The child prodigy, the promising young athlete, the early standout; all your usual sports headline-makers. But what of the late bloomer?
The same kudos are deserved to them; especially Tony LeFebre, a 62-year-old retired software engineer who has accomplished much in a volleyball career that has peaked in his later years.
LeFebre has earned 12 national — and two international — championship gold medals playing for the Kings Mountain Fog volleyball club. This despite not joining the world-touring squad until after the age of 35.
“When I was younger, when we were all in our ‘prime,’ I was not a particularly good volleyball player,” LeFebre said. “I did not play at the highest levels, or have any real success.”
The extent of his volleyball knowledge was once a college course he took in Michigan only to fulfill a physical education requirement. LeFebre, now a Davis resident, never envisioned competing among the world’s best players.
“I had no idea I’d reach this level,” he explained. “In fact, I remember a friend of mine who was just slightly older talking about his three national gold medals. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, to be able to say that.’ ”
Years later, he’s holding a recently attained third consecutive USA Volleyball Open National Championship title. The Fog earned it in Louisville, Ky. earlier this month, competing in the men’s 60-and-over division.
LeFebre’s team defeated Canada (2-0) Venezuela (2-1) and Harrisburg, Pa. (2-1) to win the three-day tournament. It was a promising start to a season that will include a trip to Turin, Italy this summer for the World Master Games.
Along with an opportunity to compete against former Olympic athletes, it will also be LeFebre’s first visit to Europe. He and his teammates plan to spend a week touring before and after the tournament.
“It’s a really great thing,” he said. “We also got to go to Sydney, Australia, a couple of years ago. I probably wouldn’t have made the trip had it not been for volleyball. It allows me to travel and see places of the world.”
2013 marked the third straight season that LeFebre has helped the Fog’s 55-and-over squad win a national championship. But he added that foreign competition is often the toughest. LeFebre can still recall the first international team he played, a dominant Polish squad that the Fog defeated for the first of those titles.
Not one to boast, LeFebre doesn’t take credit for all of his success, instead giving it to “the great players I’ve had the fortune to play with, and also to our player, coach and manager Greg Close.”
And his passion for the sport extends beyond the high-level competitions. In fact, when LeFebre is not facing off against ex-Olympians, a weekly drop-in game in Davis satisfies his urge to play the game he loves:
“In volleyball, every touch that you make is dependent on the previous touch. If you didn’t get a good set, you can’t make a good hit. You’re totally dependent on your team.”
And he’s been fortunate to find a position on the court from where he can contribute to that team dynamic, even with arthritis in his knees. LeFebre plays as a libero, a defensive specialist that enters play without formal substitution, but cannot play outside the back row.
“It’s a position that basically requires passing and defensive skills,” LeFebre said. “Right now, since I can’t jump the way I could when I was younger, those are my strengths.
“It’s hard to give up the satisfaction of getting up and pounding and blocking the ball. It was definitely an adjustment to accept being the little guy on the team.”
It’s in that role that LeFebre intends to stay, “as long as my knees hold up and they keep holding competitions for us,” he added with a laugh.
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett