It began — and how else could this unlikely story possibly begin? — as a joke. Despite no longer being a member of the United States national team, Garrett Muagututia had kept in touch with his former teammates, who may have no longer been his colleagues representing the USA but remained good friends. He didn’t have any of the nagging regrets one might after leaving the team in 2017.
He was, rather, quite happy, relieved as much as anything, devoid of the crushing pressure of Olympic qualifying. He was a doting father to his daughter, Teahi, living in New Zealand, where his wife, Keisha, was a dual-citizen. He signed a mid-season contract with PAOK, a Greek club based in Thessalonica. He was valued. He was content.
“It was wonderful,” Muagututia said. “It was a nice breath of fresh air. Signing late to a team in Greece was huge because I got time to get away from volleyball and think about life and refocus and find out what it is I really value in life and that’s my family.”
Muagututia, who happens to play the ukelele, spent 2018 between Greece and New Zealand, returning to California after a year-long sabbatical from the USA national team, which he joined in 2011.
“I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason,” Muagututia said. “I didn’t play on the U.S. national team in 2018. Had the baby in New Zealand, came back to California, and I’m still in contact with most of the guys on the team, and they were telling me all the stuff that was happening with the national team, and I was joking around and said ‘Oh should I come back, do you guys miss me?’ And they were like ‘You should!’ ”
It was a joke, yet there’s a universal rule with jokes: There’s a kernel of truth in all of them.
It left the 6-foot-5 Muagututia with two questions: Did he truly want to return to the national team?
And even if he did, would the national team take him back?
The hardest part wasn’t the meeting, the one that felt as if there were 20 coaches in the room yet only five actually in attendance. It wasn’t the sinking, knowing feeling in his stomach, when John Speraw, the USA head coach, announced, after a humiliating loss to Brazil in the weeks leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games, that he’d be making roster decisions that night. It wasn’t even hearing what Muagututia knew, at that point, to be inevitable: He was not going to be on the final 12-man Olympic roster.
The hardest part was the training afterwards.
The coaches tried to paint it as a good thing, Muagututia being an alternate on the 2016 Olympic roster. If one guy got hurt, if there was a twisted ankle or a torn shoulder or tweaked knee or back …
“In my head I’m like ‘So I have to wish ill will on somebody else so I can go?’ ” Muagututia said. “The frustration, all of that, was pretty devastating to me.”
And yet, frustration or not, because he was an alternate, he was not free to go, as many of the others who didn’t make the cut were. Because he was an alternate, Muagututia was required to train with the Olympic team every day until they departed for Rio.
It is a soul-crushing thing, to help prepare others for the dream you had for yourself. Yet you’re torn, because here are your friends, your teammates, the men for whom you wish nothing less than for a gold medal to be draped around their necks. So you help them prepare, any way you can. You do this despite it being heart-wrenching work, because that’s what individuals with character such as Muagututia do.
Muagututia grew up in Oceanside, California, and was a star athlete in basketball and volleyball at Francis Parker High School. His father, Faauga, was a Navy SEAL. His mother, Kathleen played volleyball at UC Riverside. His younger brother, Myles, played volleyball and football at Stanford. Garrett understands the value of self-sacrifice for the team around him.
“His best attribute,” Speraw will say in an interview with NBC, “is that he’s a great teammate for us.”
Which is what made it so surprising when, just one year later, Muagututia left the team.
As a new Olympic quad began, Muagututia didn’t see his opportunities as an outside hitter rise, but fall. An influx of young talent was getting priority over him, getting the chances Muagututia felt he rightfully deserved. He was passed over on the World Grand Champions Cup roster, though in a strange way.
The World Grand Champions Cup roster allows 14 players to suit up. Speraw told Muagututia that he could travel with the team, though as the 15th member. That meant there would be some matches where he wouldn’t even be allowed to put on a jersey.
“I didn’t get much playing time, and these younger guys were coming up, not really proving themselves but still getting the chance to play,” Muagututia said. “I felt like I was being left out. We went to World Champs, and I wasn’t on the roster, so I said ‘I don’t think that’s fair, after all I’ve been through with this team.’
