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Matt Anderson: a big star with a big heart

Matt Anderson and Team USA take on Russia on Friday and Saturday
Lausanne, Switzerland, June 4, 2014 - In the run up to the FIVB World Championships for the men in Poland (August 30 to September 21) and for the women in Italy (September 23 to October 12), we introduce an international volleyball star each week. In part five of the series, we tell the emotional story of the US hitter Matthew Anderson.

US volleyball star Matt Anderson has four tattoos on his body. One is dedicated to his eight-year-old nephew Tristan. The son of Matt’s sister Joelle is autistic. "I love my nephew. I will do anything I can to put and show support out there for him and for children like him," Anderson explained in an interview with the Danish Volleyball Federation’s magazine. "The ‘puzzle piece’ is the universal symbol for autism awareness. The fact it’s on my right wrist means, with all the pictures and the TV exposure I get during matches, people see it. I get asked a lot about it, and the fact that I can say that it’s my way of supporting my nephew and other autistic kids is pretty cool for me."

Anderson would like to use his influence as a globally-recognised sportsman to do something to increase awareness and understanding of autism. "The worst is the social stigma that comes with it." He hopes his commitment to the cause will help change preconceptions, as well as showing his nephew that the main thing is to trust your heart. "You can’t live your life on the opinions of other people. You got to do what you feel is right for you, for your heart and for your family. The opinions of others should not influence you on what and how you carry yourself as a person."

This is a lesson that Matt Anderson has also had to learn en route to becoming one of the best attackers in the world. The road to the top has by no means been straight forward. His extraordinary talent was first identified in high school in West Seneca, where he led his team to a 17:0 success record. After progressing through various junior teams, he was selected for the US national team, where he faced his biggest obstacle. In 2009, Anderson spent 14 days in hospital with pneumonia. However, he faced more than just health problems: the youngster initially had to fight hard to secure his place in the team, which was littered with experienced players from the 2008 Olympic-winning squad.

"Guys had been playing with the team for at least eight years and I was the new guy, the young guy," Anderson recalls. "There were a lot of snide remarks. Stuff like 'Oh, the young guy on the team.' They acted like they were joking but it still didn't sit right with me. I didn't want to be that guy. I didn't want to be the 'young guy.' I started turning it into a healthy rage to come into the gym with the attitude, 'Yeah, I might be young but there's a reason I'm here. I'm not just here because I'm lucky. I deserve to be here."

And the 2.04m athlete, who reaches a towering 3.73m when on the attack, proved his worth emphatically over the coming years. He has been the highest-scoring player in the US team every year since 2011. On his Olympic debut in 2012 in London – another event commemorated in the form of a tattoo – he was the youngest player in the US squad at just 25 years, but also one of the team’s talismen. For the last two years (2012 and 2013) he has also been named the Male Indoor Player of the Year in the United States. "He battled his way onto the court. He's got a world of talent and he's an incredibly hard-working kid," former head coach of the US men’s team Alan Knipe once said in an interview with the Orange County Register.

Anderson is the kind of person always prepared to look beyond his own nose and to learn. This is also behind his decision to travel the world so early in his career. He has plied his trade in Korea, Italy and, for the last two years, at Zenit Kazan in Russia. The American features on a larger-than-life poster advertising the club – a sign of the extraordinary status he already enjoys there. As one of the top scorers, he led Kazan to third place in last season’s European Champions League and success in the Russian Championship. He has already extended his contract, even though life so far away from home is not always easy. He uses Skype to chat to his family almost every day, and admits to missing them more than anything else.

The family he refers to are mum, three older sisters and an older brother. His beloved father passed away in 2010. His date of birth and date of death are also eternalised on his body. Just like his latest tattoo, which deals with love: not only a love of volleyball, but also for other people who need his help, like nephew Tristan. Sister Amy is just one of those Anderson has impressed: “He's become a much stronger person, not just a better volleyball player.”

Read more about players to look out for at this year's World Championships:

Georg Grozer: The man with the hammer
Jovana Brakocevic: All round talent has mum to thank for introduction to volleyball
Dmitry Muserskiy: The lighthouse of the volleyball world
“Points machine” Sheilla Castro: Grandma lays the foundation for an amazing career


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