Volleyball

SANDCAST is the leading podcast for beach volleyball and stories in the volleyball world. Hosts Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter take listeners into the world of the AVP, FIVB, NORCECA, and any other professional beach volleyball outlets, digging deep into the lives of the players both on and off the court as well as all of the top influencers in the game.

Episodes

Let it sink in, if just for a second, that in a tournament where a pair of Sunday regular teams – John Hyden and Ryan Doherty, Reid Priddy and Theo Brunner -- were elsewhere in the world, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb were in an elimination match for fifth.

Six of the eight AVP tournaments in 2018 were won by either Dalhausser/Lucena or Gibb/Crabb. And they had to play one another, in the contender’s bracket, on a Saturday evening, for fifth.

Meanwhile, the eight seed – Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb – had emerged unscathed from the upper half of the winner’s bracket, and the six – Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger – from the bottom half.

Yes, yes, the one seed still won the tournament. In an event in which Crabb and Gibb didn’t really play their finest volleyball until that late Saturday evening, they still emerged victorious. But gone, possibly, are the chalk-walk days of the men’s AVP, where one can safely bet on few upsets, where qualifier teams are dismissed quickly, painlessly, where the mid-tiers are the mid-tiers and the top teams are untouchable.

The same team that won the entire tournament was pushed to three sets in its first match, by qualifiers Kyle Friend and Duncan Budinger. Then they went three, again, with Riley and Maddison McKibbin, and again with Dalhausser and Lucena, and again in a semifinal rematch with Bourne and Crabb.

This was a tournament where the 21 seed – qualifiers Logan Webber and Christian Honer -- beat the 11 – Chase Frishman and Piotr Marciniak – 21-11 in the deciding set, and that 21 then pushed the 14 – the McKibbins – to three.

It was a tournament where Sean Rosenthal, one of the best defenders in United States history, paired with Ricardo Santos, one of the best blockers in the sport’s history, were relegated to the contender’s bracket after a first round loss to Troy Field and Tim Bomgren.

“What kind of a draw is that?” Field said, laughing.

It’s a draw begat from an ever-deepening talent pool, where the older establishment continues to win – “Old man Jake Gibb, still doing it,” Bourne said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter – and the younger generation, with the likes of Field, is pushing its way up.

“I’d like to see a year where, unless it’s me, we see a new winner every time,” Bourne said. “We went for a while where it was always Phil or Jake and Casey.”

That era may be gone. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a record for new winners this year. Same goes, too, for the women’s side, which is seeing its average age of main draw players sink and sink and sink, as 16-year-olds Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft qualified, along with high schoolers – and USC recruits – Audrey and Nicole Nourse.

“We’re getting to a point where there’s no good draw,” Bourne said. “A few years ago, we were watching blowouts in the finals…the better our domestic tour is, it’s good for the sport. And if the AVP keeps growing, adding more prize money each year, more points, that’ll create enough opportunity for the back of the main draw players to stay afloat, to keep living. That’s the goal.”

 

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It’s funny, sometimes, the path the universe can choose to take you. One minute, you’re lying on a training table, your torn shoulder being worked on. You’re pondering if this is it, the last tear. Perhaps it’s time to move back to Florida. Have kids. Raise a family. Move on.

The next, you’re on a call with Kerri Walsh Jennings, the greatest to ever play the game, one of the most dominant athletes not only in the sport of beach volleyball but of all time. She’s looking for a partner, someone to make a run at the Tokyo Olympics. You’ve been to the Olympics before. You fell short, going 0-3. The sting is still there. You want more.

So you take the offer. Your career isn’t over. In fact, this may just be the beginning.

This could be the exact moment everything – the knee surgeries and shoulder tears, moving across the country to a state you never wanted to live to, making a career out of a game that you didn’t pick up until after college – has circuitously led to. Maybe this is the reason for all of that.

Such is the story of Brooke Youngquist Sweat, one filled with tremendous adversity but magnificent toughness, both of the mental and physical sort.

She never meant for beach volleyball to be a career. Her boyfriend in college, Nick Sweat, played. Every now and then she’d hop in. She gave it a go for a bit but didn’t like it much. Wasn’t for her.

