After a national championship in high school in 2012 and two more at Loyola University Chicago in 2014 and 2015, the next logical step in Thomas Jaeschke’s volleyball career was to have the letters U, S and A emblazoned across his chest at the Olympics.
But the Wheaton, Illinois-native knew he had to leave the country in order to represent the United States at the 2016 Rio Games.
In the summer of 2015, the 6-foot-7-inch outside hitter sacrificed a potentially historic senior season at Loyola—no team has won three consecutive NCAA men’s volleyball titles since UCLA won four-in-a-row from 1981-84—because he believed playing against professionals in Europe would help him improve enough to crack the Olympic roster.
Instead, Jaeschke signed a contract with Asseco Resovia Rzeszów , a pro club in southeastern Poland. There, his teammates spoke just enough English to communicate with him on the court, but in the locker room, they joked around in Polish.
“You can’t just talk to people, like, if you’re trying to make a decision,” Jaeschke said. “Any decision, whether it’s what grocery store to go to or a bigger decision in life—there’s no one to talk to because they don’t speak the same language as you.”
His decision to go pro paid off in late June—the 22-year-old will be the youngest of the 12 players who made the cut to represent the United States in Rio.
“If I had to make the decision 10 times,” he said, “I would make the same one 10 times in a row.”
More common in sports like football, basketball and baseball, turning pro before graduating from college is almost unheard of in American volleyball. Unlike those other sports, the major volleyball leagues are overseas, so most players try to take advantage of their NCAA scholarships and get a degree before starting their careers.
As a result, the Men’s National Team roster is littered with players like Murphy Troy, who graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011 with a degree in physics, and Stanford alumnus Kawika Shoji , who studied political science.
Shoji, 28, said he appreciates the American system of college athletics as opposed to the European system where, like in soccer, volleyball players generally sign professional contracts in their teens. For example, the U.S. Men’s National Team faced players like 18-year-old Aleks Grozdanov , who plays professionally for Dobrudzha 07 in his home country of Bulgaria, in the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) World League competition from July 1-3 in Dallas.
Shoji said there’s a trade-off between the two systems. Younger Europeans get a few extra years of experience against elite opponents, he said, but the U.S. has an advantage because they are a little older, wiser and more mature as athletes and decision-makers on the court.
“We’re educated,” Shoji said. “We have smart guys in this program. We have smart coaches. And that’s something we try to use. We try to use it in scouting, video analysis, statistics and all of that.”
Jaeschke, however, had more to gain from a year playing against top-flight professional competition in the PlusLiga than spending another year competing in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, said Team USA head coach John Speraw.
“He gets to play against them, game plan against them, watch them, learn the environment, learn about what it’s like to live overseas, which is where we spend most of our time when we’re playing,” Speraw said. “And he gets to play the best volleyball.”
Jaeschke had just won two consecutive national titles and the 2015 American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year award, but he was about to join Asseco Resovia , a team that hadn’t finished lower than third in Poland’s PlusLiga since the 2008-09 season.
It was also the league’s defending champion.
Winning the league helped earn Asseco Resovia a spot in the European Volleyball Confederation (CEV) Champions League, which meant that Jaeschke would be lining up across the net from Europe’s best club teams.
Asseco Resovia hosted the Champions League Final Four in Kraków, the second-largest city in Poland, in April. With Tauron Arena Kraków filled near its 15,000 capacity, Jaeschke recorded 20 points, 15 kills, four aces and one block in the semifinal and third-place game.
Speraw said the experience was exactly what Jaeschke needed.
“Here he is in this enormous volleyball environment, sold-out crowd, the best volleyball being played in the world—and he’d earned a starting place on that team,” Speraw said. “I was watching it thinking about how great this is for us because it was much better preparation than what you can get at the NCAA level. And boy, you can see it now in the way he’s playing.”
Given Speraw’s glowing review of the performance, perhaps it’s fitting that Jaeschke’s last trip to Kraków was with the U.S. Men’s National Team for the FIVB World League from July 14-17.
Jaeschke said it wasn’t easy to leave the Chicagoland region. He was born and raised in Wheaton, where he led Wheaton Warrensville South to a national title in 2012. He stayed close to home when he committed to Loyola, and he won the first of the back-to-back championships at Loyola’s Gentile Arena.
“That was, I think, the hardest part – leaving my friends,” he said. “I knew I was going to play pro. I knew it was a matter of time, but it went from being 15 months away to two months away pretty quick.”
Without Jaeschke, Loyola finished tied for second in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association with a 12-4 record (20-8 overall) this season, behind 2016 NCAA Division I/II national champion Ohio State (31-3, 15-1 MIVA).
MIVA teams have won the national championship three years in a row, four of the last six dating back to Ohio State’s 2011 championship. Before that, MIVA teams had never officially won a national title (Lewis University vacated its 2003 championship after NCAA violations).
Jaeschke said the rise of the MIVA has been a chain reaction – one team started winning, so everyone else had to keep pace. He likened it to his improvement when he joined national team in 2015 and again when he turned pro.
“It definitely raises your game,” he said. “I mean, when I came in this gym, like, my first practice, I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ I feel like a different player just because everything’s so fast. It takes you a second, but you adjust. So the talent level goes up—it went up with one team and then another and another—you can just see it rising.”
Jaeschke said his decision to go pro is vindicated every time he looks across the net during the Men’s National Team practices.
“I got away with a lot of stuff because I was bigger than most guys in college, and I jumped higher than most guys in college—and I’m not bigger than most guys here,” he said. “I’m actually smaller than most guys here, and I don’t jump higher than most guys here. So I have to do the little things right, and it takes a lot of refinement and a lot of practice.”
The biggest part of that refinement, Jaeschke said, is learning how to focus on fixing mistakes even when everything else is going right.
“I definitely wasn’t used to it,” he said. “In high school, we won a lot you know. In club, we won. In college, we won. So it’s just kind of hard when things are going well to be critical, and obviously, it’s not enjoyable to hear criticisms of yourself. So it took me a little bit, for sure, to see the good in it.”
In Poland, he also had to adjust to larger crowds. Jaeschke’s junior season at Loyola, the Ramblers averaged just 888 fans per home game. Asseco Resovia regularly sells out the 4,300-capacity Podpromie Hall in Rzeszów.
Even when Loyola did play in front of thousands, like the 2,419 fans on-hand for the 2015 National Championship victory over Lewis, Jaeschke could lean on his family, friends and teammates for support.
After a season abroad, however, just hearing English thrown around at baggage claim in O’Hare airport was weird.
“I was almost confused because I hadn’t heard that,” he said. “You know, you hear Polish around you all the time. So yeah, I think being able to speak with everyone around you is the biggest thing I took for granted.”
Still, Jaeschke’s name is on the Olympic roster. The gamble to leave early paid off in a decision he said he’d make again and again.
“It’s a high level,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to wear these jerseys and have USA on your chest, so you kinda have to take a step back and realize what it’s all worth.”
Colin Grylls and Robby General are Ball State University students and writers for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students travelling from Muncie, Ind. To Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.