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Volleyball

The leading podcast for beach volleyball and stories in the volleyball world.

Episodes

It’s May 16, 2018, the eve of Camryn Irwin’s debut as an Amazon Prime broadcaster calling AVP tournaments. She gets a call from the AVP. They inform her that she’ll be calling play by play.

“Ok!” Irwin says. “That’s new!”

“We don’t know what the format is going to look like, we’re just going to figure it out as we go.”

“Ok,” Irwin replies again.

“Don’t screw up. This is our brand.”

Now it’s Amazon on the horn, and they’re telling Irwin that “This is our Amazon brand. Don’t screw up.”

“Ok,” Irwin says one more time. “Here we go. I’m calling play by play tomorrow!”

A year and a half later, she’ll recall this experience on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. And she’ll say “talk about fear,” because she’s human, and any human being would be more than a bit intimidated when put into those circumstances. But she did it all the same. And she’s still doing it, establishing herself as a popular and lovable personality on the AVP and Amazon, because this is Camryn Irwin, and she’s done all that before.

Fear? No, fear isn’t the AVP and Amazon asking you to do something you know you’re talented at, that you know you’ll figure out, because you’re the queen of figuring things out on the fly.

Fear is when load up on a block, jump, and, just as you’re about to peak, you feel your back “just release,” Irwin said.  “There is nothing supporting me and there was nothing I could do. I landed and my whole spine went thwack. I went back to go serve the next point and I remember tossing it, I went to jump, and I couldn’t breathe.”

This was in Sweden, just two years into her professional indoor career after a successful indoor stint at Washington State. It would take a month for Irwin to find out that she had a rupture in her back, that she had absolutely no business playing volleyball after that jump but she did so anyways because volleyball was what Irwin knew and volleyball was where her teammates and friends were. So she finished her season on her broken back, and when she returned, she figured she’d move onto the next phase of her life’s plan: Irwin was going to become a professional beach volleyball player on the AVP Tour.

Until she began training, and she began to lose feeling in her legs.

She is positive enough to label the injury a “total God thing,” because without that injury, she wouldn’t be spending her summers in the booth with her good friends Kevin Barnett and Dain Blanton. She wouldn’t be spending exponentially more hours in beach volleyball than the players she’s calling. She wouldn’t have a job she hesitates labeling a job because it’s just so much dang fun that it feels wrong to call it anything but a dream.

“It’s literally a dream job, because it’s not just about volleyball, it’s not just about athletes,” Irwin said. “I get to work with two of my best friends and their amazing families on a regular basis. My job is to share your story, so you can impact someone else’s life. That’s the stuff that gets my engine going.”

Irwin was one of the rare collegiate athletes who saw past her career in her respective sport. Even as a successful setter at Washington State with professional prospects down the line, she kindled her passion for storytelling, sacrificing sleep to shoot, edit and produce videos only a handful of people would watch. 

“I knew I had this gameplan: I want to tell stories, I want to shape lives,” Irwin said. “I was so driven. But even with that drive in my brain, I was like ‘How in the world do I do this? Where do I even start?’ I’m out from the sticks in Washington State. I grew up on a farm, there’s no network television. It’s not like there’s some guy saying ‘Get an agent, get a head shot.’ I just said ‘Grind it out. Connect with people. Talk to people, and fail 100 times a day and figure it out.’ Still to this day people will ask me how I got to where I am and I say a lot of hard work without knowing the outcome.”

When she returned from Sweden to finish her degree at Washington State, she was able to call football games, learning under the legendary – and enormous personality – Mike Leach, one of the finest minds in the sport. So when she’s calling games for ESPN or the Pac-12 Network, she’s doing so with the education from men like Leach, who is 139-90 in his career with two Pac-12 division titles to his name, and Graham Harrell, the current offensive coordinator at USC. The jobs she was working paid $15 a piece; the education she gained continues to pay dividends, mapping out a rapidly ascending career as a broadcaster.

“It was all about building relationships and writing stories on these guys and I was just hoping the Pac-12 would give me a chance and they did,” Irwin said. “There’s no training for this. You just have to be super ballsy, and you have to be ok sounding like an idiot and not knowing what you’re doing and just listen to yourself, critique yourself, be super hard on yourself, and trying to find out what your voice is.”

Her voice, as creatives know, will be an ongoing project for the remainder of her career. It’ll evolve, improve, change. But her passion for what she does and the people with whom she does it, be it the athletes she’s calling or her colleagues calling with her, is what makes Irwin so good at what she does. It’s what allows her to run off four hours of sleep during AVP weekends, nerding out on volleyball by studying her self-made binders. It’s why she can take calls from the AVP and Amazon the night before her long-awaited debut in beach volleyball and know that it’s going to work out fine.