Then she tried again. Suddenly, the gal from Estero, Fla., the one who would work on her dad’s rock quarry over the summers, was moving to California. Suddenly she was traveling to AVP qualifiers. And then she was qualifying. And winning.

Suddenly Brooke Sweat had become the very personification of all things Southern California, the one chasing a pipe dream on a beach, dropping everything to do so, traveling with the rolling circus of grinders and hopefuls that is the AVP Tour.

Only it was working.

It was in 2012 that Sweat moved to California. Not coincidentally, a year later, partnered with Jen Fopma at Huntington Beach, she won her first tournament. When she wasn’t winning, she was contending, as Sweat, in 2014 with Fendrick, made five straight finals, meeting the same foil every time: Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross.

“I just wanted to be on the court against her, she’s always going to make me better,” Sweat said. “I never thought I would be playing with Kerri. Like, no. So it’s kind of cool to be in this position, especially after not knowing if I was going to be playing ever again.”

So now here she is. Her knee is healthy. Her shoulder, as is Walsh’s notoriously troublesome shoulder, is rebuilt. On the road with them will be physical therapist extraordinaire Chad Beauchamp.

The next two years will be the final push for both Sweat and Walsh Jennings. And then Sweat will return to Florida, where her heart has always been. It will have been a long and winding journey, though what else would you expect from this wonky universe of ours?

What fun would the straight path have been, anyway?

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The talk always turned to Taylor.

As Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb grew and developed as a new team, climbing the world ranks, piling up wins that once could have been perceived as upsets – over 2017 World Champs Andre and Evandro, over Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, over Italians and 2016 silver medalists Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo – most looked to Crabb, the 26-year-old quicksilver fast defender, as the reason for that success.

It’s a justifiable stance, and not entirely wrong. But Gibb, appearing on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, while giving Crabb his due, also pointed to another source of that success: Rich Lambourne.

“We’ve got a guy with a gold medal around his neck,” he said.

Not that you’ll hear Lambourne mention that gold medal, earned as a libero on the U.S. indoor team in the 2008 Olympics. In nearly an hour on SANDCAST, it came up just once, in passing. The vast majority of his many accolades went unmentioned as well – Best Libero of the World League in 2007, NORCECA Continental Championship 2007 gold medal, being named best libero as the U.S. won their first World League title in 2008, the fact that he played in every set of the Beijing Olympics in which the Americans won gold.

No, that just wouldn’t be Lambourne, a paragon of humility, self-deprecation and sarcasm. A struggle of many players-turned-coaches is turning off the player inside them, one that Brazilian Jose Loiola admitted he struggled with. Lambourne laughed. He had no such struggle.

“What’s been interesting to me, it’s been a huge and ongoing learning process for me because I don’t have personal, professional frame of reference to the game,” Lambourne said. “Jose has 20 years of repetitions and tournaments that he went through in this particular discipline of the sport, and I don’t. I have, I think, some technical expertise that has some high degree of transfer that I can bring, but the rest of it – strategy, how can we accomplish getting that team out of system, or how can we accomplish putting them in positions we want them to be in that are advantageous for us, it’s vastly different outside than it is inside. So all that stuff is stuff I had to learn, stuff that I’m still learning, that’s still evolving.

“So that’s been the challenging, and what’s been fun.”

They’ve created a collaborative dynamic, Lambourne, Gibb and Crabb, begat from three vastly different perspectives on the game. Lambourne is the indoor specialist with a sharp mind for the game. Gibb is one of the all-time greats, a three-time Olympian with a likelihood of making that four. Crabb has set himself firmly in the conversation as one of the best defenders in the world.

“I try to bring what I have to them, and they try and fill in the gaps with, in Jake’s case, 20 years of experience at the highest level,” Lambourne said. “And in Taylor’s relatively short career, how much amazing stuff has he done? So I’m never going ‘Uh, no, let’s do this.’ I’m saying ‘Here’s what I think, here’s what you think, so let’s decide so we’re all on the same page.’”

That same page, at the moment, has put Crabb and Gibb as arguably the best team in the United States. It's put them on track for Lambourne to appear in his third Olympics, Gibb his fourth, Crabb his third. Just don't expect Lambourne to take much, if any, credit. 

