Prohibited by a back injury from sleeping on his stomach, Carson Clark spent considerable time the last two years staring at the ceiling, wondering if he would ever again reach volleyball heights.
The high-flying former UC Irvine All-American has only recently returned from a debilitating torn tendon in his lower back that left him unable to work out for six months, sidelined him from professional competition overseas the last two seasons, and limited his on-court contribution to the U.S. men’s national team.
“It was a pretty bad back issue,” said Clark, 28, a 6 feet 6 opposite who left UCI in 2012 after helping the Anteaters win two NCAA championships and setting the school record with 1,861 kills. “There was a while when I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to play volleyball again.”
But Clark, a Costa Mesa resident, persevered through a rehabilitation process to join Team USA in the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World League tournament in which the Americans, including former Anteaters David Smith and Dan McConnell, Huntington Beach resident Taylor Sander, as well as Huntington Beach High product T.J. DeFalco, have reached the semifinals on Friday in Curitiba, Brazil.
Team USA, coached by former UCI head man John Speraw, who guided Clark at UCI, recovered from an 0-3 start in the opening round of World League play to earn a spot in the final round. A four-set victory over Poland on June 18 at Lodz, Poland, was the pivotal match that propelled the Americans on in the tournament, in which they topped Serbia in four sets on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals.
Against Poland, Clark started an opposite and produced 12 points on 12 kills to earn match MVP honors. He also had 12 kills in a five-set triumph over Russia in Poland on June 17.
His performance in Poland marked Clark’s first significant playing time for the national team since the injury.
“It’s a nice feeling to be able to play truly free again,” Clark said last week from the team’s training center in Anaheim, before venturing to Brazil for the World League final round. “I’d played in Poland before and I love playing for those fans – the best fans in the world – so I was excited. There is nothing better than playing in front of [nearly 8,000 people]. It’s so much fun. It’s the best thing in the world.”
Clark likes nothing better than to be contending for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, a passion he is pursuing with greater appreciation after the injury.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he said. “I’ve been lucky. Some of us are athletically talented and we get to this level without any hardship or anything. After the injury, now, I’m just so thankful when my body is well. I no longer assume that being healthy is just part of the process. You don’t miss [competing] until you don’t have it anymore. I’m so thankful for everything now.
“[Rehabilitation] took a long time, longer than I wanted,” Clark said. “But I’m happy with where I am now.”
Clark, who has played professionally in France, Poland and Greece, said he plans to resume his career overseas in the near future. Having competed with USA Volleyball since 2008, he is also intent on becoming an Olympian.
“I want to play until I have to get a real job,” he said. “We have the luckiest job in the world to be able to do what we love every single day, get paid to work out and paid to play in front of crazy crowds and represent our country. There will be a time when I’d like to settle down and do the family thing, but I want to do this as long as I can.
“[The Olympics in 2020] is the ultimate goal; that’s why we are all here. It has been a lifelong goal and hopefully I can achieve it.”