“I was a volleyball player since I was 5 years old,” she said. “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where beach volleyball wasn’t a thing. I love the indoor game and I love the beach game, but my biggest thing is to be able to help build and represent a brand and a sport that is so cherished to me, especially something that I got to participate on the indoor side in college and overseas for a few years, I feel like it got ripped from me. To be so involved in a sport that is still so dear to my heart and to have that shown, I can’t work hard enough for this sport because I love it that much. The 4 hours of sleep at night, the stupid binders I make, the relationships – it’s all so genuine to me because I love this game so much and I love all the people in it.

“To get the call from Amazon and the AVP was way more meaningful to me than anybody really realizes.”

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A GARAGE IN AN UNKNOWN LOCATION – It was all wrong. Mykel Jenkins is all about the soundtrack of not just sports, but life. He wants it to be beautiful, and when something is done right, it doesn’t just look beautiful, it sounds beautiful. It’s a symphony, with violins and cellos and tubas, all working in perfect harmony.

And here was Tri Bourne, “thundering in here with his heavy feet, ‘Boom! Boom!’” Jenkins said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “And I was like ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to break my self-made floor.’”

Jenkins looked at John Hyden, the only beach volleyball player he was training at the time, and asked him what in the world he was doing. Hyden was 40 at the time, and he was bringing Jenkins a project?

“Just look,” Hyden, fresh off a split with Sean Scott, with whom he had a wildly successful partnership, told him.

Jenkins saw some things in the 22-year-old Bourne, yes. But it was maybe one out of every three jumps. Hyden wasn’t going to be beating Phil Dalhausser with this kid. Bourne had been walking out of the gym when he heard that. The PG version of this story reads that Bourne simply disagreed with that sentiment, and if you’d like the R-rated one, you can listen to the podcast. Either way, “once he did that,” Jenkins recalled, “I turned to Johnny and said ‘That’s the dude.’ From that point on, I knew.” And Jenkins had his second beach volleyball player as a client.

He’s a difficult guy to track down, Jenkins. He is at once well-known and a secret in beach volleyball circles, and he likes it that way. He joked – maybe – that he was breaking protocol by having a podcast in his garage, the location of which we’re just going to keep secret because it seems that’s what Jenkins would like. Jenkins is responsible, in large part, for Hyden’s unprecedented longevity and Bourne’s blink-and-you-missed-it rise from 22-year-old kid who was barely qualifying to, in the span of a single season, a regular finalist.

Initially the trainer for Hyden’s wife, Robin, Jenkins was “always inquisitive about an Olympic athlete with his notoriety and skill set,” he said. “And she’d talk about how certain things were hurting him and I’d mention a few things I’d do. As fate would have it, he got into a few situations where they were nagging him so she talked him to coming to see her ‘actor friend.’”

Yes, the ‘actor friend’ is Jenkins. He’s acted in 17 movies and had a 13-week contract on General Hospital as Officer Byron Murphy. He’s currently in post-production on two of his own films where he’s producing, directing, and starring. You might say he’s a man who wears many hats, though here Jenkins will shrug and say that no, it’s all one hat.

It’s all art. Jenkins is here to make something beautiful, be it on the big screen or on the beach.

“The next time you watch an average athlete, listen to the sound of the game and listen to how sloppy it is,” Jenkins said. “It’s like somebody with a drumset who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Then go watch someone special and close your eyes and listen to the way that music plays in your ear. You don’t realize it because you’re caught up in what you see. The soundtrack of that – if you took the soundtrack off Rocky, you’re not watching it. It’s like [Floyd] Mayweather: There’s a sweet science. If the music is beautiful – that’s how I know you guys are playing well.”

Which is why he hated Bourne’s thunderous feet that first afternoon in the gym. There was nothing beautiful about his boom booming all over the gym. While Hyden was flitting over the mats, fast and soft, Bourne was providing an unwelcome percussion to the concert. But then five months passed, and when Jenkins closed his eyes, listening to his team work out, he couldn’t tell who was who.

“I knew we were onto something,” he said. And he was right. Bourne would pile up accolade after accolade: AVP Rookie of the Year, AVP Most Improved, FIVB Top Rookie, AVP Best Offensive Player. He and Hyden would win the AVP Team of the Year in 2015 and make nine finals from 2012-2016. They qualified for the 2016 Olympics but, because of the country quota allowing only two teams per country to compete, were left off, despite finishing the year ranked fifth in the world.

Jenkins joked that Bourne needed a plight. While Hyden had “worked in oblivion” for ten years on the beach before reaching the top, Bourne had been plucked to it. And then that plight came, in the form of an autoimmune disease that sidelined Bourne for the better part of two seasons. Recalling that moment, Jenkins paused, fighting tears. And it is there that you can see why he only trains a select few, why he won’t take dozens of players and train them as he has Bourne and Hyden and, now, Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman.  

“I don’t like heartbreak. I like Hollywood endings,” he said. “So if I don’t see a Hollywood ending, I’m not participating. I like champagne.”

Which is why his list of players he trains includes three – Bourne, Stockman and Larsen – who are contending for the 2020 Olympics, and another, Traci Callahan, who is on her way up the ladder.  

