UC Irvine's Austin provides inspiration to younger athletes
LOS ANGELES -- It’s not unusual for Chris Austin to be the only person of color on a volleyball court, but with his play and his work off the court, the African American senior for UC Irvine, is hoping to change that.
Born in Texas and the product of parents who divorced when he was young, he and his mom moved quite a bit before settling in Henderson, Nevada. The Las Vegas suburb, 10 miles from the famous strip, is about as far from a volleyball hot spot as you could expect and Austin’s interests in the beginning were towards more traditional sports.
“My friends all played basketball, so did I when I was growing up,” Austin said. “I played volleyball kind of by accident.”
Austin was playing basketball with a friend when he told him that he was trying out for the volleyball team.
“He was playing volleyball in intramurals and convinced me to go through a bribe by buying me lunch a couple of times,” Austin said. “I didn’t like it much at first, but I ended up sticking with it for two weeks and kind of got the hang of it a little bit.”
Austin soon realized he had a talent for the sport and started to play it more often.
“The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I played a lot, got in the gym and started to take it more seriously,” Austin said. “My sophomore year I made varsity and it was good experience, but I still wasn’t the guy yet.”
That happened the following summer when Austin went to California to learn more about the sport.
“Between my sophomore and junior years I went to a volleyball camp in Long Beach and really dedicated my life to volleyball,” Austin said. “I quit basketball and took it seriously and that’s the point it took off.”
While he started playing with more elite players he noticed something that was glaring. He often was the only African American playing. Part of it was cultural, Austin said.
“My friends played basketball and I lost them when I started playing volleyball,” Austin said. “One of my best friends I played basketball with tried out for volleyball and made the team. His dad made him quit because he called it a girl’s sport. I received a lot of that type of stuff growing up.”
The lack of color in volleyball only got more apparent in his junior and senior years of high school.
“A lot of the guys I play with are from California and they live at the beach in nice houses with lots of funding and they went to private schools,” Austin said. “I didn’t have money to play club, didn’t have money to do anything. I had to walk three miles to school everyday. I wouldn’t see my mom a lot and had to make a lot of decisions on my own and snake my way through some holes to be able to facilitate the things I have wanted to do. Luckily it’s worked out. It could have gone the other way.”
Austin’s high school volleyball coach realized that his player didn’t have the same advantages, but also recognized he was special.
“He told me if I wanted to play volleyball in college I was going to have to give up basketball and start playing on a club team and really dedicate [my] life to volleyball,” Austin said. “He saw my drive and my talent. I talked about volleyball and watched a lot of film. I was in the gym a lot and I was addicted to it.”
Despite the talent, Austin wasn’t getting any scholarship offers. He went to the one place that showed any interest, the University of Hawaii.
“I was actually an outside hitter in high school. I was a 6-2 outside hitter with Las Vegas volleyball IQ [which] is kind of middle of the road, so I didn’t get a lot of scholarship offers,” Austin said. “I went to Hawaii as a walk on and the coaching staff changed and a friend of mine said to give yourself the best opportunity to play at the next level you should become a setter.”
So Austin spent a year at a junior college, honing the setter’s position and got noticed by UC Irvine, joining the team in 2012.
He was the starting setter when the Anteaters won the NCAA championship last season, becoming the first African American setter to lead his team to a title.
“In terms of when the season started it didn’t matter, yellow, brown, purple, whatever, I just wanted to win,” Austin said. “Afterwards it’s nice to sit back and think about accolades. But now it’s all about winning.”
He has used the experience to try and gain more exposure to the sport to minorities.
“I get approached by parents from time to time who recognize me and they say their son looks up to me,” Austin said. “It’s really good to hear. It’s inspirational because without me maybe they might not be doing it.”
Austin’s coach at UCI, David Kniffin, is already seeing Austin making an impact.
“As the game grows and spreads into more diverse areas you will see more kids from other areas playing volleyball,” Kniffin said. “I think Chris [Austin] is a part of that.”