It was a typical afternoon in mid-June and Thomas Jaeschke was filling up his car with gas when his phone rang. It was a call from USA men’s volleyball head coach John Speraw. Little did Jaeschke know that phone call would change his life forever.
Speraw told Jaeschke, a native of Wheaton, Illinois, that he was selected as one of the 12 athletes to represent the United States at the ultimate international stage: the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
At the beginning of pool play, Team USA men’s volleyball struggled to get its momentum going, losing its first two games of the preliminary rounds.
On the edge of elimination, the Americans were able to pull an upset over top-ranked Brazil and beat France and Mexico.
In the quarterfinal match, the United States swept Poland in three quick matches. Although Italy defeated team USA in pool play, the Americans had the momentum heading into the semifinal matchup. However, the Italians outlasted them, winning the fifth set 15-9.
At that point, bronze became the new gold for Jaeschke and the USA men’s volleyball team. After dropping the first two sets to Russia, the bronze medal seemed to have slipped through the Americans’ fingertips. But with a change in the line-up, team USA was able to pull a massive comeback and come out on top.
Jaeschke said he doesn’t even remember the match point.
“I just remember sprinting onto the court and the first guy I hugged was David Lee and it’s because he was the first guy I saw,” Jaeschke said. “And then we all just started jumping on each other and freaking out … We were in a pretty bad spot [the] majority of the match so to be able to come back and win … There’s so few words that I feel like can do these feelings any justice. It’s hard to come up with anything.”
For Jaeschke, the surreal feeling of being an Olympic bronze medalist lingered even as he got off the plane in his home country on Aug. 23.
“It’s just something you dream about your whole life, and now I have a medal in my hands,” he said. “I think at closing ceremonies, I realized it was all over, so we made it through. That was kind of the moment for me [when I realized] I’m an Olympian and I will be for the rest of my life, and for the rest of my life, I’m going to be a bronze medalist.”
Before Jaeschke received the news he made the Olympic squad, he had to overcome his fair share of adversity. Although Jaeschke knew he had a shot at making the Rio roster, the process wasn’t easy and it didn’t come without its own challenges.
Rewind to the end of May. Jaeschke, who was an outside hitter for Loyola’s men’s volleyball team from 2012-2015, had to endure long practices, hard workouts and time away from his friends and family. He faced a difficult decision in the summer of 2015 before his senior season — should he sign a professional volleyball contract and lose his NCAA eligibility, or return for his final season as a Rambler and work on defending his two national championship titles? Jaeschke decided to focus on playing professional volleyball so he could prepare to play at big international events like the World League and the Olympics.
Along with those challenging decisions, Jaeschke suffered from multiple lower body injuries in the past, but when he sprained his ankle in Cuba this May, he said it was a different and more difficult battle than he’s ever experienced.
“When I sprained my ankle, I was just like, … ‘Sh*t. Not again. We’re not doing this,’” said Jaeschke. “It was definitely mentally tough for me to hurt myself and I knew the roster was coming out soon. I didn’t know it was coming out that soon.”
But with the relief of knowing he secured his spot, Jaeschke recovered in time for the Olympics.
As for the future, Jaeschke said he plans on taking a much-deserved vacation from volleyball, but he said his next goal is competing in the 2020 Tokyo Games, only four short years away.