“Once you see something special, God takes over,” Jenkins said. “If I don’t see you in the movie, you’re not going to be on the set. But if I do, we’re going to see it through, until we’re going to be on the big screen. I want to build characters who can handle any situation, and then watch them handle it. That’s captivating to me.”

His workouts leave anyone who’s allowed to try them heaving. Stockman, one of the fittest women on tour, said that his workouts kick her ass. Larsen said this past season was the best shape she’s ever been in.

“You’re never comfortable,” Bourne said. “So you’re whole gym session is all about finding your music, your flow state.”

Jenkins wants you to find your music among chaos. When he’s watching Bourne or Larsen or Stockman on Amazon Prime, “I turn the volume down, and I watch,” he said. “And I know when to turn it up, because I can see the violins lining up and the tubas because you can hear the beauty of the game.”

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Mike Placek was just looking for the simple stuff. He didn’t need to know tendencies or flaws, what his opponent’s strongest and weakest shots were. He didn’t need to know serving habits or whether they preferred a backhand or a forehand.

All he really wanted to know, as the top-ranked youth tennis player in Southern California, was whether he was playing a 5-foot-9 guy from Argentina or a 6-foot-6 monster from Australia.

“When I went to play, there were zero scouting reports, and a lot of the guys were foreign, so the only way we’d have any idea of who we’d be playing in our next match was this college tennis site,” Placek said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It was super basic but it showed you who played for what school. It kept a super good data base, had a ranking based on an algorithm, and it was basically all I needed and all the tennis players lived on it.”

Placek’s talent was in tennis, but not his passion. He’d go on to have a solid career at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but he didn’t have any designs on going pro afterwards.

“I didn’t love it, but I was good at it,” he said. “Even watching the Australian Open right now, it makes me nervous.”

Afterwards, then, he turned to where his heart resided: beach volleyball. He’d grown up around the courts in Del Mar, toted along by his mother. He idolized the guys there, such as Sean Scott, and when an AVP would stop in Southern California, there you could see Placek, sitting behind the court, watching 12 hours a day.

“That’s how I learned how to play,” he said. “It was a life I wanted.”

In a decade as a professional, Placek would make an AVP semifinal, in 2008 with Russ Marchewka, and in 2014 and ’15 he’d become one of the top players on the NVL, winning a third of the events he entered. But when his playing career came to a close, and his coaching career at WAVE Volleyball in Del Mar began to take off, he found himself staring down the same exact problem he once had as a tennis player.

As he attempted to follow WAVE alum at the college level, he found nothing.  

“I’d have to go on the [school] website, go through a bunch of different things, go onto the next kid,” Placek said. “I was like ‘How is there nothing more simple than this?’ So I started talking to some indoor college coaches, asking them if there was really nothing more going on with the beach game and they said no, so I said ‘Ok.’”

Placek recalled the tennis website he and every other youth tennis player lived off as a kid, and he created exactly that. He hired a programmer and up went collegebeachvb.com, which has become the one-stop shop for all things college beach volleyball.

It’s simple and comprehensive. There, you can find every individual’s record: who they played and when, the results, their rank. Everything you’d need to know, from Division I to CCAAA, is but a few simple clicks.

Three years in, it’s the most reliable site for good, objective information, incredibly beneficial for coaches, fans, and players alike.

“It’s pretty cool and going back to where I started it, there’s all these college kids coming up, and if you’re a pro and don’t know who this kid is, maybe go on the website,” Placek said. “I’m hoping it’ll translate so maybe the juniors will look at the universities and see if they’re junior stacked or freshmen stacked. It’s for the college game but I’m hoping the juniors and parents of juniors can see what programs are out there and how many matches they play. I’m hoping it will be more of a resource for the youth.”

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It’s a late Tuesday morning, and Falyn Fonoimoana has brought the goods again. She’s even brought some freshly baked banana bread, for her coaches, Arthur Carvahlo and Pompilio Mercadante, who smiles and says that happiness is bread and sugar.

Happiness is a great many things for the 27-year-old Fonoimoana. It’s getting a big kill and celebrating it loudly, with a beat of the chest. It’s putting powdered-sugar boot prints for her 7-year-old son, Tavoi, on Christmas morning, showing physical evidence that Santa came. It’s ensuring that Nicolette Martin, all blonde hair and blue eyes, makes it through a throng of fans in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It’s talking a little trash, discovering the sassy side of her new partner, Corinne Quiggle.

Mostly, though, happiness for Fonoimoana comes from being, simply, Mama Falyn.

“Everyone calls me mama for a reason,” Fonoimoana said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I teach recovery, I bring magnesium, they used to make fun of me because I bring a huge suitcase where it’s all the remedies for A, B, C, D that could happen while you’re traveling. I try to be, ‘Hey, I have all this stuff here, if you need it.’ It all comes from things that I’ve experienced and it comes out of love. I love all of my partners that I’ve experienced. I’m invested.”

