Towering Tom set on his volleyball path
TOM Wheeler may be honing his volleyball craft more than 13,000km away these days, but the Ipswich Grammar School product was quick to return to his roots when he touched back down in Australia.
Off the back of a highly successful first season playing college volleyball abroad, Wheeler is back in Ipswich and back in the Grammar fold.
He has briefly taken over the coaching reins of the Ipswich Girls' Grammar School volleyball side, with the incumbent coach on long service leave.
"It's been great to go back and get talking to students, I'm in my element," Wheeler said.
"It's good to be able to help out, and see how far the girls can go and how far volleyball can go at the school.
"We've had three games and won one, lost two. But those two games were very close. They are playing really well, just not getting the result. That's what I wanted to see."
When Wheeler last spoke to The QT at the end of 2016, he had just accepted a place in the Australian Institute of Sport's volleyball program in preparation for a sporting scholarship stint at a university in Canada.
Almost two years on, the 19-year-old returned to Australia for the Canadian summer break as Grande Prairie Regional College's Volleyballer of the Year and Rookie Athlete of the Year.
Wheeler also led the country in blocks; an impressive feat for a rookie who arrived "not really sure what my role would be on the team".
"The guys who played in the middle were a little older than me, so I was respectful about that and what I would do, whether that was starting or coming off the bench," Wheeler said.
"That can be hard, especially for rookies. But I got the opportunity (to start), took it and made it my own."
A modest Wheeler believes he is living the dream, being able to leverage his towering 6'8 frame and skill with a volleyball into gaining a tertiary education.
He has completed one year of a five-year Elementary Education degree.
"It's a thing you dream of, to play sport and get incentives from it," he said.
"It was something I set out to achieve in probably grade 10 or 11, and I've achieved it."
In a direct comparison, the former IGS student believes Australian volleyball "does a lot of things well that Canada doesn't, especially at the junior level."
That grounding has helped him flourish in his first year at Grande Prairie.
"I'd say the tactics and the volleyball IQ of players (in Australia) is higher," Wheeler said.
"In Canada, the high school players go out there and just play volleyball. It's more just their athleticism that's on show.
"But that's the nature of volleyball, with all the other sports that are available."
Preparing for his sophomore season, Wheeler was wary of the famed "sophomore slump" and is working hard to assure he does not fall victim.
"Since I've come back I've really focused on hitting the gym as much as possible, and working on the things I needed to volleyball-wise," he said.
"I feel like I'm ready to go back and make a big impact.
"The end goal is so close. It's going to be exciting to see what happens."
The under-20 Australian representative hopes to use the upcoming season to state his case for U23 selection.
From there, his goals are as expected.
"The Olympics would be the ultimate goal, but even just making the Australian senior team is a big goal of mine," he said.
"I've got everything in place to try and get there. Once I finish my degree I'm hoping to head to Europe somewhere and play professionally.
"It's in the back of my mind already, but for now I'm just focused on finishing my degree."
A mature Wheeler knows his education is just as important in shaping his future.
"It's more the security, knowing everything I'm doing is working toward a goal one way or the other," he said.
"Touch-wood I could do my ACL tomorrow, but I'm still enrolled at uni and still doing everything I can to have a normal future.
"I have so much support"
Wheeler said he owed a lot to IGS for providing the building blocks and opportunities which have ultimately set him on a flourishing career path.
"Without Ipswich Grammar I wouldn't be playing volleyball. I wouldn't have trialled for the Queensland teams I made," Wheeler said.
"Under Darren Grose - he's no longer there - and the GPS competition, there's no better memories than playing in front of a packed crowd.
"It's something I think I took for granted. I look back now and think, 'Wow, what an opportunity'.
"I love this school. I'll always identify as an Old Boy, it won't ever leave me."