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

To read through the old LA Times archives, to dig through all of the gushing, flattering pieces, is to remember Jose Loiola as a man of near mythical proportions, a beach volleyball Paul Bunyan. How hard he could hit! How high he could jump! How entertaining he was to watch! How loud and brash and charismatic he was!

Loiola laughs at those memories. He laughs through a glass of wine, even though he has sworn off alcohol during the week.

It’s just one glass, right?

Nothing compared to what he and the boys could put down during the 90s, when the AVP was a rollicking party dishing out tens of millions per year and Brazil was in its nascent stages of becoming a bona fide beach volleyball power.

Loiola was the first, and for the 48-year-old there is no forgetting the day he and Eduardo Bacil took down the Gods. Back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, the Gods were known as Smith and Stoklos.

In the 86, 87 and 88 seasons, Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos would win 44 of 71 AVP tournaments and three of four FIVBs. You could count on one hand the teams who had a shot at beating them, and Jose Loiola would not have been among them.

It is with a delicious stroke of irony that Loiola and Bacil, a fellow Brazilian, stunned the Americans in their primes. Beach volleyball had been a weekend activity in Brazil prior to 1987. Nothing more. It was a soccer-mad state with beautiful beaches and recreational volleyball.

It was Smith who had a vision for the sport to grow internationally, Smith who worked with then-FIVB president Ruben Acosta to grow the game overseas, Smith who helped form an exhibition match in Rio de Janeiro, awakening the dormant beach volleyball giant that is the nation of Brazil.

Without Smith’s and Acosta’s efforts to establish the game in Brazil when they did, it’s quite possible we might never have heard of Loiola and Bacil. Without the FIVB establishing a beach volleyball branch to its indoor league, there may not be beach volleyball in the Olympic Games, and by extension no reason for Americans to pay attention to Brazilian beach volleyball at all.

But in 1993 there was no longer a choice. They had to watch, and with rapt attention, as Loiola and Bacil, who earned a wildcard to a pair of AVP events, in Fort Myers and Pensacola to begin the season, and then made every main draw after that on points, established themselves as one of the only international teams who could be reasonably expected to beat the Americans.

“I had the opportunity to play with and against the players I had grown up idolizing, the players I had grown up watching,” Loiola said on SANDCAST. “To me, that was the best thing. I’m competing with them and I’m beating all of them. From that point on, I realized if I put my time in and I become more professional and learn the hoopty-hoops, with the discipline and the perseverance, I knew I was going to get far.”

Loiola is not a man prone for understatement, and yet for him to describe his career as able to go far, and not to distances never before seen by a Brazilian beach volleyball player, is an understatement indeed. For at the end of that 1993 season, Loiola had been awarded the AVP Rookie of the Year, the first international player to do so.

In ’95, playing in an indoor beach tournament in Washington D.C., he and Bacil beat Stoklos and Adam Johnson in the finals, marking the first time an international team had claimed an AVP title.

“The AVP was the NBA of volleyball,” Loiola said. “It attracted the best players on the planet. It was, by far, the best tour.”

So much so that the AVP’s status as the premiere tour began to create animosity both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Brazilian federation wanted Loiola to quit playing on the AVP and join the Brazilian national team so he could represent his native country in the 1996 Olympics, its inaugural year as an Olympic sport. The Americans, meanwhile, fought over a similar fault line: Why would they compete on the FIVB, an inferior tour with inferior money, to qualify for the Olympics? What could possibly compel them to travel overseas to play in a tournament for less prize money, against teams that couldn’t compete on the AVP, rather than stay home and play against the best?

While the Americans fought for a U.S.-based Olympic trial, Loiola demurred. He wasn’t going home to compete for a Brazil on the FIVB. He didn’t care about the Olympics. He cared about playing against the best.

And in those halcyon days, the AVP featured the best.

“In 1996, I had the choice,” Loiola said. “Either I go to the Olympics or I stay here and play AVP. I didn’t go to the Olympics. Why would I want to go to the Olympics when I could stay here, play 25 or 26 tournaments, making three times more money, why would I want to go to the FIVB and travel all over the world?”