Most on the beach scene have only seen this side of Fonoimoana, the loving, caring, doting partner who has a track record of bringing out the best in everyone she plays with. She is quick to admit this wasn’t always the case. The niece of both an Olympic butterfly swimmer and an Olympic gold medalist on the beach, Fonoimoana was, not surprisingly, one of the best on every team she ever played. She won a state and national championship at Mira Costa as a freshman, burying balls alongside Alix Klineman, and over the next four years she established herself as the No. 1 ranked high school player in the country.

As a freshman at USC, she started in 31 of 34 matches, finishing second on the team in kills. This 19-year-old Fonoimoana, however, was not the one who brings magnesium and electrolytes and gluten-free banana bread to practice. This Falyn Fonoimoana was, by her own admission, “a crappy teammate when I was young.”

And then, unexpectedly, wonderfully, life happened. Fonoimoana became pregnant with the boy that would change her life in all of the best ways motherhood can change an athlete of prodigious talent and limitless future and, somehow, almost unbelievably, none of the worst. It wasn’t her body that underwent the most lasting of changes – she was working out within five days of giving birth – but her mindset.

“I think that was a huge part of not just growing up but finding who I am as a person and who I wanted to be,” she said. “Being young and volleyball just being everything for me, I didn’t know what life outside volleyball was. It helped me learn what kind of parent, what kind of woman I wanted to be, what kind of spouse, like these are all things that came to fruition once it happened because I have to show him who he wants to be through my actions, and I wanted it to always be positive and I wanted him to see those organic.

“I’m still young, I’m only 27, but I’m really happy with where I am. I love my life, I get to help people, and I get to learn and be open minded about people. Thank God he gave me my son because mentally, he made me ten times stronger, to make me more empathetic, to make me more personable, to be able to slow down and not just think ‘go, go, go’ and really appreciate daily life. I owe my son the world because he makes me be better.”

She extended her indoor career another five years, competing in Puerto Rico, Poland, and on the 2015 U.S. Pan American Games team that won gold, until she had to return home full-time to retain custody of Tavoi. The career move was not an unwelcome one. Fonoimoana had always known that beach was the long game. Being a full-time mom in the United States simply expedited her path.

As it has gone throughout her athletic life, it didn’t take long for Fonoimoana to adjust. She qualified in six of seven AVPs in 2018 with Alexa Strange and Pri Piantadosi-Lima, won a NORCECA in Punta Cana with Molly Turner, with whom she also took third in p1440 Huntington Beach. In the second tournament of 2019, she made her first Sunday, finishing third in Austin with Martin. She piled up five more NORCECA medals, the final two of which were gold, with Quiggle, putting her on the international route she has set her goals on this upcoming year.

“I knew that I wanted to play FIVB, but I was new to the beach game, I needed to figure it out,” she said. “My first year it was ‘Ok, get your feet wet with the AVP. Figure that out. Figure out the travel, how to get it paid for. If you can get to FIVBs, great, if not, get to as many internationals as you can.’ This year I want to get into three- and four-stars.

“I’ve watched my uncle [Eric Fonoimoana] and several other family members go through this exact same thing and I feel like I have enough experience on my back that I know I can get my feet wet and see where I am.

“If I need to, I’ll choose an FIVB over an AVP right now because I need to push myself and see different kinds of volleyball. You need to see every level, you need to see Olympians, you need to get your butt kicked.”

How much Fonoimoana will get her butt kicked remains to be seen. It’s not something that has happened much over the course of her 27 years, but she’s open to the possibility. She knows that it’s the right path, not necessarily the easiest one and that, above all, it’s the example she wants to set for her 7-year-old boy that has taken quite a bit after mom.  

“I want him to be better than me,” she said. “I want him to have more opportunity than me. I have to build that path and if I show that discipline, everything I do in that aspect is for him. My why is Tavoi. I teach him all the time it’s free to be kind.”

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Tri Bourne found a funny way to describe a learning moment he and Trevor Crabb had towards the end of the 2019 season, their first as partners and first as split-blockers.

“Only at the end of the year did we figure out: ‘Oh, our timing is off. We’re not doing defense right,’” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

Not doing defense right? And still finishing 2019 as the second-ranked American team in the Olympic race? Still being ranked tenth in the world, finishing the season with a bronze medal at the Chetumal four-star?

“It seems simple, but when you’re in the middle of the game, it’s really hard to implement a high level, sophisticated defense with all the right movements and everything,” Bourne said. “So in the middle of the year we were learning and trying to apply it but only some of it stuck. Basically, we think of last year as our foundation and now it’s time to grow on that.”

Bourne and Crabb may be in the most interesting position as any team in the United States, male or female. They enter the season as one of the coveted two American teams who, if the Olympics were to take place tomorrow, would be competing in Tokyo. But the race is close enough that it doesn’t really matter, because the Olympics are not going to take place tomorrow, and at the end of the day, it will likely come down to the Rome Major in June.

