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For an Olympic volleyball hopeful, the dream may be fading

Orange County's Jonathan Winder is still working toward his dream of playing volleyball for the U.S. in London, but his chances are narrowing.

May 11, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Jonathan Winder still attends practice every day with the U.S. volleyball team, but he didn't play in a recent qualifying tournament. “So for me, I’m going to continue to practice and continue to do what I’m going to do whether I’m in or I’m out," Winder says. "Just keep plugging away. Because I need to be ready if an opportunity comes.”
Jonathan Winder still attends practice every day with the U.S. volleyball… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Twelfth in a series of occasional stories.

No one, Jonathan Winder says, has told him anything specific. So he continues to show up for practice at the U.S. national volleyball team's facility in Anaheim every morning, still holding out hope he'll be called to London for the Olympic Games this summer.

But it's clear those plans aren't going well. Like when the U.S. team opened play in the eight-nation NORCECA tournament in Long Beach this week and Winder was sitting in the stands in blue jeans and a gray T-shirt.

"This is the Olympic qualifier," he says with a strained smile. "So that's not a good sign."

Or when Coach Alan Knipe chose 20 players for his preliminary Olympic qualifying roster, and Winder was the only setter in the training camp who wasn't on it.

"It doesn't change anything," Winder says, looking down on the court where the U.S. is trouncing Trinidad and Tobago. "I'm still going to do what I'm doing. Everybody's really similar in talent level. It often just comes down to the coach's decision about the opportunity he gives the players and if you take advantage of that opportunity.

"So for me, I'm going to continue to practice and continue to do what I'm going to do whether I'm in or I'm out. Just keep plugging away. Because I need to be ready if an opportunity comes."

Winder chuckles at what some might consider his misfortune. Truth is, he's been pretty lucky. Things could have turned out much differently after his father, Bill, died of heart disease while the family was at a Fourth of July picnic. Winder was 4.

A group of his father's friends in Orange County helped relocate Jonathan, two siblings and their mother from suburban Chicago to Southern California, then took turns serving as the children's surrogate father.

"It was basically a big giant blessing," Jonathan's mother Jean says. "And a privilege to be able to be a part of their parenting, their fathering. I was so grateful for them — constantly — for what they did with my kids."

Winder flourished with that support. He was the best player on his Little League team, a standout in AAU basketball and AYSO soccer. And by 15 he had been named to the U.S. junior national team in volleyball.

That earned him a scholarship to Pepperdine, where he fell in love with — and eventually married — Jaimie-Rose, the daughter of basketball coach Vance Walberg.

Anyone would be lucky to accomplish any one of those things. But playing in the Olympic Games has been Winder's goal since he was old enough to know there was an Olympics. And that's still on his bucket list.

"Why I decided to play volleyball was to play in the Olympics," he says. "Playing in Europe is not my dream. When I was 5, I wasn't dreaming of going to play volleyball in Greece. I was dreaming of playing in the Olympics."

And now it looks as if this is where the fairy tale will end. Former USC standout Donald Suxho has been named the starting setter for the U.S., backed by UC Irvine's Brian Thornton. Kevin Hansen, a gold medalist in 2008, is also available for the 12-man team Knipe would take to London should the U.S. qualify. Barring injury, that would seem to leave Winder facing a long climb between now and July, when the Olympic roster is due.

"Obviously the comfort level is a little further along with those guys," Knipe says. "Jon's going to get better. And he has the desire of greatness, which is required. I know he's willing to do more work.

"He very, very much will have an opportunity at the beginning of the next quad. And probably a better opportunity than he has right now with this group."

"Quad" is volleyball-speak for the four-year period leading into an Olympic Games — and the next one will start when the closing ceremony in London ends.

Winder, at 26, the youngest setter in the national team's camp, said he hasn't completely given up on London — as long as the gym is open and the roster is not set, he plans to continue training as if he's going. And partly for that reason he hasn't decided whether he'll gut out the next quad ending with the 2016 Games in Brazil because that would mean more time playing in Europe and more time away from his family. It would mean delaying — again — work on his foundation to help orphans and the children of single parents, his way of honoring the selflessness his father's friends showed him.

Yet, aside from the few tweaks to the U.S. national team's roster, he insists he wouldn't change a thing.

"I've learned a ton in these four years," Winder says. "Regardless of if I make it or I don't make it, it's been a really valuable four years for me. I've grown in a lot of different ways.

"For sure, the whole Olympic process, the amount of time we put in, the amount of effort you put in, is an Olympic-sized effort. You might not get the Olympic results, but at least you put in the effort. You learn a lot through the process."

Sitting next to her husband in the noisy gymnasium, Jaimie-Rose whispers that she's already made up her mind about Brazil. Four more years, she says, doesn't seem like a big price to pay for a chance at a dream.

"I would love to," she says when asked whether she'd be willing to endure the stress and strain of another quad. "One of the things with this career, you never know when it's going to end. But if he wanted to [continue], I would 100% support him. I think it would be fun.

"There is life after volleyball. And that makes this easier. This is an amazing chapter in our lives."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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