Rod Wilde last peered through a volleyball net at Alexsander Sorokolet two months before the 1984 Olympic Games and only before Wilde's dreams--and the bones in his left leg--were shattered in a freak accident.
The U.S. men's volleyball team--which before that week had not beaten the Soviet Union in 16 years--was on the verge of sweeping the then-world champions in the final match of a four-match series at Kharkov.
Sorokolet, chasing a cross-court set in the last game of the match, lost control and landed with his foot on the Americans' side of the net. Wilde, a former Pepperdine All-American and the No. 2 U.S. setter, jumped for a block and came down on Sorokolet's foot, breaking the tibia and fibula--the bones between the knee and ankle--in his left leg.
"You could hear the bones breaking from the bench," said Coach Bill Neville of the U.S. national team, an assistant at the time to former coach Doug Beal. "It sounded like something I remember hearing in the forest when I lived in Montana.
"In the late winter, when the snow gets too heavy on the limbs of trees, they'll snap and it creates an echo. It's an ugly kind of sound, especially when it's a guy's leg."
The injury forced Wilde to miss the Americans' gold-medal performance in the Los Angeles Games and the team's subsequent rise to dominance throughout the latter part of the 1980s.
But after more than a five-year absence from international competition, Wilde is once again pursuing his Olympic goal.
At 33, he is the oldest member of a rebuilding U.S. team that is competing against Sorokolet and the Soviets in the World Cup at Osaka, Japan, the first major international competition since last year's Seoul Olympics.
Also entered in the eight-team round-robin tournament, a quadrennial event that began Thursday, are Brazil, Cuba, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Cameroon.
The U.S. team is seeking its fifth consecutive major championship, which would tie a record set by the Soviet Union in 1977-82. In addition to winning at the 1984 Olympics, the Americans took gold medals at the World Cup in 1985, the World Championships in 1986 and the Olympics again last year.
Setter Jeff Stork and outside hitter Bob Ctvrtlik, both of whom will retire from the team after the tournament to pursue more lucrative playing careers in Italy, are the only players left from the squad that won the World Cup in 1985. And those two, along with Scott Fortune, Jon Root and Troy Tanner, are the only players remaining from last year's gold medalists.
Wilde rejoined the team two months ago after three seasons as the men's volleyball coach at Pepperdine. His goal is to remain through the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona, Spain.
"I watched the opening ceremonies (of the '84 Games) on TV and when the cameras panned over and showed the guys, I was thinking, 'I should be there,' " Wilde said. "Then I went to the finals and saw them win and receive the gold medals. I was pleased for the guys and the program, but it was a hollow feeling."
Wilde's Olympic desire waned after the '84 Olympics as he rehabilitated his leg and concentrated on his coaching career.
"Up until '87 or '88, I really didn't have the desire to go back and go through the training again to reach that goal of playing in the Olympics," he said. "At that time, I began to feel that something was missing.
"But I was getting older, and the odds of them wanting a player to come back, well, it was still a pipe dream."
The national team, however, found itself short a setter last June when Stork announced that he had signed with Maxicono, a club team in Parma, Italy.
Neville turned to Wilde, who played for a club team that won the U.S. Volleyball Assn. championship last spring.
"I thought, 'here's a fabulous athlete who's got experience and an unfulfilled dream,' " Neville said. "All the elements were there.
"I said, 'How would you like the opportunity to fulfill a dream?' I knew that was the right button to push."
When Stork and Ctvrtlik leave for Italy, Wilde will be eight years older then the next-oldest player on the team, but his progress has been rapid since he began training again full time. He has lost none of his athletic ability, and his coaching experience has made him an even more dynamic leader.
"He's literally a coach on the floor," Neville said. "The advantage to that is he clearly understands the process of decision-making and tactics.
"But he does face a generation gap. He's also coached some of these guys and now he's a fellow player. I have to remind him occasionally not to worry about so much, to let me do the coaching."
Wilde is being used primarily as a back-row defensive specialist during the World Cup, while Javier Gaspar backs up Stork at setter. After the tournament, Wilde and Gaspar will compete to replace Stork as the No. 1 setter.
"I wouldn't have asked him back if I didn't think he had a major shot," Neville said of Wilde's chances for going to Barcelona. "He has to make it like anybody else. If he doesn't, he won't go.
"But I didn't ask him back to serve as a temporary (player) or a Band-Aid. I asked him back because I think he can help us over the next four years."
"The big question, and it's still not answered, is how I'll do over time," Wilde said. "There are no guarantees. That has been written strongly in my memory."