By Shawn McFarland
It seems like whenever Charlie Sullivan steps onto a volleyball court, winning follows along. Whether it’s capturing nine national championships at the helm of Springfield College men’s volleyball, or leading the US National team to a silver medal at the 2014 Pan-American Games, Sullivan’s innate ability to rack up hardware is unparalleled 0.
But even after 19 years coaching on Alden Street, 336 career victories and a litany of honors and recognition, Sullivan managed to ascend to his highest level yet this past summer at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A scout coach with the US National team, Sullivan took the near-5,000 mile trek from Massachusetts to Brazil in search of another international victory to add to his resume.
Sullivan referred to himself as a “consultant coach.” He would be at practices and talk with the full-time coaches about what he saw on the American team, and the opponents.
“I would do extra scouting,” Sullivan said. “So if we were playing Poland, and if there was one thing in particular that coach wanted to see, I would take that on and review that a little more thoroughly.”
Sullivan learned he would be in Rio back in February of 2016, but kept it a secret until after Springfield’s season ended so that he wouldn’t be a distraction. His offseason was short – he began scouting other teams and checking in with the US Team periodically once Springfield’s was over.
Sullivan brought a different perspective to the team. The 12-man roster was built entirely of Division I athletes, while the majority of the coaching staff comes from Division I as well. While those players may have brought a heightened physical ability compared to Division III players, Sullivan brought the added experience of fine-tuning skills and technique.
“I bring a little more skill analysis to the team,” Sullivan said. “So if one of the athletes is struggling a little bit, I’ve gone down that road of breaking an athlete down, and what error needs to be corrected the most. I do that more than [the other coaches] do on a regular basis.”
Once the wheels touched down in Brazil, the focus was on one thing: a gold medal. The team stayed in the Olympic Village with the rest of the athletes for just a few nights before moving into a hotel — the village was over two hours away from the arena which the volleyball games were played.
“We moved to a hotel like, five minutes from the venue,” Sullivan said. “That was different because we were totally isolated from the rest of the Olympic athletes.”
His daily schedule was rather simple. On game days, the team would practice together, and then play later that day. But after starting the tournament 0-2 after dropping contests to Canada and Italy, the US quickly went from being gold medal hopefuls to just fighting for survival.
“That was really hard. That was a terrible feeling,” Sullivan said of the deficit. “I just wanted to contribute and help those guys out to fulfil their goals any way I could. W, we just weren’t winning.”
But often in sports, just one game can shift a team’s momentum. The squad’s third game of the tournament came against the Brazilian national team – one of the top- ranked teams in the tournament – on their home court. Despite playing the role of underdogs, the Americans looked nothing like it, as they “went into their backyard and punched them in the nose,” after a 3-1 win in front of over 8,700 screaming fans.
Including the win over Brazil, the US National team rallied for four straight wins before falling to eventual silver medalist Italy in the semi-finals.
“We just took Brazil’s strengths away, and that allowed us to be more aggressive,” Sullivan said. “People that have been around the game for a while, they were saying it’s the best game they’ve seen in 30 years. It was just cool to be a part of. It felt like the Olympics finally started.”
The US dropped the semi-final contest to Italy 3-2, eliminating them from gold- medal contention. But a bronze medal was still at stake just two days later against Russia.
“Our coach John Speraw had a great quote: ‘It takes a lot of things to win a gold medal; it takes one thing to win a bronze medal, and that’s courage,’” Sullivan explained. “To feel like you fell off the face of the Earth and have to get back up was really hard to do.”
It was a combination of courage, skill and perseverance for the US National team against Russia. After falling behind two sets to none and facing elimination, the Americans rallied for three straight set wins to take home a bronze gold medal.
“To go [to Rio] after being in such a strong spot to win a gold medal to having no medal would have been really deflating,” Sullivan said. “But to come away with a bronze medal, especially after being down 0-2, to come down and win it 3-2 was pretty cool like that. The guys deserved it for all the hard work they put in. To walk away with nothing…I don’t think it would have been right.”
Despite being at the Olympics, Sullivan barely had time to watch anything else other than men’s volleyball. Aside from one beach volleyball match, improving his team took up most of his time.
“You’re just working the whole time;, I didn’t see any of the Olympics,” Sullivan said. Ironically, it was the first time in years that he didn’t get to watch any of the events. “Once in awhile I looked up and saw a TV.”
But despite being separated fromby most of the other athletes, the men’s volleyball team was able to train with the track and field athletes prior to the Olympics actually startinged, and as Sullivan explained, it was cool to watch them train and perform later in Rio. In the opening ceremonies, the men’s volleyball squad walked next to the US men’s basketball team. Some of the men’s volleyball players ran into Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, while Sullivan himself spotted Usain Bolt in the airport before he quickly made his way to the plane.
“By the time I got my camera out, he was gone,” Sullivan said. “So he was even fast in the airport, too.”
Sullivan learned a lot in his time in Rio. He discovered the passion Brazilian fans shared for volleyball – it’s the second most popular sport in the country – and that they were prone to break out into a raucous dance at a moment’s notice. He discovered that the Zika virus, which scared off several prominent athletes, didn’t present much of a problem, citing that he only saw three mosquitoes in his time there.
But back in Springfield as classes resume and students return to campus, Sullivan has his eyes set on national championship No. 10, and he plans to bring some of what he learned in Rio to the Pride’s team.
“There were 38 indoor men’s volleyball matches [in Rio], and I saw 37 of them,” Sullivan said. “I have a 17-page document of notes that we can implement here. The first practice this fall will be nothing like anyone has ever experienced.”