"No, I take full credit for Taylor's success," Lambourne said, laughing. 

So there it is, the only type of credit Lambourne will take: the sarcastic type, full of self-deprecation, and nothing about the gold medal hanging from his neck. 

 

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There they stood, the four Americans, bundled in four to five layers of UnderArmour and other form-fitting warm weather gear. Bundled in beanies and gloves, headbands and, underneath it all, hand and feet warmers tucked in their makeshift soccer cleats and gloves.

They – Emily Hartong, Katie Spieler, Karissa Cook, Allie Wheeler – had descended upon Moscow, Russia less than a week before Christmas to play volleyball. It does not take an astrophysics major or scientist or really anybody with exceptional intelligence to determine that this was not the typical volleyball tournament. It wasn’t on a beach, where they are all pursuing careers. No, this was on snow, not a surface befitting three who earned degrees from the University of Hawai’i and another from USC.

“We were compared to the Jamaican bobsled team,” Spieler said, laughing, on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. In a way, the comparison fits. Few would expect Americans to specialize in a sport that is legitimately never played on U.S. soil, aside from a lone exhibition at Mammoth Mountain in 2017. And yet, the comparison doesn’t really fit at all, for while the famed Jamaican bobsled team, which made their Olympic debut in 1988 and is the subject of the wonderfully popular film, Cool Runnings, was more of a gimmick, failing to finish their qualifying run, the Americans ran the table.

Five straight matches they won, closing with a three-set win over Russia in the finals.

“It was crazy,” Spieler said. “Definitely the best team we played was that Russian team we played in the finals. They were scouting us for at least an hour, with their coach, in the V.I.P. tent, so intense. Karissa had to go back to the tent to grab her bookbag and they went silent, like ‘Whoa.’ We were so confused at what they were scouting because we just had no idea what we were doing on the court. We were just kinda going for it out there.”

It doesn’t really matter what surface it is for Spieler. She has won on the beach, as she did at Seaside, one of the biggest non-AVP or p1440 domestic events of the season, this year alongside Cook. She has won on dirt, as she did with Cook at a NORCECA in Martinique. And now she’s done so in the snow, though with a bit different of a wardrobe.

“Hand warmers were super key,” Spieler said, to which Hartong agreed, mentioning she had two in her shoes.

“All in the toes,” she said, laughing. “Arch was fine. It was all really interesting. It was fun, though. It was so much fun.”

Hartong, too, has enjoyed success at every level, and now on every surface. She won a state title at Los Alamitos High School, was a two-time Big West Player of the Year at Hawai’i, named the Best Foreign Player on her pro team in Korea, qualified for the Hermosa and Manhattan Opens in her first year on the AVP, and is now a gold medalist on the snow.

“We had a really good time, laughing on and off the court,” Hartong said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it does become a sport.”

 

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It began as something fun. Nothing much more than, well, why not? Why not put two childhood friends on the same team? Friends who play the same side, the same position, who had never played defense at a professional level.

And yet there Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb were, winning in Manhattan Beach, finishing with a seventh. Winning in Chicago, improving to fifth. Winning in China, claiming a gold medal. Winning in Hawaii, making a Sunday. Winning in Las Vegas, nearly stunning Russia’s top team, Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, for a bronze medal. Winning despite Bourne not having played for nearly two years. Winning despite Bourne tweaking a rib. Winning despite neither of them really having any clue what to do on defense at the game’s highest level. Winning despite neither having played much right side in their careers.

And now here we are, in 2019, with the Olympic race beginning in earnest this week at The Hague, and Bourne and Crabb, the team that few, even themselves, predicted to be legitimate contenders, or even a team at all, are training full-time, pushing for a berth to Tokyo in 2020.

“We’re gonna stick with our plan,” Bourne said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “We’re still a new partnership, obviously. Last time we played in 2018 it was a honeymoon phase, even though me and Trevor have been playing against each other our whole lives. We had a lot to figure out, were just winging it at the end of 2018, so now we gotta figure out what our system is, figure out how the hell to play defense, and so I’m excited.”

