportunity came earlier than expected. In 2013, he made his debut with the national team at the NORCECA Continental Championship. In his debut, Christenson was named a Tournament All-Star, Best Server and Best Setter.
The 6-foot-6 setter is built to serve, set and block, but his leadership on and off the court makes him one of the best setters in the world. Humility, competitiveness, attention to detail, work ethic and volleyball savvy are just some of the traits that have enabled Christenson to ascend beyond collegiate prowess to becoming one of the premier setters in the world.
“He is one of the only players that I was able to coach differently,” current USC men’s volleyball head coach Jeff Nygaard said. “I never really told him that you have to do it this way or that way. With him, I simply told him that the best in the world that I’ve ever seen were able to do this or that, then I left him alone to work on it. Some of the more complex things took a while to materialize for him, but he always assimilated the upper level abilities.”
Christenson never won a national championship at USC, but Ferguson sees a silver lining amid the disappointment. He believes it is because of the adversity Christenson faced on the court at USC that he has quickly become an astute leader despite his youth.
“We struggled as a team his sophomore year, and he was very frustrated,” Ferguson said. “Micah took it to heart and worked and learned a great deal about leadership and people. He used that adversity to grow as a leader and led our teams well his final two years.”
In spite of the team’s struggles, Christenson developed the tools to lead on the biggest stages. Months after graduating, the 22-year-old was named Best Setter at the FIVB World Cup, where the United States won gold.
Heading into Rio, all eyes were on Christenson and Team USA. Though these games were the last for some veteran players, they were the first for the next generation of U.S. stars headlined by Christenson.
Following a dismal start to the Olympics in which Team USA lost back-to-back matches to Canada and Italy in pool play, the United States rebounded with a four-set win over Brazil, propelling Team USA to a four match-win streak that culminated in a semifinals rematch with Italy.
Italy beat Team USA in a heartbreaking five-set comeback that ended gold medal dreams at Rio for U.S. teammates young and old. On Sunday morning, the deflated United States seemed unprepared for Russia in the bronze medal match, losing the first two games. Then, the young team — sparked by Christenson, its indomitable setter — stormed back to win three straight sets to earn an Olympic bronze.
For USA, the bronze is not ideal, but it is a step forward in the right direction — a return to Team USA’s winning heritage.
Nygaard speculates this year’s games is a stepping stone for Christenson on his path to becoming one of the best setters of all time. Lischke thinks Christenson will remember the games as “bittersweet.”
“This USA team has had quite a bit of success in this quad to show that they had a chance to go for a gold medal in this Olympics,” Lischke said. “It was a tough loss to Italy after having battled so far back in this Olympics after losing the first two games that it crushes you to come up short. But Micah also is aware that he has been blessed to compete for an Olympic medal at all, regardless of the color on it.”
Ciarelli believes Christenson will cherish these games as a result of what he learned at USC. Because he only got to the Final Four once despite all notions, preconceptions and projections, he told Ciarelli just before the games that he would treat Rio like it will be his only Olympics.
One Final Four or two, one Olympics or three, bronze or gold, Christenson’s legacy will only partially be written by his performance as a setter. At 23, he has already left and continues to leave his mark as a consummate competitor, teammate, friend and Trojan.
“During my time at USC, our standard was to be above reproach: Academically, athletically and socially,” Ferguson said. “Micah probably embodies that more than any other student athlete I coached at USC. He’s the guy you want with you when the going gets tough … He’s the guy you want on your team. He’s the guy you want your son to grow up and emulate.”