What Crabb and Bourne do have is this: An upside – and downside – that is entirely unknown. As Bourne mentioned, neither of them really knew what they were doing on defense last year, and they still finished fourth at the World Championships, taking both Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum to three sets.

Who knows what the potential upside could be? Then again, who knows how quickly they can begin to, in Bourne’s parlance, do defense right?

Such a quandary is not a quandary at all for either Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb or Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. Gibb, Dalhausser and Lucena have seven Olympics between them, and Taylor Crabb is on the short list of best defenders in the world. In other words: Defensively speaking, you know exactly what you’re going to get on their side of the net.

With Bourne and Trevor Crabb?

“There’s a lot of stuff to clean up,” Bourne said. “Continue to buy into the stuff that [coach] Jose [Loiola] is bringing to the table. We were spending so much time learning how to play this new style of volleyball that I don’t feel like I ever blocked the way I used to, not even close. So I’d like to get back to that for sure.”

What Bourne is grateful for, at the moment, is the fact that he’s back in this situation at all: Six months of Olympic qualifying to go, sitting in the second American spot. It was only two years ago, sidelined with an autoimmune disease, that Bourne wasn’t sure if he’d be able to play beach volleyball again, let alone at a level that could qualify him for the Olympics.

Now here he is, autoimmune disease under control, tenth-ranked team in the world – and he didn’t even “do defense right” the whole time.

“If we play well and get better at volleyball, if we’re a better team, and we play better, and I become a better volleyball player, I’m good with the result,” Bourne said. “I’m gonna be pissed if we don’t make the Olympics. Don’t get me wrong. That is the goal, but what are you going to do? You got better. You improved. And these other teams did better? Ok, I’ll live with it.

“Right after the last Olympic quad I was like ‘This is my time.’ It’s cool to be in this position and I’m super grateful and it’s going to be fun no matter what happens.”

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Dain Blanton is smiling. For almost an hour and a half straight, sitting in a room talking about beach volleyball and a life that has revolved around it for almost three decades now, he smiles. At some point in the conversation, it just becomes almost impossible to be in anything but a great mood, because you’re around Dain Blanton, and Dain Blanton is, at 48 years old, living his best life, and he’s really, really happy about it.

“I got a 22-month-old son, my first kid, and that’s keeping me busy,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I got the new head coaching job at USC and that’s about four months old, so that’s been really busy. But I was telling Tri before we began the show, when you’re doing something that you love and it’s fun, you’re fired up to get up and get into work. It’s been awesome. It’s been really great.”

The more you talk to Blanton, the more you wonder if there has ever been anything that wasn’t great. A Laguna Beach kid, he grew up as a dual-sport athlete, good enough in basketball and volleyball that he garnered scholarships for both. He opted for Pepperdine volleyball, and in 1992, he led the Waves to a National Championship. Five years later, he became the first African American to win an AVP event, when he and Canyon Ceman won the Hermosa Beach Grand Slam.

That in itself would be a fine career for anyone. A college education, an historic win, decent prize money. And yet Blanton was only getting started. The next year, in 1998, he and Eric Fonoimoana began a push for the 2000 Olympic Games, in a men’s field that was as wide open as any, competing against some of the biggest names in beach history, including two who top the all-time wins list in Karch Kiraly, who was partnered with Adam Johnson, and Sinjin Smith, who was attempting to qualify for a second straight Games with Carl Henkel.

No matter. Blanton and Fonoimoana, against all odds and most anybody’s prediction, pulled it off. Then they saved their biggest magic trick for last when they stunned one Olympic opponent after the next, shocking Ricardo Santos and Ze Marco de Melo in the gold medal match.

“I remember going down to the Olympics and people were like ‘Take a lot of pictures, have fun’ you know what I mean?” Blanton said. “And you’re like ‘I see what you’re saying.’ And we went down there and we really enjoyed it. And Eric and I said ‘Let’s really immerse ourselves, we’re going to take it all in.’ It was awesome. Sydney was prepared so far in advance. They were so fired up to have it.

“Me and Eric always said ‘Let’s bring home some jewelry, let’s bring home a medal.’ Bronze, silver, gold, we didn’t care. You want to win gold, but if you can focus one point at a time, and one match at a time, and that’s what we were able to do. And it’s cliché, you hear it a lot, but to actually do it, ‘next point, next point,’ but if you watch, Eric stuffs a point and he turns around and tackles me, I’m almost in shock because I’m so locked in to ‘We got another point.’”

By now in Blanton’s life story, which at the Sydney Olympics was just 28 years in its authoring, it would be impossible to doubt anything Blanton would set his mind to do. What had he tried and not accomplished? So when he began to see the writing on his metaphorical beach volleyball wall, and he was tired of the travel, and his body wasn’t quite responding like he was used to, and he set out to pursue a broadcasting career, Blanton began like he did everything else: At the bottom of the ladder.