“I had just gotten married in 2017, and in my head, I could have been transitioning out of volleyball, starting a family and everything.”
He told Speraw that he wasn’t going, which was received about as well as you might expect. The players, with whom Muagututia was close after six years of being teammates, supported his decision.
“Obviously we’d rather have you on the team,” they told him. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
What he had to do, in that moment, was stay home with his new wife, determine his next step, both as a player and a husband.
With Muagututia at home in California, the USA would finish fourth at the 2017 World Grand Champions Cup. When Speraw returned, he called for a meeting with Muagututia. Muagututia played at UCLA under Al Scates before Speraw took over the Bruins program.
“He tells me I let down the team, and I won’t be on the VNL roster the next year, but I’d be able to go to the PanAm Cup,” Muagututia said. “I was kind of shocked, but I came in prepared for the worst, and so that’s when I told him that I didn’t want it to end up like this, but I’m done, I guess I’m done.”
Given that acrimonious split, rejoining the team wouldn’t be a matter of simply signing up and hugging it out with Speraw. There were matters that needed smoothing over. So when it became a very real possibility that Muagututia could return to the program, after a year in New Zealand and Greece, he had the team’s sports psych, Andrea Becker, schedule a meeting.
“We hash everything out,” Muagututia said. “I told him I felt it was a misunderstanding, that he didn’t value me as much as I thought I valued the team, and there were some communication barriers, and it ended up being a big misunderstanding, and obviously I’d be more than interested in coming back. He goes ‘Well, I’d love to have you back.’ ”
Good timing, too. With a rash of injuries on the roster, Muagututia was plugged in immediately, seeing more time on the court than he had in his career at that point.
“They needed me to play. I took it as my chance,” Muagututia said. “You don’t always get a second chance, and I got a second chance, I wasn’t going to let it slip away.”
He played throughout the entire VNL. He traveled with the team to the Olympic qualifier and played well. He made the World Cup roster and played “pretty much every match in the World Cup,” he said. “Which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
It made for a significantly different feeling when Speraw announced to the team, after their final match of this year’s VNL, that he’d be coming to each of their rooms to inform them of their place on the Olympic roster. There was still apprehension, of course. And nerves. Enough to make even the coolest cat on the national team, the guy who plays the guitar and sings sweet songs to his toddler, squirm when he heard Speraw knocking on the door next to him.
“You hear a knock next door and you’re like ‘Oh shit, I’m next!’” Muagututia said, laughing. “And then you’re like ‘Maybe he’s going to the one across the hall, maybe I’m not next.’ Just totally overthinking everything.”
The moment itself wasn’t underwhelming — can such a moment be underwhelming? — but there wasn’t much to say. Speraw didn’t even sit down. By way of introduction, he said, simply, “Congratulations.”
“That was it,” Muagututia said. “Not many words were spoken, just, ‘Congratulations, you made it.’”
And then, as Speraw walked out of the door to continue his rounds, Muagututia allowed the moment to wash over him. He called Keisha back home, and despite it being 3 in the morning, she answered, and they laughed and smiled and celebrated in joyful delirium.
Garrett Muagututia, 33 years old, was going to be an Olympian.
Above all else, if there is one thing anyone should know about Muagututia, it is not his statistics as a hitter, or his passing percentage, or even the unanimous love his teammates have of him. It is the value he places on family.
It wasn’t the joke that started his renewed Olympic journey, but his daughter.
“Once my daughter was born, I realized I’m not only doing this for me and my wife, but now we have a daughter who I have to take care of,” he said. “This is her life I have to provide for. That still drives me to go out there and give it all I have for however long I can.”
There will come a day when Teahi realizes that she has a cool dad, that the man who once left the national team later became the first Samoan to become an Olympian on it. For now, she’ll simply get to hear him sing songs and play the silly games young fathers do with their young ones.
One day, when she’s old enough, she’ll get to hear him tell a story about how her dad became an Olympian.