TOKYO – Wheaton native Thomas Jaeschke is the first to say his second trip to the Olympics is just not the same as his debut five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
It has nothing to do with his effort or his 11 teammates’ performances on the volleyball court. Sure, Jaeschke has played sparingly so far in the U.S. men’s run to a 2-1 start in pool play. The 27-year-old Wheaton Warrenville South graduate hadn’t played at all until entering during the third set of a win over Tunisia on July 27.
The difference this year, Jaeschke said, is the environment around him. COVID-19 policies have made both the game-day atmosphere and life off the court the total opposite from the 2016 games.
“In Rio, there was a ton of energy in that gym. When we played against Brazil, it was relentless,” Jaeschke said. “But we’ve all played overseas on our professional teams for a year now with no fans.
“We miss the fans, so I wouldn’t say we’re used to them not being here. It’s just different.”
Jaeschke sees it in the cultural and enjoyment aspects of the Games, too. Measures in place to contain the coronavirus have turned Tokyo’s Olympic Village, where the athletes are housed, into a bubble. That means Jaeschke can’t venture out to explore any of the world-class sights in Tokyo.
A visit to the world-famous Meiji Jingu shrine? Forget about it. A ride up the towering Tokyo Skytree? Nope. A walk through the picturesque Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden? Not even.
Still, Jaeschke, who plays professionally in Italy when he’s not training with the national team, insists he’s making the most of his second Olympic experience.
“I think Japan did a really good job putting the Games together this year and making sure they could happen,” he said. “I’m really just focused on the volleyball, like always. That’s the biggest thing for us right now.”
Though he hasn’t been the most impactful player on the court thus far, the Wheaton native has been a supportive teammate on the sidelines. He knows he can be called on anytime and said he trains and prepares as if he’s going to play each game for the entire game. A teammate suggested that Jaeschke is equally as important to the team’s success as any other player.
“He’s a huge part of our culture and what we’ve built here,” said Matt Anderson, one of eight returning players from the 2016 squad.
Earning the bronze medal in 2016 was an impressive accomplishment for a young American team in a stacked field of international volleyball heavyweights. Jaeschke and Co. have their eyes on a bigger prize this time around.
In the most recent world rankings released on July 25, the U.S came in fourth behind Brazil, Poland and Russia. The Americans lost to Russia on July 26 but can redeem themselves July 30 against Brazil as pool play continues.
The odds for gold are long but Jaeschke believes the U.S. team is talented enough to control its own destiny.
“We just want to leave everything on the floor and execute like we know how to,” Jaeschke said. “If we can do that, the sky’s the limit.”