The commitment establishes Bourne and Crabb as the only split-blocking team in the U.S., and one of the few in the world at the game’s highest level. Currently, Spain’s Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira, Latvia’s Janis Smedins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Brazil’s Evandro Goncalves and Andre Loyola are the handful who have been able to succeed with neither partner specializing in either defensive position.

“You just feel like you should specialize because the rest of the world is,” Bourne said. “I’m super excited about it. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in being able to do every skill. Indoors, I played libero a little bit at USC, played middle blocker, so I’ve taken a little skill set from each position indoors and that’s what’s developed me for beach. I didn’t like being a specialized blocker even though it’s my favorite skill and the one I probably took the most pride in the last five years.

“But now I get to do it all. I’m stoked on that.”

He knows there’s going to be a learning curve, that their quick success was perhaps aided by the unconventional style and the lack of preparation teams could do against them. Which is why the Olympic race is not a sprint, but a two-year international grind, one Bourne and Crabb are now set on doing together.

“At the end of the year, we both took some time, and we weren’t for sure going to play with each other, we took time to figure out what was best for ourselves individually, but we both kind of came around – this is too fun,” Bourne said. “Why not, you know?”

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In 1997, there were six countries with beach volleyball coaches for their national teams. Perhaps one of the most unqualified to do so was one of them.

Jeff Alzina had never coached on the beach prior to ’97, nor had he ever really played at much of a high level, having made just one AVP main draw, in Chicago of 1992. But he still trained with the top guys, setting up drills and competitive practices, making it so that his “biggest experience [on the beach] wasn’t necessarily competing at a high level, but training at a high level,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

Being the practice guy everyone turned to paid off far more than being one of the top guys there to practice.

In September of 1997, the FIVB held a stop in Los Angeles, at the UCLA tennis center. Not long prior, Athens had been awarded the bid to the 2004 Summer Olympics, meaning Greece would have a bid for a beach volleyball team. Only, they didn’t have a team to send. So a few Greek representatives went to the U.S., then the unquestioned beach volleyball powerhouse of the world, to recruit someone who could launch their beach program. It would be someone young, preferably without a family, seeing as they’d have to relocate to Greece. Someone crazy enough to take on a beach volleyball program without a single beach volleyball player.

Someone like Jeff Alzina.

“They liked the way I worked with young people and thought I’d do a good job,” Alzina said. “So I was the national team’s director and head coach for men’s, women’s and junior volleyball.”

He got an apartment, was assigned an assistant, and then began scouring the country for beach volleyball players, with the goal to recruit a team who might become good enough to be competitive by the time the 2004 Olympics rolled around.

Alzina had a more expedited mission in mind. He found two indoor players by the names of Vasso Karadassiou and Efi Sfyri. They had played a few beach events, enough to be ranked 63 in the world.

Within a year, they were ranked No. 12, qualifying for the Sydney Olympics.

“It was surprising to a ton of people but I saw the talent in them right off the bat,” Alzina said. “To this day, I think the right-sider, [Karadassiou], was one of the best right-side defenders to ever play the game. They won a European Tour stop they had never won – they had never even medaled. So these girls just became national heroes and the federation went bananas too and went ‘Oh my God, let’s keep funding this thing. This is great.’ So the national tour grew, the juniors tour grew, those girls went on to be legends.”

And the legend of Alzina began. In Sydney, Alzina ran into Barbra Fontana, one of the best to ever play the game for the U.S. She had seen the work Alzina had done with Greece and offered to hire him to coach her and Elaine Youngs.

“After that hire, Elaine was good friends with Kevin Wong, Kevin said Elaine had only told him good things and…” the rest, you could say – and Alzina later would – is history.

He was hooked. And because he still hadn’t been coaching for long, his learning curve remained steep. He watched 25 hours of film a week, cutting it up on VHS tapes he still has at home. He began statting matches, reading everything he could get his hands on.

“It was like getting your 10,000 hours of coaching in one year,” he said. “It’s just a little bit of dumb luck, right place, right time, with some motivation.”

Since leaving the Greek program, Alzina has coached nearly three dozen Olympians and several hundred professionals in 83 open finals and counting. He has coached the USAV’s Elite Developmental Program and is currently overseeing its youth teams, which recently returned from a successful trip in Argentina, with two top-fives from the boys and girls teams.