He didn’t, choosing to remain in America while Brazil sent Emanuel Rego and Ze Marco de Melo and Roberto Lopes and Franco Neto to Atlanta. Neither finished better than ninth.

Loiola had no real reason to change course. Named the AVP Offensive Player of the Year from 1995-1998, he was one of the best players in the world playing on the best tour, with the top competition and more prize money than the sport had ever seen.

And then the AVP tanked.

Years of financial mismanagement had been masked by packed stadiums and electrifying volleyball and a rabid fan base. In 1997, the façade crumbled.  

The AVP went bankrupt. The script had been flipped. To the FIVB Loiola went, rising up the world rankings with Rego, winning the FIVB World Championships in 1999, holding the No. 1 ranking heading into the 2000 Olympics, in Sydney, only to succumb in a stunning upset, finishing ninth.

“We just had a bad game,” Loiola said. “No excuses. Sometimes that just happens.”

It is one of the great shames of the sport that beach volleyball success is measured by Olympic success, for Loiola would never return to the Games. His hips went bed, to the point that he said he “was playing on one leg.”

His final event came in 2009, in Atlanta with Larry Witt. He’s since been inducted into the CBVA Hall of Fame, the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, the Volleyball Hall of Fame.

A living legend. And one who’s now imparting his wisdom on the next generation of them, serving as the coach of Sara Hughes and Summer Ross.

The fire’s still burning, the embers still hot, even as a coach. So disappointed was he after Hughes and then-partner Kelly Claes finished ninth in Fort Lauderdale that he hopped on the first flight out.

Now it’s Hughes and Ross.

He loves Hughes’ fire, Ross’ spunk. He wants to win FIVB Huntington Beach in the first week of May, knowing how much it would mean to Hughes, a Huntington native.

“That’s the one we want to win,” Loiola said. “In our home, our homeland. We’re excited, we’re on the right track. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Perhaps you needed proof. Proof that Sara Hughes is, indeed, the one to fit the headline of this very podcast: That she is fit to become the next face of beach volleyball.

Had you stopped by Huntington Beach last Friday morning, you’d have had all the proof you’d need.

There, on court one, was Hughes, this week’s repeat guest on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, and partner Kelly Claes. There was coach Jose Loiola and mentor Misty May-Treanor. There was Ben Vaught and Tanner Woods, because, yes, Hughes and Claes train with professional men on occasion.  

And there, lining the court was a dozen or so girls, member of the Long Beach City beach volleyball team, watching, studying, looking on.

Taking notes on Hughes.

Yes, they were at the Huntington Beach Pier that day because they had practice – but a Long Beach-based team doesn’t necessarily need to come to Huntington Beach to practice. There were there because that’s where May-Treanor, the director of beach volleyball operations at LBC, was, and May-Treanor was there because, well, Hughes.

There’s a reason Hughes and Claes have landed one Hall of Famer (Loiola) and another who could go down as one of the greatest talents in volleyball history as their coaches. It could be argued – and it often is – that Hughes and Claes, both 22 years old, have more potential than any individual or team in the world, more, even, than the precocious Duda, the 19-year-old Brazilian star and 2016 FIVB Rookie of the Year.

Already, Hughes and Claes have won an AVP, the 2017 season-finale in Chicago. Already they have reached FIVB quarterfinals and landed some of the game’s top names as sponsors.

Already they have broken previous goals and established new ones.

In their first season as professionals, breaking pool in international play was the goal. In their first event, a four-star in Rio, they finished fifth. Now, in just one season as full-time professionals, and a truncated one at that, seeing as they had to miss the early season events while they wrapped up what figures to be the most dominant college run for quite some time, Hughes and Claes see anything less than a podium finish as a shortcoming.

Finishes, though, are but one tangible measurement for the success of Hughes and Claes. There is no barometer through which to measure their “inspiration” to the next generation of beach volleyball players.

For now, you can see it yourself, right there, on the sidelines of court one, watching, observing, taking notes – figuring out ways to become the Next Sara Hughes.

