Michael Saeta’s dream of winning an Olympic gold medal will have to wait, with those aspirations just another in a long line of disappointments in the era of COVID-19.
Under normal circumstances, the South Pasadena native would be battling for a spot on the final 12-man roster of the United States Olympic volleyball team and prepping for the 2020 Summer Games in Japan; that has ground to a screeching halt. Instead, Saeta spends his abundant amount of his free time Zooming with potential teammates who hope to wear the red, white and blue when — and if — the Tokyo Games launch as scheduled on July 23, 2021.
Though he was in the discussion four years ago, Saeta did not make the final roster in 2016, when the United States men took the bronze medal in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Since then, he has steadily climbed up the ranks and was hoping to be selected to the USA’s final roster when the Tokyo Games were postponed on March 24.
“I have been a part of the national team for a few years, trying to fight my way to the actual ‘A’ team,” Saeta said. “There is a sophisticated development structure where around 50 players would consider themselves to be members of the national team, but really only a roster of around 20 guys make the final squad with only 12 on the final squad. Over the past few years, I have battled to earn a spot on that team, and only recently did I achieve my childhood goal of making and traveling as part of the official roster. I had previously competed in the Pan American Cup in Canada, played in the World University Games in both South Korea and Taiwan, and had even made the Volley Nations League roster in 2019, but it wasn’t till this past summer that I got to travel to Japan to play in the World Cup. We earned a bronze medal, which was pretty special.”
Originally a competitive swimmer, Saeta literally grew into the sport as a teenager.
“I started playing volleyball when I was in 7th and 8th grade, but I grew up around the game as my dad was a collegiate athlete at Stanford and has played in adult volleyball national events for the past 30-plus years,” said Saeta of his father, former South Pasadena Mayor David Saeta. “When I wanted to start playing, my dad actually called all of his friends who had ‘tall’ sons and we put together a team with the San Gabriel Volleyball Club.”
Saeta admits he “wasn’t very good” at the time, and wasn’t even very tall in a sport that rewards physical altitude.
“I didn’t grow until I was a junior in high school,” Saeta said. “My driver’s license had me at 5’4” and now I am 6’5,” so I had to be patient with the game before I was able to show any signs of being able to play at a level that was required for Division 1 collegiate programs.”
Saeta attended high school at Polytechnic in Pasadena, where he was twice named Prep League Most Valuable Player and CIF Division 5 Player of the Year before graduating in 2012. Saeta accepted a scholarship offer at the University of California, Irvine. He redshirted for the 2013 season, when the Anteaters won the national championship. In the next four years, Saeta started at setter and the opposite hitter position, set a school single-season record in service aces, earned All-American honors and was named to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s first team as a senior. He has also excelled in the beach version of the sport, teaming with USC star Lucas Yoder to win the 2017 USA Volleyball collegiate beach championship and earning a spot on a USA Volleyball collegiate beach national team.
Saeta graduated with a degree in business economics and has since earned his master’s degree in philosophy, political science and economics. He is currently working on a restaurant finance start-up and staying in shape for that day when they resume bumping, setting and spiking.
Although professional volleyball is basically nonexistent in the United States, it’s a burgeoning enterprise across Europe; Saeta signed a contract right out of college with Chaumont Volleyball, an elite squad located in France.
“In my first year we won the French Super Cup and made it to the finals of both the French Cup and the French Championship,” Saeta said. “I know that probably means nothing to anyone in the States, but it was pretty cool as a first-year player.”
In his second season, Saeta led the team back to finals appearances in in both the French Cup and the Championship.
“That just made my silver medal count way too high,” he quipped.
Saeta chose not to go back overseas this year so he could prepare for his bid to Tokyo.
Michael credits his father for building his interest in the sport, which he developed at an early age.
“My dad never pushed me to play, but rather when we were kids, every year he would take one of his three boys to his adult national tournaments to watch him play,” said Michael. “We were lucky enough to skip school, so I always loved traveling with him every third year.”
Following his career at Stanford, David Saeta was slated to play professionally in Italy before he suffered a torn ACL.
“Because of that, there was always a deep-seated desire in my heart to play professionally overseas for the both of us, and it brought tears to my eyes the first time he got to watch me play abroad,” Michael said.
Though she never played volleyball, Michael’s mother, Leslie, is an acclaimed home décor influencer. Andrew, Michael’s 29-year-old brother, was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is currently training for his fourth Olympic trials. Brother Matt, 27, was a Division 1 collegiate pitcher at Davidson and “claims to have been my volleyball coach ever since I was young, and apparently all of my success is due to his unique coaching style,” Michael said with a laugh. “Actually, he has one of the greatest work ethics of anyone I have ever met, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the person I am without him.”
Dad and the three Saeta brothers play volleyball almost daily.
Michael hopes that same family dedication and support will earn him an Olympic team jersey and a ticket to Tokyo next summer. Saeta is an exceptional server and his previous national team appearances have come as a serving specialist, which is not an official position but is rather someone who performs at the will of the coach, if that skill is deemed necessary at that specific time.
“That is what put me on the roster for the World Cup,” said Saeta. “I work very hard on my serving and have developed three different styles, so we’ll just see.”
Many will be watching along with him, that’s for sure.