This year, he helped with Trevor Crabb, who not coincidentally enjoyed the most successful year of his career internationally, with two gold medals and nearly a bronze in a four-star Olympic qualifier in Las Vegas.  

In January, he got the call from Stein Metzger, whom Alzina coached in the 2004 Olympics, asking if he’d like to be his volunteer assistant. Alzina left a post at Long Beach State, where he had helped turn a program around from 13-14 to 26-10 in two years, and took the volunteer spot with the Bruins.

Metzger told the Daily Bruin that with Alzina, UCLA might be able to become a top-five team in the country.

In May, they won their first National Championship.

“I kinda thought Pepperdine was going to win it all and I thought USC had the talent to be in the finals again,” Alzina said. So it wasn’t going to be easy. He knew that. And when they lost in Gulf Shores to Florida State in their second match, he didn’t turn to the film, as he is wont to do, or to more reps, or to the weight room. No, one of the best coaching moves Alzina made as a Bruin was take the girls mini golfing.  

“After that game, one of our freshmen said ‘I got something to say,’” he recalled. “And she said ‘Guys, we were supposed to lose this game. This year is not supposed to be a runaway for us. We’ve got to have a wakeup call and we’ve got to grind and that was the loss we needed. And it just sent this chill vibe to everyone where we’re not panicking, not going back to video to find out what was wrong with them. They just had to shed something off their back and look forward and be positive, and they did.”

So underestimate Alzina if you will. But from Greece to Fontana to the USAV youth to Crabb and now UCLA, Alzina is going to find a way to get his team – guys or girls, old or young, foreign or domestic – to win.  

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John Mayer stood outside the player’s tent, not looking particularly disappointed despite being knocked out of the Huntington Beach Open less than an hour prior. He and Trevor Crabb had played their best match yet, he said.

Norway’s then-relatively unknown youngsters, Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, had simply played better.

“The blocker,” Mayer said, “reminds me of Phil [Dalhausser].”

A 20-year-old kid? Compared to Phil Dalhausser?

Had it been almost anyone else making that statement, an eye roll, a sigh, would have been acceptable. But Mayer isn’t one to simply dole out hyperbolic comments or undeserved praise. By year’s end, his comparison didn’t seem absurd, rather prescient.

Eight months later, Mol and Sorum are the undisputed best team in the world, and indeed, Mol was named the FIVB Blocker of the Year, with Sorum claiming Defender of the Year. As a team, they won Gstaad, and Vienna, and Hamburg, and then made yet another final in San Jose.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that anyone would win three tournaments in a row,” Sorum said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “I would have said absolutely not.”

Perhaps only Mayer could have foreseen it. There’s no real reason anyone could have forecasted the breakthrough, not to these heights, at least. Prior to the Gstaad Major in mid-July, a Norwegian beach volleyball team hadn’t won a medal since 1997. The same year Mol was born.

It was uncanny, their poise in such a moment.  

“We didn’t think about that at all,” Mol said. “You can’t think about that at all or you’ll lose. You have to stay in your own bubble. We don’t think about the crowd. We don’t think about what if we win and what can happen if we win. We just think about our game and the next ball and what we’re going to do and make a plan for every ball.

“When you see the videos we are really calm and really focused and not that many emotions from us.”

“We also,” Sorum added, “had a little bit of luck.”

They’re endearing, these Norwegians. Impossibly humble for such accomplished athletes, ones who rose from the qualifiers to the top of the world in half a year’s time. It’s a humility begat from both being products of a small town – Mol’s village has 500 “inhabitants,” as he described it – and taking the time to see the world in all of its massive beauty.

They’re volleyball players, yes, but they’ve taken on much more than that. They don’t simply bounce from hotel to hotel, AirBNB to AirBNB. There’s more to life than volleyball for them.

“I was sad for like two minutes in Hawai’i,” Sorum said, “and then I was like ‘Yes! We get to go see Hawai’i!’”

“I was stoked!” Mol’s brother, Hendrik, a University of Hawai’i alum, added.

