It was the early hours of morning, but Stew Russell was wide awake as he sat huddled around his home computer screen.
Russell, an Ellicott City resident, was watching anxiously as his second oldest son Aaron competed with the USA Men’s National Volleyball team at the FIVB World Cup in Tokyo last September. And before long, as the United States navigated its way to a four-set victory over Argentina (25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 25-20) to secure the title and a spot in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the entire family had joined in.
“That was awesome,” Stew Russell said. “We were watching online on a live stream. I think they started 5:30 that morning or something over in Japan and we knew the score and we knew we had to win against Argentina in order to qualify … I think by the time it ended everybody was awake.
“We didn’t wake anybody up for it, but I don’t know if it was our shouting that woke them up, but they all knew too.”
Ultimately, Aaron was an important contributor to the United States’ clinching 3-1 victory that secured the country’s first World Cup championship in 30 years and a spot in this August’s Olympics.
“It was relieving,” Aaron Russell said. “And the way we did it too, winning World Cup… that whole summer our main goal was to win so we can accomplish that and also qualify for the Olympics. So after we did that, I mean it was definitely a great moment for us and it was a difficult tournament, too. I think we really discovered how good we are and how good we can be.”
Aaron, who is the second oldest of five brothers — Peter, Samuel, Tim and Paul — shares the love for the sport of volleyball with his entire family.
All of his brothers play, including Peter, who, like Aaron and Stew, suited up for Penn State University. Last fall Peter played professionally in the Bundesliga First League for TV Buhl and is currently narrowing his options to play again over seas. Paul competed at the USAV Junior National Championships in Dallas at the end of June.
Their mother Marian played high school volleyball and club while at Purdue University, while Stew was a walk-on for the Nittany Lions during his college days.
“It’s a lot of fun. We do a lot together and it’s nice that volleyball is one of them because every one of us plays, so that’s something up there that we truly have in common,” Stew Russell said. “It’s not just that we all do it, it’s that we’ve all done it… It’s nice that the kids like what you did to some degree and you can sort of share that. We didn’t force volleyball on them or anything. It was just something that we did and they liked it, picked it up and we all do it together.”
Stew always had an appreciation for the game. He remembers watching both the men's and women’s national teams compete on television growing up, especially during the Olympics.
“I remember the women — they had a woman named Flo Hyman. I remember she was 6-foot-4 and I just loved watching her play and just thought, ‘Wow, I’d really like to play the game like that.’ But it wasn’t until high school when I realized that was an option,” Stew Russell explained. “I never realized our school had a team. I heard about it one day in study hall … so I thought I had to give that a try.”
Stew didn’t initially make the team when he tried out sophomore year, but worked hard over the summer and in the offseason improved his game and eventually played his last two years on the varsity squad. After getting accepted into Penn State, he walked onto the team his junior year and eventually played three full seasons and even helped the team earn a Final Four berth his last year in 1986.
Nearly 25 years later, Aaron was recruited to play for the Nittany Lions after graduating from Centennial High School in 2011. Aaron starred at Penn State, earning a multitude of accolades, including AVCA All-America honors his junior and senior year. He eventually made the USA Men’s National Team in 2014 and currently stands as one of the youngest members on the team.
It’s been an incredibly fast rise considering he didn’t start playing competitively consistently until he was 15 years old.
“I mainly played soccer, so I didn’t have too much time for volleyball,” Aaron Russell said. “I played in my first competitive club tournament when I was 13 I think, but I only played in one tournament and after that I think I was 15 when I played my first full season.”
Aaron was a standout goalkeeper and helped his soccer club team win a National Championship before he was 15 years old. But he started losing the passion he had for the game, so he decided to take a step back and quit club soccer and picked up volleyball full time instead.
However, since volleyball wasn’t an option during the school year, Aaron suited up for the Eagles’ soccer team in the fall and earned all-county recognition his junior and senior seasons.
“Aaron got into soccer at a very, very high level and I think he got a little burnt out and I kind of understand that,” Stew Russell said. “Aaron loved soccer, but it was a lot of time to begin with. There were some days where (he) didn’t want to practice it and for a 14 year old that’s not a real good thing. And then the next year, the club wanted more of a commitment from the kids and I think at that point, Aaron just said, ‘I really do want to try something different.’ Volleyball is a little more low key in terms of commitment and he quit the soccer team, started playing volleyball more.”
Although Aaron didn’t start playing club until high school, he did work with his dad, Peter and family friend Eric Lucas, alongside his son’s David and Eric, when he was around 11 years old.
“(My dad) was kind of like my own personal coach,” Aaron Russell said. “He also coached me during club because I didn’t have high school volleyball. My main way of training and learning about volleyball was through playing club and that’s how I got recruited for college.”
Aaron just concluded his first professional year and has been traveling with the Men’s National Team frequently, but he said once he gets the opportunity he’d like to help promote the sport on the East Coast, where it isn’t as prominent as in California where most of his USA teammates are from.
As for now, Aaron is preparing for his first Olympics and was also in Dallas recently competing with Team USA in the FIVB World League. During that time he was afforded the opportunity to see Paul compete as well.
“I’m watching my youngest brother right now. I haven’t really seen him play in awhile. It’s pretty cool to see how he’s been progressing. Having a family connection is really cool. It allows me to see them more often, because I’m traveling so much,” he said. “I think right now my family wouldn’t have been able to come out and see the matches we were playing this weekend, but because my youngest brother is playing they were able to come out and I’m able to see them. It also gives us something to talk about and we’re able to help each other out and coach each other. (Peter) helped me out a lot when I was little. I played up with him in club, so it helped my game progress.”
“Paul can watch Aaron and Aaron can watch him and I know he likes keeping an eye on his brothers and see how they’re doing,” Stew Russell added. “My wife came down as well. My other sons couldn’t make it, they have jobs and things going on, but it’s nice when we can do things as a family.”
The Russell’s won’t need their computer this August, as they will head to Rio to cheer on Aaron in person.
That fact hasn’t sunk in yet for Stew. When he was young, he fell in love with the sport of volleyball after watching some of the best athletes play at the highest level, and now his son will compete among them.
“That really is amazing,” he said. “It’s surreal in a way. On one hand, I’ve seen him play and I know what he can do and I know his level of play, so what he’s doing out there now isn’t too different from what we’ve seen him do. But there’s so many great players to choose from that have great skills. The fact that he’s actually playing at that level is quite amazing. It’s still surreal. I know we have our trip (set), we have our accommodations, we’re going to be going and it’s still sinking in I think. It’s still pretty amazing.”