Lambert an early surprise for U.S. team

He didn't think he'd be playing in the Atlanta Games

Fourth in a series about Hawaii athletes on the U.S. Olympic Team
By Cindy Luis

It's a gamble that has already paid off for Mike Lambert. If all goes well, it also will pay off in a few weeks for the U.S. men's Olympic volleyball team.

At the invitation of national team coach, Fred Sturm, Lambert took a year off from Stanford University. Little did Lambert know that the RSVP would be for a ticket to Atlanta.

"I didn't think 1996 would be my year," said the two-time Stanford All-American. "I thought the 2000 Olympics would be more realistic. I felt I needed at least a couple of years of experience before I could be at this level.

"There were never any guarantees when I first went down to (San Diego) to train. My whole goal was to make it to the Olympics. But I was competing against all these big-name players and needing to beat them out. It's still an overwhelming thought."

Starting in July of 1995, Lambert overwhelmed the intersquad competition with his all-around play. By last October's World Cup, he had earned a starting spot at opposite hitter, edging out veteran Tom Sorensen.

"Whether we win the gold or not, Mike is going to play an important role for us" said Sturm. "My staff and I think Mike is one of the bright young stars of USA volleyball.

"He's a very skillful, all-around player. It's pretty uncommon for someone his age (22) to be so accomplished and be able to do so many things well on the court. He can serve, pass, set, block, play defense . . . he can do a lot of things for us."

Sturm first noticed Lambert playing for Outrigger Canoe Club at a 1990 junior tournament in Albuquerque and liked his court sense. What the coach likes now is Lambert's court presence: a very physical 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds.

"Mike hits the ball hard, harder than anyone on the team," said Sturm, the national team coach since 1991. "He has the potential to just dominate the game. He's in the developmental process right now and will be for years to come. For a young guy, he can already do a lot of things."

Lambert, a two-time high school All-American at Punahou, said his Olympic dream began in 1984 when he watched the U.S. men win their first-ever Olympic gold in Los Angeles.

"I caught a glimpse of the excitement in '84, and that was before I even started to play volleyball," said Lambert, who took up the game as a seventh grader. "When I saw the men take the gold, it became my far-off goal.

"It hasn't hit me yet that I'm going to be there (in Atlanta). But it's a nice feeling when I see the commercials about all the top athletes in the world being there."

And so is Lambert, the only collegiate player on the American team. He hopes playing against the best will bring out his best.

"I love to compete," said Lambert, who was hampered by a sore shoulder earlier this year. "That's what drives me to play this game. I love competing with the top players every practice. Every day, it's a battle.

"We'll be the underdog in Atlanta, not favored to win the gold medal. I'd have to say teams like The Netherlands, Italy, Cuba and Brazil should be favored. We'll need to use being on our home court to our advantage."

Home is where Lambert came to love volleyball, first practicing his serves against the garage of his Kaneohe home. He watched older sister Mia hone her volleyball skills at Punahou before heading off to UCLA. Younger sister Debbie followed him to Stanford and is rehabilitating a knee injured while playing for the Cardinal in the final four last December.

Lambert is looking forward to returning to Stanford for his senior season, earning his political science degree and experiencing the "whole collegiate scene." He has thoughts of playing professionally on the beach and could have his choice in four years of either playing indoor or outdoor beach volleyball in the Sydney Olympics.

"It was a real gamble for Mike but the timing was good," said Sturm, who was the Stanford coach until 1991. "He had a year to redshirt and I think he knew that if he was going to make the Olympic team this year, he had to devote more time with us to better his chances.

"You never know how much a young person will develop but, lo and behold, as a high school senior, he was one of the top prospects in the county. We welcome input from other coaches about who might be able to help the national team. The word was we had to take a look at him, he was such a special talent."

The team leaves San Diego for Atlanta Sunday. It's one Olympics sooner than Lambert expected, but the timing could be perfect for the Americans.

Mike Lambert

Age: 22.
Residence: Kaneohe.
Education: Punahou School ('93), Stanford (leave of absense)
Event: Indoor volleyball, opposite hitter.
Olympic history: First Olympic team.
International: U.S. national team member since July 1995 . . .
Competed for U.S. in 1995 Centennial Cup, 1995 NORCECA Zone Championship and 1995 World Cup . . . Earned starting position in World Cup tournament.
National: First-team all-American, 1995, by Volleyball magazine . . .
sixth-best kill average in the nation (6.92 per game) as a junior.
Notable: Only collegiate player on U.S. team . . .
Had a team-leading 45 kills in three matches as U.S. won Four Nations Deutschland Cup in April Majoring in political science at Stanford . . .
Sister Debbie also plays for Stanford, sister Mia played at UCLA.

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