They’ve explored, drinking in not just the beach volleyball life but the lifestyle that comes with it. In the gap between Warsaw and Espinho, Portugal, they saw a good deal of Poland. After getting knocked out in Russia, they saw Jay Z and Beyonce. Between San Jose and Las Vegas, they’ve become honorary South Bay residents after checking Yosemite off the bucket list.

It’s how they stay fresh, enthused, thrilled about this warp-speed lives their living.

“I think that’s really important just to get our minds off of volleyball for a little,” Mol said. “There is so much volleyball and also, in our family, we talk volleyball all the time. It’s really good just to get some days off when we’re not playing. I think that’s really important to keep our minds fresh and not always think about volleyball.”

While they give their minds a rest from volleyball, nearly everyone in volleyball is thinking about them.

“This off-season,” Jake Gibb said, “there’s going to be a lot of Norwegian film going around.”

You don’t have to look hard for it. They upload every match, along with highly entertaining vlogs of their travels, onto their YouTube channel, Beach Volley Vikings, for all the world to see. And that’s exactly the point: They want to grow the game. If they can put out information that will help others learn, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

“Just watch some video of these guys,” Hendrik said. “It’s great learning from these guys. They’re great athletes, they have some of the best technique in the game. Check them out for sure.”

Lord knows the rest of the world is.

As for the Norwegians?

They’re checking out the rest of the world.

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The beginning of the best year of Katie Spieler’s burgeoning career began at once brutally and spectacularly.

The brutal, as it tends to go in sports, preceded the spectacular, setback was succeeded by breakthrough.

“One of my worst matches was my first game in Austin,” Spieler said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was super bummed because I felt mentally not on, physically not on. I never call anyone on gamedays, but I called my sister and I was just like ‘I need your advice.’ Her advice was to just ‘Go out and be you. You don’t have to go out and try to be super confident and super aggressive. Just literally be yourself on the court and that’s when you’re going to play your best.’”

That initial 13-21, 22-20, 11-15 loss to Jace Pardon and Brittany Tiegs in the rearview, Spieler and partner Karissa Cook won their next four matches. Just like that, Spieler had gone from minor identity crisis to her first career AVP semifinal, blowing well past her previous career-best of seventh, at Chicago of 2016, all the way to the semifinals, her first Sunday.

“It felt way different,” Spieler said of the semifinal. “The vibes on a Sunday are totally different from even late on a Saturday. There’s so many fewer teams there and there’s a big crowd, and Austin was super weird because there was a rain delay. I think we’ve learned a lot since then just to take it as another match, but I think it was ‘Oh my gosh! We’re in the semis!’ Playing your game is just how you should approach every match.”

 And it seems their own game works just fine. In five of the next six tournaments, they’d match or improve upon that previous career-high, finishing seventh or better in the final five events of the year.

“It was great learning with Karissa and getting better,” Spieler said. “Each tournament, unless you win, you end on a loss, so there’s always that, and there’s so much I want to work on and get better, but yeah, it was a great season.”

It was a season in which Spieler more than doubled her career prize money from the previous four seasons combined. A season in which, for the first time in her career, she didn’t have to play in a single qualifier. A season in which, once again, her and Cook tossed out many of beach volleyball’s norms and won and grinded in their own decidedly unique style.

“I don’t think it was one certain thing, but [Karissa] was coaching at Stanford all of last year so our practice was just playing in tournaments,” Spieler said. “That continued thoughout this season but for me this off-season I just worked on myself, and moving down [to Hermosa Beach] was huge. And [Karissa] just worked on herself this off-season and when we got together we were that much better because we had both worked on what we needed to and we got better as the year went on. It wasn’t one certain thing, we just both have a growth mindset and are working to get better individually.”

With the AVP regular season over, Spieler is left with perhaps two tournaments remaining on the 2018 calendar: a Norceca qualifier – and potentially the three events for which it would qualify them – and, potentially, an AVP Hawaii wild card.

Of the women’s teams vying for the wild card spot, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the AVP taps Spieler and Cook, both of whom played for Hawaii, both of whom have a significant following on the islands.

Wild card or not, Spieler is simply going to continue doing what she does best: find a way to keep on winning.