And he relished it. He reached out to an executive producer at Fox Sports West named Tom Feurer and requested not job or a shot or a gig, but just to shadow. It took an entire year for the gold medalist Olympian to get a call back – to shadow high school football.

“I went and I shadowed and they said the next yea next year we need a high school football sideline reporter. It was a cool thing to do, and a lot of people say how did you get involved in broadcasting and it was interesting to take a step back. People think ‘Oh you’re an Olympic gold medalist, you’re all this’ and you go and broadcast high school football,” Blanton said. “You have to leave the ego on the side, you want to learn a new trait, you’re late to the game, and it was the greatest place because you could totally mess up.”

Here it all begins to make sense, why everything Blanton touches turns to gold. Why he was able to win Hermosa Beach, one of the biggest events on the AVP schedule, as the seven seed. Why he and Fonoimoana were able to pull off what Blanton labels, and not incorrectly, as the biggest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history. Heck, just to qualify for Sydney – leaping Kiraly and Johnson for the final spot – in the last tournament of the qualification period, he had to beat Jose Loiola and Emanuel Rego and then, immediately after, Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel.

Once in, most didn’t give them a chance.

“Once we got in, people were like, ‘You know, Karch should probably go. He won the gold medal in 96, c’mon, he’s Karch, he won ’84, 88, 96,’” Blanton recalled. “So that put a chip on our shoulder.”

Not that he’s ever really needed a chip on his shoulder. Blanton’s found a way to earning everything he has in his remarkably decorated life. Which is why he had no problem shadowing a reporter for a high school football game, which led to a gig as a sideline reporter for high school football, which turned into a Clippers game, which turned into more Clippers games, which turned into five years of covering every single Clippers game, flying with the team, being the face of Los Angeles Clippers basketball media.

“I remember I got on the [team plane] for the first time, and in the galley in the back there’s sushi, it’s a nice layout, and I’m just killing it,” Blanton said. “I’m thinking ‘Oh wow, this must be the food for the plane!’ So I’m grinding, feeling good, and I get in, no announcements, no anything, no one’s telling you to buckle up. Five minutes into the flight, the flight attendant says ‘What do you want to eat for lunch?’ And I’ve already killed it. But this was just appetizers. But then you land, you go to Four Seasons, the Ritz, you’re living the good life. It was a great experience.”

And for five years, it was. But there was always a pull back to volleyball. Blanton knew it. Though the break away from the game was nice, at the back of his mind, it was always there. When he began entering the coaching ranks, he began – where else – at the bottom of the ladder: volunteering at USC, learning under Anna Collier. There, he’d win multiple national titles, coach the most dominant team in all of college sports in Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, and observe Collier and how she ran the program. When Collier resigned, and the job opened up, Blanton, among dozens of others, jumped at the chance.

By now you know what happened next: He succeeded. Because this is Dain Blanton we’re talking about here, and Dain Blanton is going to succeed.

“It’s a totally different experience, being the assistant to being the head coach because every little detail, the buck kinda stops with you,” he said. “You can’t be like ‘Oh, what do you want to do?’ You need to be there and constantly be making decisions which is a lot of responsibility and you just want to create an awesome experience for the players, get them a good education and get them a couple of rings on their fingers because you know that’s what it’s all about. I’m having a blast so far for sure.”

So Blanton is going to smile, because there really isn’t any reason for him to be doing anything else, is there?

At 48 years old, Blanton’s still just living his best life.    

 

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Sinjin Smith knows the world is different now. That guys just can’t play volleyball for four hours, jump train for one, take a ride down to South Mission Beach and then play for another four. Jobs. Kids. Families and responsibilities and such. But he is curious. Curious as to why the beach volleyball culture has changed so much from his days. Days when he and the boys would put a ball down on center court and have at it for an entire day. No need for drills or simulated plays.

You just played. And you never stopped playing.

“You’d want to get on the No. 1 court, and you’d play all day,” Smith said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Eight hours! Imagine all those guys that set up matches, if they all went to Sorrento or Manhattan Beach. All of them. Or Santa Barbara. There’d be a group, and you’d be bummed out if you were third in line to get on center court. You wanted to be on the first court. You’d compete all day long.”

And the guys who did that won. They won more than anybody in the history of beach volleyball has ever won. Mike Dodd, Karch Kiraly, Smith, Tim Hovland and Randy Stoklos – all members of the Hall of Fame, all of whom are proponents of the play all day ethos of training – combined to win 513 domestic tournaments in their careers. It might have been more difficult to get any of them to take a break from playing volleyball than it was to get them to lose.

“If I won the tournament, I’d take Monday off. If I didn’t win, I’m going hard on Monday, all the way through,” Smith said. “We were winning quite a bit, and I’d feel bad sometimes. If it was an easy win, if I didn’t feel like I was totally torched, I’d go out on Monday anyway.”

What Smith found was that the more he played, and the more he played, in particular, with Stoklos, the easier winning became. Why change?

