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.”