“I don’t really set goals that I need to reach this goal by this date,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been like that. It’s more like, ‘Ok, put my head down, grind it out, have fun, play,’ and then when I surface, it’s like ‘Oh, nice!’ If I did these things, great. My goal is just to keep playing at the highest level I can play for as long as I can play, because I just love playing volleyball.”

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There are exactly two indicators in Jake Gibb’s house that there is a professional volleyball living there.

One is a panorama of the 1976 Manhattan Beach Open, the year Gibb was born. The other is a panorama of the 2005 Manhattan Beach Open, the first of three occasions in which Gibb would win and cement his name onto the famed Manhattan Pier.

“It’s just kind of cool to see what it was when I was born, and you see the crowd just lined up like 30 deep watching, I think it was [Steve] Obradovich and I forget who he was playing with,” Gibb said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Then I have my first win, we played actually Nick and Phil, and I played with Stein [Metzger], and it’s a picture that Stein gave me after.”

After that?

Nothing. Nothing from the guy who has been to three Olympics and once, in 2012, finished ranked No. 1 in the world alongside Sean Rosenthal.  

“Those,” he said of the Manhattan panoramas, “are the only volleyball pictures I have.”

It really shouldn’t be all too surprising coming from Gibb, who has for years been one of beach volleyball’s most humble ambassadors. It’s not uncommon that his fellow AVP veterans liken him to Tim Duncan, the soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer after a brilliant career with the San Antonio Spurs. It’s easy to see the comparison, for the most notable characteristic the two share – aside from being excruciatingly modest, rarely succumb to any theatrics, unanimously respected by their peers – is this: They just get the job done.

Since the AVP began hosting full seasons again in Donald Sun’s second year of ownership, in 2013, Gibb has won 16 AVP tournaments and competed in five more finals. He has won in Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, in Shanghai and New York, St. Pete’s and Atlantic City. He has won in the torrential rain, as he did in New Orleans of 2015, and stifling heat (Manhattan Beach, 2016).

And, age be damned, at 42 years young, he’s doing it as well as he ever has. In four events this season, his second with Taylor Crabb, Gibb has made at least the semifinals in all four and thrice competed in the finals, beating Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in Seattle.

“I feel like age really isn’t in the equation for me,” he said. “It’s how I’m playing and how I feel and my desire to play and I love playing and I feel like I’m playing well and I feel like I can keep increasing my knowledge of this sport so I want to keep doing it.”

At the moment, it seems he’ll be doing it for another several years longer. Throughout the year, he and Crabb have only improved, finishing their last three FIVB events in the top 10. They claimed a fourth in a major in Gstaad, losing a thriller against current world leaders Anders Mol and Christian Sorum that would have pushed them into the finals.

Two weeks later, at a major in Vienna, they came out of the qualifier to take fifth.

Two weeks after that?

Manhattan Beach, Gibb’s favorite stop. Again, he was in the finals, and had it not been for a swing that went two inches too long at the score freeze in the second set, he’d have had his fourth plaque on the Manhattan Beach Pier with his fourth partner.

“It’s raw right now is where it is,” he said. “I’m going to need some time to let it sit. Like anything, you need time to learn from it, because right now I’m not in that space. Right now, it’s a car ride home by myself with a lot of F bombs and grabbing the wheel.”

There’s not much time for reflection. Two days after Manhattan, Gibb began coaching duties for his son’s soccer team. Then a NORCECA qualifier on the day after that, one that begins the Olympic qualification process. Then it’s onto Chicago, the Netherlands, Hawaii, Vegas, maybe China, he isn’t sure yet.

What he is sure of is this: He wants to go to Tokyo.

And he isn’t ready to retire just yet.

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It’s a wonder how Caitlin Ledoux did it, given that she operates with the same 24 hours a day, the same seven days a week, as the rest of us.

There she was, working full-time at Lululemon. There she was, coaching two or three club teams and a high school team.

There she was, playing full-time professional beach volleyball, making three quarterfinals and her first career Sunday in Hermosa Beach, capping the year as the AVP’s Most Improved player.

