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Volleyball player Jonathan Winder sets sights on London Olympics

Jonathan Winder folded his lean, 6-foot-8 frame into a chair in a corner of an Anaheim coffee shop and sighed.

In a few days he would be off to Tourcoing, in northern France, to play professional volleyball. All things considered, he’d rather be going to Philadelphia. Or staying home in Irvine.

“It would be really nice if we had a professional league over here,” he says. “That way we would get to play with our own teammates throughout the year.”

The money, however, is in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Basically anywhere but here.

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So for Winder, whose real goal to play in the 2012 Olympics, the road to London passes through France. That’s not the way he wanted it; it’s just the way it is.

“Why I decided to play volleyball was to play in the Olympics,” he says. “Playing in Europe is not my dream. When I was 5, I wasn’t dreaming of going to play volleyball in Greece. But I was dreaming of playing in the Olympics.”

That’s anything but a sure thing, since Winder is one of four setters competing for two spots on the national team. And unlike in sports such as boxing, swimming or track and field, where the Olympic teams are determined by head-to-head competition, the 12-man U.S. volleyball roster is largely a subjective choice made by head Coach Alan Knipe and his staff.

And Winder, 25, probably will be half a world away when that decision is made.

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“It’s really hard for me to know exactly where I stand in the program with the coach, besides that I’m one of 20 guys, 22 guys — whatever it is — fighting for a spot,” he says. “This last couple of months the big focus I’ve had mentally is to just do my absolute best each and every day and not think about where I am, where I stand and where my name is on the board.”

Still, Winder got a hint this month when he and Tourcoing teammate Jayson Jablonsky of Yorba Linda were among 20 players invited back to Anaheim for a U.S. team training camp ahead of November’s volleyball World Cup in Japan, the first Olympic qualifying event. And although that will give him another opportunity to win over Knipe, the former Long Beach State coach says he has already been impressed.

“Jon’s a very hard-working, very talented volleyball player — as are all the players in the program,” says Knipe, a two-time All-American during his playing days at Long Beach State. “He’s also got a very high volleyball IQ. [He] understands the game and is incredibly easy to coach.”

Which doesn’t mean he’s going to make the team.

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“Very rarely in the Olympic Games do you end up with the 12 best volleyball players in the country,” Knipe says. “What you’re looking for is the 12 players that make up the best team. You’re looking to see how guys react with one another and what is the best team that we can create as we get closer and closer to try to qualify for the Olympic Games.”

That uncertainty can’t help but produce anxiety, something Knipe knows all too well since he also competed in Europe. And those closest to Winder say the strain is sometimes palpable.

“To be quite honest, it can be difficult to comprehend the idea that your Olympic future is up to one man deciding if you are not only good enough but also the perfect fit for the team,” says Jaimie-Rose Winder, Jonathan’s former college girlfriend at Pepperdine and now his wife. “He is mostly focused on this season at hand, but the Olympics often finds its way into our conversations.

“Each day I ask if he gave it his absolute best, and if so, there is nothing more that he can ask of himself. If he gives it his all and is not invited to London in 2012, well then, it just was not meant to be. If he is meant to be there, then he will be.

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“This helps settle his nerves, and allows him to enjoy making a living through playing a sport he loves.”

This isn’t the first challenge Winder has faced. In fact, he has been overcoming obstacles since his father, who had a heart condition, died in front of him at a Fourth of July picnic when Winder was only 4.

Next the family was uprooted, with Winder, his mother and two siblings leaving their suburban Chicago home for Orange County, where a group of his father’s friends acted as surrogate parents, enrolling the children in school, and getting them involved with sports and community activities.

Winder was introduced to volleyball, a sport he may never have found had he stayed in Illinois.

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“There’s no way I play volleyball,” he says. “My life would be very different if my dad was still here. It just is what it is.

“I wish he was here. I would get rid of all of this for him. But … I really believe that God can turn bad things into good very quickly.”

Winder believes he also received a wake-up call during his junior year at Pepperdine, when he was more interested in partying than school or volleyball. While driving on the freeway in a light rain, Winder lost control of his car and it began to spin. There were plenty of cars in the adjoining lanes, but miraculously his car did not hit anything.

“I just pulled off to the side like ‘Holy cow! I could have just died right there,’ ” says Winder, vividly recalling the moment. “After that I was like, ‘I really need to stop messing around, stop doing stupid stuff in college.’ ”

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And that’s when his volleyball career took off. As a senior, Winder led Pepperdine to the NCAA national championship match while earning All-American honors. He was named the school’s scholar-athlete of the year and two months after graduation he helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the Pan American Cup.

Winder also credits legendary Pepperdine Coach Marv Dunphy, a volleyball Hall of Famer, with helping shape his career.

“I chose to go to Pepperdine and that was another experience that was a light bulb turning [on] that I can look back on and go ‘wow,’ ” Winder says. “I ended up going there and he ends up being one of the biggest influences in my life in the way I carry myself and the way I look at life, volleyball and stuff like that.”

Winder will need a lot of faith if he is to make the national team. Although it’s definitely a good sign to be invited to November’s training camp, the talent at setter may be deeper than anywhere else with two former Olympians — Kevin Hansen of Newport Beach and USC standout Donald Suxho — on a depth chart that also includes Brian Thornton of San Clemente.

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Whether the coaches think he’s good enough to be in London for next summer’s Games probably won’t be determined until May. In the meantime, Winder tries to concentrate on the present in the hope the future will take care of itself.

“I’m not thinking a whole lot about the Olympics, to be honest,” he says from France. “There are plenty of issues and things to think about here on a daily basis. The Olympics are always somewhere around my mind or often come up in conversation because they are so close in both time and location.

“But my focus right now is just trying to get better and improve my game in ways that can help my team here and back home. I’ve learned over the past three years that it’s best for me to keep trying to get better, pursue excellence and not get caught up in where I stand.

“It’s who you are, not where you are.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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