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On one of the walls in Sara Hughes’ bedroom is a poster of Misty May-Treanor. It’s been there since she was little, when Hughes began getting into volleyball, serving as a reminder of what she might become one day should she continue to pursue this beach volleyball dream of hers.

So it struck her when, during a tournament this season, a parent of a young fan approached her and told Hughes that, on one of the walls in her daughter’s bedroom, is a poster of Hughes.

“I was like ‘No way that’s actually happening,’” Hughes recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I am so grateful for that and I hope I can keep being a person young people can look up to for a long time and thank you to everyone who does.”

Did you catch that, at the end? Hughes thanked the fans for looking up to her, not the other way around. In an era where celebrities grow more and more closed off, taking instead to social media to communicate behind iPhones and laptops, Hughes remains open, willing to talk to anyone, pepper with anyone, give back any way she can.

“I’m always just trying to help people,” she said. “If anybody wants to ask, just come up to me, you can ask me directly.”

No different than May-Treanor continues to treat her. 

When her age could still be measured with a single digit, Hughes would head down to the Huntington Beach Pier and sit on the wall, waiting for a chance, any chance, to simply shag balls for May-Treanor. Sometimes May-Treanor would let her pepper or hop in for a drill or two, creating an indelible memory that Hughes will cherish more than likely the rest of her life.

“I love talking to people and I love talking to young girls because I don’t think I’d be in the position I am today if I didn’t have the coaches I had and people like Misty May taking the time to talk to me,” she said. “I love doing the same to everyone else.”

She’s a sponsor’s dream, Hughes. She has the looks – blonde hair, blue eyes, Colgate smile – the smarts – she’s currently on a one-year track to earn her Master’s degree, just a year after delivering a graduation speech at USC – the media savvy, the talent, a voracious competitive drive juxtaposed with a disarmingly charming personality.

Oh, yes. She has earned this position, the right to have Mikasa run her through photo shoots and turn those shoots into posters for young girls to hang on their walls, to point to each night and morning and say “I want to be like that.

Her accolades at USC could fill a small book’s worth of pages, and it’s a wonder if some of her records – four consecutive national titles, a winning streak that eclipsed 100 matches, a perfect 48-0 junior season, four-time All-American – will ever be broken.

Justifiably, this drew no small amount of media coverage, and while she was appreciative – always thanking anyone for taking the time and interest in her – it drove her a bit insane, how those reporters would invariably walk right past her exceptionally talented teammates. On the occasion that the media showed interest in the rest of USC’s indomitable team, more often than not they’d ask questions not about how their match went, but what they thought about Sara and her partner, Kelly Claes.

“I hated that when it was just ‘Oh! Sara and Kelly and Team USC!’” Hughes said. “I was like ‘No, you don’t realize, these girls who are on [teams] two, three, four, to the eighth team, they’re our support system. We would not be close to being good or successful without our teammates. They deserve just as much fame and respect as we do because we’re out there on the same hot court at USC and we’re training, every day, together.”

Her teammates, as she said, were plenty talented, and a number of them – Nicolette Martin, Terese Cannon, Jenna Belton, Sophie Bukovic, Allie Wheeler, to name a few – have already begun making a name for themselves on the AVP Tour.

Yet Hughes, as May-Treanor was, will be the name fans point to as the next in this massive wave of beach volleyball talent rising from the college ranks. She will be the one on the posters, and in the commercials for Oakley and KT Tape and Mikasa and any other sponsor wise enough to sign her.  

She’s becoming the next generation’s version of May-Treanor – the one everyone looks up to – quicker than she could have possibly realized.  

The final question of SANDCAST is reserved for the athletes to discuss anything else they’d like to discuss, anything the hosts may have missed. Most demur, maybe shout out a sponsor or two, thank us for the time.

Hughes, instead, had a message for her fans: “For the young players and any parents who are listening, I love the indoor game and the beach game, of course. So a lot of players are making this decision where they love the indoor but they have to play the beach in college because they think that’s the only thing they can play. I just think it’s huge for young girls to play both if they love both.”

You can teach any volleyball skill there is. But to become the next face of a sport, as May-Treanor once was?

That’s a trait passed down, from one legend to the one who might just become the next.  

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