“I worked a lot,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Literally seven days a week coaching for four hours a day. That’s what I mean. I was overworked, I was exhausted, my body was struggling to keep up with what I was doing mentally, physically, everything. I just needed to hit that reset button.”

On the court, 2017 had been her most successful year. Off it, it had been both mentally and physically debilitating, something that didn’t go unnoticed by her partner for the final three tournaments, Maria Clara Salgado.

“She knew I was struggling here with my nutrition and my workouts and my working, I had been working a ton. It was too much. She said ‘Come down to Brazil, let’s see what works for you, because what you’ve been doing isn’t really working. Let’s put the reset button on and see if it works.’”

And so, for three months of the “off-season,” Ledoux went to Brazil, getting reps six days a week from four different coaches. She switched her weight routine, swapping out Olympic lifting for more functional movements. She overhauled her nutrition.

“It was the first time I’ve ever felt like a professional athlete,” said Ledoux, who has been playing professionally since she first qualified on the AVP in 2012. “That was career changing. It was amazing.”

Indeed, it seems it has been career-changing. This year, Ledoux has arguably the best case to again take home the AVP’s Most Improved Player, making the quarterfinals in New York with Salgado before getting the call of a lifetime, from perhaps the most dominant female player in the game today: April Ross.

"It was pretty funny because in New York she texted me and said 'Hey I need a practice partner for these days, can you practice with me?' And I had never played or practiced with her so I was stoked to practice with her for two days," Ledoux said. "And I was in the car with my mom and she texted me and I said 'Mom! Guess what just happened?' And she said 'April asked you to play.' And I said 'Yes!' It was awesome." 

With Ross playing behind her block, Ledoux made her first final, which may be the match of the year on the AVP thus far, a 21-19, 19-21, 16-18 loss to Emily Day and Betsi Flint. Two weeks later she did it again with Geena Urango, making her third career Sunday and second straight losing once more to Day and Flint in the finals, 17-21, 21-16, 7-15.

Another three weeks after that, in Hermosa, Ledoux was back on a Sunday, falling in three to Ross and Alix Klineman, 14-21, 21-18, 9-15.

“A lot of it is just personal growth about myself and having the right support system around myself the last year and a half,” Ledoux said of her blink-and-you-missed-it rise. “Having that support system and the coaches and helping you figure out what you need to do, I’d say that honestly is the biggest thing.”

What you need to do. It’s a simple concept for Ledoux. Identify what your goal is. Figure out the next step.

Just do.

Olympics, she knew, has been her goal since she was a little girl. How would one get into the Olympics?

Travel. A lot. With no promises of a return anytime soon. So there her and Irene Pollock went, jet-setting across the world, beginning in Russia of 2014. Over the next three years, they went to 16 FIVBs in 10 different countries, qualifying in some, whiffing on others, taking every risk they could, because there were goals to reach and one ladder to get there.

Just go.

“It was hard, but the same time it wasn’t,” Ledoux said. “Irene and I had the same goal and that’s to make the Olympics and we knew that was what we needed to do. We needed to just drown ourselves in all the experience of traveling and losing and having to play these single elimination matches to get that experience. I look back on that year and it was a very draining year but I also learned a lot.

“When you look at the end game: what’s your goal? I had to do it. It’s a no-brainer.”

And sure, it may have been rough for a while. There may have been a learning curve on how to travel internationally, particularly when doing so in, say South Africa.

The investment is beginning to see returns, dividends in the form of a bronze medal (in China with Sarah Sponcil), a silver (in Australia with Jace Pardon) and a gold (in Thailand with Emily Stockman).

“I think there’s probably a more responsible way to do it than the way I did it,” Ledoux said of climbing the ranks of the FIVB. “But I’ve really enjoyed my life the last five years of just doing it and saying yes to a bunch of experiences. One of the cool things about this career is I look back on the last five years and all of the crazy memories I have of going to all of these places and a lot of times I had fun because we lost out super early and we didn’t know how to book flights yet so we’d book our flight home a week or week and a half in these places and we lost on the first day and now we have a week in South Africa and it’s ‘What do we do?’

“I look back on these last five years and I wouldn’t change anything. If you’re looking to just start, I would say set your goal and jump in.”

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