Zach Upp (C) waits at the net for the U.S. men’s sitting volleyball team.
Since the age of 14, Zach Upp has been traveling alone regularly from Chicago to Edmond, Oklahoma, for weekend sitting volleyball camps with USA Volleyball at the U.S. Paralympic Training Site.
So when he graduated from high school last month, he packed up his life and headed there permanently to train full-time as a member of the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team in advance of the Sitting Volleyball World Championships, which take place from July 15-22 across various cities in the Netherlands.
“Moving out at 18 and into my own apartment with a roommate is definitely a weird experience, but I feel like I’m at a pretty good maturity level to do that,” Upp said. “A lot of these guys on the team can be my parent. It’s a little weird being a teammate to them rather than treating them like my dad or someone else older, but I’ve learned to get used to it.”
At 6-foot-5, Upp, born without his right arm, will be hard to miss at his first world championships due to his height advantage and strong swing.
He’s been playing volleyball since he was 13 — both the standing and sitting game — and wears a customized prosthetic arm on the court.
“When I was a lot younger, my parents didn’t force me into it, but they were really trying to get me to use a prosthetic arm,” he said. “But no matter how much they tried, I always just took it off. I would just figure out how to do everything with my stump, so putting on my arm kept me back from things I actually wanted to do.”
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He eventually only used his prosthetic arm for sports — he’s also played baseball, basketball and golf, not to mention dabbling in playing the violin — and quickly began excelling at standing volleyball for his school and club teams.
Elliott Blake, USA Volleyball’s coordinator of its sitting teams, noticed Upp’s talents at a USA Sitting Volleyball camp in 2013 and helped him adapt to the sitting game. It was a struggle at first, but after four years of tournaments and camps in both the standing and sitting games, Upp’s volleyball IQ skyrocketed across the board and he became the youngest member of the U.S. men’s sitting team.
Upp’s lively personality has become infectious for the program; all his teammates feel it heading into their matches now. He’s very vocal, keeps a loose mind, smiles off mistakes and loves riding off the energy of a good crowd.
“Before games, when all my teammates are serious and getting focused, I’m not the most serious or focused as that’s not how I perform best,” Upp explained. “All of them have kind of learned to adapt to my style, though.”
The U.S. men made major strides during the last Paralympic quadrennial, finishing second at the Parapan American Games to qualify for their first Paralympic Games since 2004. Despite going 0-4 at the Rio 2016 Games, the U.S. finished second behind Brazil at the 2017 zonal championships to qualify for the world championships and is now ranked No. 8 in the world.
At the world championships, the U.S. will start play in Pool A with the Netherlands, China and Rwanda.
With Tokyo 2020 just two years away — and with the U.S. men still seeking their first Paralympic medal — Upp is eager to become a starter in the near future and is all ears to constructive criticism from his older teammates, especially when it comes to improvements in his passing and blocking.
“If I’m making a mistake on the court, they’ll definitely let me know,” Upp said. “It might be harsh at the time, but their view is that I’m the youngest and might not be the best or have been playing the longest, but that I should still be performing to the best of my ability.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.orgon behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.