Detroit — After Wednesday's practice, middle blocker David Lee took a few minutes to stretch and try to stay loose.
At 33, Lee is the oldest member of the U.S. men's national volleyball team, so it seemed apropos. The U.S. national team is experiencing a youth movement, under new coach John Speraw, who was an assistant with the last two Olympic teams.
Lee is the last remaining member of the American team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Three other national team members were on the 2012 Olympic team, but most of the others are still on the rise on the international stage.
"We've changed a lot since then; we've gone to a more youthful team, which is good," said Lee. "There's going to be a bright future for our team in the next few Olympics — but right now, we're just trying to get the experience to continue to compete in these tournaments to qualify and try to get back to the podium in (the 2016 Olympics)."
The U.S. team is beginning the trek to qualify for the Olympics with the NORCECA Champions Cup this week at Joe Louis Arena. The four-team tournament will feature round-robin play against Canada, Cuba and Mexico.
The top two teams from this weekend qualify for the World Cup in Japan; the top two World Cup teams automatically qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The U.S., ranked fifth in the world, likely will get a stiff challenge from Canada, which is ranked 14th but is one of the emerging teams on the world stage.
"The game plan is simply to qualify for World Cup. This is a big challenge for us in that these guys play overseas all year long and then we get them for two weeks and we're supposed to go play a really important tournament — that's a challenge," Speraw said.
Part of the difficulty in competing is that most of the players are on different club teams, such as Poland, Russia and other parts of Europe and return for a short period to play on the national team.
"All these guys have been in the system for a long time, but then they go overseas for eight months and play in different offensive systems, different setters," Speraw said. "It's like playing with a different quarterback and then coming in and in two weeks trying to play in a big game."
For the U.S. team, it's an opportunity to augment the experience of veterans Matt Anderson, Paul Lotman and David Smith — who played on the 2012 Olympic team — with young players such as 22-year-old setter Micah Christenson and 23-year-old outside hitter Taylor Sander.
"I love it. To see the talent we have in the U.S. coming up, it's inspiring to me to see where our program is going to be and see where our youth is," Lee said. "We have a high school kid, T.J. DeFalco, who's in the gym with us and, at 18 years old, he can hang with some of the best in the world."
For Speraw, the plan has been to transition to a younger roster, keeping up with the rest of the top teams in the world, who have a balance of youth and experience. It's taken time to develop young players, but now it's starting to pay off.
"There's a lot of influence on younger players in other countries that we don't have. It's because we haven't brought enough young players into our system at a young enough age," he said. "We almost had to (this time). We had a group of guys who were there for 12 years that were the core group of guys that won a gold medal in 2008 and were hanging on in 2012."
For Christenson, who is a senior at USC, it's a grind, as he just finished his college season and moved straight into the schedule for the national team. But learning from some of the veterans has been an easy transition and will pay dividends in the future.
"It's been great; they've been welcoming us with open arms and been very professional coming to the gym.," Christenson said. "To be able to compete with these veterans, to compete as teammates and peers, has been a blessing."
Anderson, who is the three-time USA Volleyball male indoor player of the year and plays professionally in Russia, sees the Champions Cup as a good time to bring experience and build on the youth infusion, even if it takes a few years. But playing on club teams for eight months a year makes it difficult to work with national team because of the quick turnaround and the short time to work with the American players.
"Over time, your muscles and your body become used to a system and a certain way of playing," he said. "Even though we're not with the national team the whole year round, we prefer our system and we believe it's the best system to run in the world. We can practice and work on our skills that will increase our abilities as a team when we're overseas."
NORCECA Volleyball Champions Cup
Format: Four-team round-robin tournament; top two teams advance to World Cup
Where: Joe Louis Arena
Teams: USA, Canada, Cuba and Mexico
Today: Cuba vs. Canada, 4 p.m.; USA vs. Mexico, 6 p.m.
Friday: Canada vs. Mexico, 4 p.m.; USA vs. Cuba, 6 p.m.
Saturday: Cuba vs. Mexico, 4 p.m.; USA vs. Canada, 6 p.m.
All matches are free and open to the public.