“He was a big 6-5,” Smith said of Stoklos, with whom he played 198 events and won nearly half. “He jumped so well for someone his size, and he played so much volleyball growing up that he had an incredible sense for the game. And of course, he had incredible hands, probably the best hands on the beach. He could set any ball from anywhere. We complemented each other very well. He was great at the net at a time when blocking was becoming more important for the game, and he could dig, but he was better as a blocker, and that freed me up to do in the backcourt to do what I do. We played to each other’s strengths.

“Communication is so important, right? But it got to a point where we didn’t even have to talk. I knew what he was going to do in every situation, and he knew what I was going to do. When you play long enough together with somebody, that’s the beauty of it. You’re not running into each other. You know where he’s going to be, and you know where to go. And if he gets in trouble, I know exactly what to tell him and if I get in trouble he knows exactly what to do.

“It didn’t seem like we had to do anything special or different. It was just natural for us to do what we did.”

What they did was win more than any other partnership in American beach volleyball. When this point comes up, Smith shrugs. He doesn’t quite understand all the hype about the weight room, unless it’s to rehab an injury or work on a specific movement. He’s a proponent that you play on the beach, and the beach is therefore where you should train.

He and Kiraly, with whom he played 14 events and also won a National Championship at UCLA, would put on weight belts when they played at South Mission. When Smith wanted to get a workout in, he’d just jump – jump with no approach, jump with a full approach, slide sideways for three shuffles, slide the other way for three, jump on one foot, jump on the other, then do it all over again.  

“We’d do that every day,” he said. “We couldn’t get enough volleyball, indoor, outdoor, it didn’t matter. We just wanted to play.”

Not drill or lift or do yoga.

Just play.

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On April 10, 1995, Carl Henkel was studying for his law school finals when one of the strangest, most unpredictable and, at that time he would have likely surmised, miraculous phone calls rang in around four in the morning.

“Hey,” said the voice on the other line. “I need you to play this weekend in Spain. Can you make it?”

Henkel nearly dropped the phone. Was that Sinjin Smith on the other side of the line? That Sinjin Smith? Asking him to play?

“How long do I have to think about it?” he asked.

“Well,” Smith recalled telling him on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “You’ve got about ten seconds.”

Ten seconds? Here was Henkel, a 25-year-old who had cobbled together a good but not great professional volleyball career. He had played in more than 30 AVPs, finishing in the top 10 twice, and was playing most of his volleyball on the four-man tour. Whittier Law School was, without question, the wiser career move.

So Henkel did what anybody else would do when Sinjin Smith asked you to make a run at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics: “Of course!” Henkel recalled telling Smith, in an interview two winters ago. “Forget these finals. I don’t need these finals. I’ll meet you there!”

Henkel called up his instructors and told them the situation. They worked out a plan to delay his finals. The next day, Henkel was on a plane bound for Marbella, to play a tournament with Smith, the man who had helped co-found both the AVP and FIVB tours and is still considered to be one of the greatest of all-time.

You may, however, be wondering how Smith got here. From the late 1970s through the early 90s, until a bum knee began limiting him, Smith was arguably the best beach volleyball player in the world. Nobody had won more tournaments or more money than him, not even Karch Kiraly or Mike Dodd or Randy Stoklos or Tim Hovland. Nobody had done more for the game.

So how did he end up with Carl Henkel, a guy who hadn’t finished better than ninth on the AVP Tour, who didn’t make the indoor national team, who had spent his most recent days in beach volleyball on the less-heralded four-man tour? Who was studying for a law school final, far away from a beach?

The answer can be boiled down to one name: Ricci Luyties.

A gold medalist on the 1988 indoor team in Seoul, Luyties was a sublime talent, a 6-foot-5 freak of an athlete out of Smith’s hometown, Pacific Palisades. He wasn’t quite the talent that Stoklos, Smith’s longtime partner and the first man to make $1 million in beach volleyball, was, but he had won seven AVPs. They had agreed to make a run for the 1996 Olympics, gunning for the berth that was guaranteed to the top American finishing team on the FIVB. He and Smith would be all but a lock.  

And then he pulled out with hardly any warning at all. On the morning of April 10, 1995, he simply left Smith a voicemail: The AVP had pressured him. He wasn’t going to play. He was sorry.

That was the day they were supposed to leave for Spain.

Smith had enough on his mind. His first son, Hagen, had just been born. And now he was supposed to find a partner to go to the Olympics? To give up the next year traveling the world on a tour that didn’t pay well? To drop everything and stay in hotels and planes and abandon whatever other responsibilities they had? And he was supposed to find him in a day?

It was too late in the process to pluck someone from the AVP – which was perhaps the point of the AVP pressuring Luyties so late – so Smith turned to the emergency option: The four-man tour.

“Carl was the first to call me back,” Smith said.

The oddest team in beach volleyball, a legend and a clerk, was born. And they were going to make it.

