Unfinished Business: Micah Christenson talks growth and Paris 2024 motivation
At the Tokyo Games, the U.S. men’s volleyball team made a disappointing exit after failing to advance out of pool play for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games.
That loss has been a motivating factor for veteran setter Micah Christenson as he looks to help Team USA earn their ticket to Paris at the Olympic Qualification tournament taking place in Tokyo, Japan this Saturday, September 30 through next Sunday, October 8.
The two-time Olympian opens up about his experience in Tokyo, reflects on what he’s learned, why he’s a more confident player, and how being a father to three kids has changed his perspective on life below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe your experience in Tokyo?
It was a weird one. We didn’t really have a lot of the normal experience—the fans, the chaos, the traffic—because of the pandemic and restrictions. Even though we were Olympic veterans, it was a very different experience that we were all new to... but it’s one that we could forever tell our grandkids about.
You guys did your best but obviously didn’t finish the way you wanted to. What went wrong?
Christenson: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. The first game we came out and hammered France, the eventual Tokyo Olympic champions. We beat them 3-0 and handled them pretty easily. We were playing amazing volleyball. We had a bunch of other really great matches. We lost to the ROC and Brazil in big battles, defeated Tunisia, and then we had to win our last match against Argentina. I could feel that weighing on a lot of us...
[In the end] we just didn’t play good enough volleyball. I think we were prepared and we had our opportunity, but we didn’t [advance]. Sometimes that happens. You can do everything right and then your performance doesn’t match up with what you wanted.
It is what it is. We had our worst finish in my Olympic my career but all of that is something that we can use to build upon for [Paris 2024]. There are so many lessons and experiences that we’ve gained from that.
After Tokyo, you talked about the cost of being publicly vulnerable on Instagram. Can you explain what you were thinking during that time?
Christenson: It’s easy from the outside looking in to say that [our performance in Tokyo] was such a failure. We were disappointed in the way that we finished, but like I was saying earlier, one game in the Olympics can make or break you. In this day and age, it feels like there’s a desire to put athletes down when they make mistakes or when they have a bad couple of games. I felt like it was something that I could give perspective on.
We sign up for it and it’s great when we win but we also have to accept it with humility when we lose. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to treat us like the objects...people make comments like “I put money on you and you didn’t do it so you owe me”.
I got a lot of good feedback so it was interesting to see how many people related to that experience.
How you would you sum up your experience in Tokyo in one word?
Christenson: Motivating, because the job wasn’t complete. Whenever things get tough and it’s hard in the weight room, you’re getting tired in practice and things are hurting, you remember those experiences. You remember what that felt like and not wanting to be there again.
Paris will hopefully be your third Olympic Games if the U.S. team qualifies. You’ve evolved so much as a player and person. How would you compare yourself as a person at previous Olympics? Let’s start with Rio 2016. Give me one word.
Christenson: Ambitious. I was young. I didn’t know a whole lot. I was one year out of college and as a younger player, I wanted to conquer the world. I always had that self-confidence inside me.
The Tokyo Games.
Christenson: Almost ready. I had made a lot of strides and improvements in my game both technically and mentally. I was on a quick rise in terms of how I was playing. I felt like I was playing really well in that moment, and even throughout the Olympics I thought I played well. But my whole philosophy about volleyball and life is about improving and I’m always working on something so I felt like [at that time] I was almost ready to lead this team to different successes and help contribute.
How would characterize yourself now? How are you different?
Christenson: Peaceful. I feel really confident in my game and who I am as a player, as a person on the court, as a leader of the team, and as a teammate. I feel secure about my role and what I can do technically. I’m more than just a guy that sets the ball on the volleyball court. I’m someone that can help the team in so many ways.
Where does that confidence come from?
Christenson: It comes from my teammates. I have the honor of being one of the leaders on the team and you can’t be a leader if you don’t have people following you. They give me confidence to help lead the team in certain ways. There’s also a ton of preparation that goes into it and that is something I can always lean on.
I know who I am, I know where my identity lies, and all of that security comes from my faith so I can credit that immensely.
The men’s U.S. team still has a lot of it’s core starters from the last few Olympic cycles. How is this team different from Tokyo and what kinds of things have you worked through?
Christenson: We’ve worked through a lot of adversity and we’ve also secured our roles. Our starting line up is pretty secure. In Tokyo, Outside Hitter Aaron Russell was out because of a hip injury and it was brutal because he’s been a consistent starter for us. But we had TJ DeFalco who was waiting in the wings and was ready. He didn’t have as much experience with our starting group as Aaron did but he did a wonderful job at the Olympics and that was such an exciting [moment] for the whole program.
Outside Hitter Taylor Sander was able to recover from an injury and compete at the Olympics. So if the Games were in 2020, Taylor Sander would not have been able to play but Aaron Russell would have been in our line up. Either way, one of our main starters would have been out so it made things a little bit more difficult...but we had incredible players to be able to fill that hole.
Because of that, we’re different in terms of our team confidence, the confidence we have in our roles, and overall we’re just better volleyball players as well.
What would it mean for you to have the opportunity to compete in Paris?
Christenson: It would be huge! It’d be incredible! You get a taste of it, and you want more. To be able to say I was able to represent the United States for so long at the Olympics is such a surreal thing.
I was sitting in my garage cleaning not too long ago and I remember randomly thinking “Three-time Olympian sounds really cool.” To be at the Games, around all of these other incredible athletes that you can relate to is something that we all want extremely badly.
Switching gears - you’re now a dad of three! Tell me about your family. How has fatherhood has changed you?
Christenson: It’s changed me so much! My family is incredible. My wife, Brooke, is Superwoman. She holds it down so much for our family with what I’m doing. Obviously, I’m as hands on as I can be when I’m with my family, but certain things take me away from it. Brooke’s ability to just hold it down and keep everything calm and peaceful so I can go do my job is incredible.
Having her as my partner is incredible. My kids Zeke, Finley, and Quinn, bring so much joy to us and everyone around them. Seeing them grow up and hoping that they can watch me as we’re experiencing this journey together has changed me. It’s given me perspective as a father. Volleyball is great but it’s not the most important thing.