Smith laughs at all of this now, but still with a shake of the head. There was so much infighting then, just as there is now. It was Smith who, with the help of then-FIVB president Ruben Acosta, helped found the beach side of the FIVB Tour. And it was Smith who helped usher it to the Olympics, despite a heavy, though understandable, pushback from the AVP, a tour and union he also helped found.

“We had an event alongside the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona, to showcase the sport for the IOC,” Smith said. “That’s the event that Randy and I were sanctioned $70,000 by the AVP for going [instead of competing at the AVP event in Seal Beach that weekend]. We happened to win that amount of money. And then the AVP kept us from playing in the biggest events of the season, events that we would win most of the time.

“But from that, the sport became an Olympic sport, so it was all worthwhile in the end for us. They said ‘It’ll never be an Olympic sport, you’re just blowing in the wind.’ So it became an Olympic sport. It was awesome.”

Smith and Henkel would go on to finish fifth at the Atlanta Games, though before they bowed out, they put on perhaps the greatest volleyball match of all-time, a 15-17 quarterfinal loss to Kiraly and Kent Steffes.

“I remember that well,” Smith said.

Some will. Some won’t. But nobody can argue the impact that Smith has had on the sport. The AVP continues to operate as the only domestic professional tour, with prize money that is now eclipsing all but three events on the world tour. The world, which lagged considerably in Smith’s days as a player, has caught up, with teams from Norway, Latvia, Germany, Brazil, Russia, Italy all populating the top-10 rankings.

“It took a little while but players started adjusting to the beach,” Smith said. “We were so good because we had a tour. We had a place to compete, and when you have that tour and you can make money and travel around and you can make a lot competing, you have an advantage over any country that’s not competing.”

Now they’re all competing. They’ve all either caught up or are catching up. And Smith still can’t get enough.

“We couldn’t get enough volleyball, indoor, outdoor, it didn’t matter,” Smith said. “We just wanted to play. It was pretty awesome.”

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Joe Houde had just begun his career with USA Volleyball, and there was a dead man was in the road.

“Oh, yeah,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Just not a good day.”

It was certainly one way to start his stint as USA Volleyball’s newest traveling physical trainer. His first trip with the U.S., to a NORCECA in Guatemala. First time to a third-world country. And there was a dead man in the street.

“It was eye opening,” Houde said. “I got off the plane, and I had never been to a third-world country before, and I was like, ‘Alright!’”

It didn’t end there, of course, because this was a NORCECA and nobody knows when the NORCECA adventures will begin or end, only that they will happen, as inevitable as a sunrise. When Houde and the men’s team cabbed back to the airport, a ride the driver expected to take around a half an hour, the ride kept going, and going…and going. A little less than three hours later, the players sprinted through the airport, just making it in time.

Houde was stuck in Guatemala for another day and a half, where he’d fly to Florida, Dallas, and then home, to Boston.

“That,” he said, “was my first trip with USA Volleyball.”

Some may view that as the worst possible start to a trainer’s career with USAV. Look at it from another perspective, however, and it may have been the best. For now Houde has the mindset that his next trip, to China, “was great!” and he said it with such enthusiasm that he genuinely meant it, making him potentially one of the first representatives from United States Volleyball to describe a trip to China as great.

“I just love to travel. It doesn’t matter where I go. It’s about enjoying it, being with these guys, helping them get to where they need to be,” Houde, a Boston native, said. “I’m not going for vacation. I’m going to work. It’s either, ‘Ok, hopefully everybody loses so I can have a trip.’ Well, I don’t want that to happen. Let’s get on the podium so I have to work hard. It’s humbling.”

Houde was there, for the final event of the season, in Chetumal, Mexico, for the most successful event of the season. He helped keep Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb and Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb fresh enough to win a pair of medals, a gold and a bronze, respectively. It was the first time the American men had won a medal in a four- or five-star since Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena took silver in Doha in March.

That’s what he’s about, Houde. He doesn’t get any medals, but he wants nothing more than to see the men and women he’s there to support to come home with them. That’s how he got the job in the first place, anyway. When Sara Hughes was breaking into the professional scene, she recommended Houde, as they were both located in Orange County and he primarily worked on her for recovery.

His foot was firmly in the door. Not that he travels much. USA Volleyball’s budget only allows Houde to travel a few times per year. And so, in between trips where he navigates dead bodies in the road in Guatemala, he has his own practice, Paradigm Chirosport, and also works with the men’s field hockey team, which won its first medal at the PanAm Games in 24 years.   

Houde, of course, takes no credit. This is the guy who told the players to run through the airport so they could make it and he’d be stuck in Guatemala for an extra day and a half.

“I’m a small one percent of their 99 percent,” he said. “It’s very humbling to work for these guys.”

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Mark Burik tried it. You will notice that to be a theme of his life: The man just tries everything. In this case, a young Burik was trying his best, as a freshman at the University of Delaware, to sell his father on a month-long semester in New Zealand. His father balked.

Fourteen-thousand bucks? What was Mark going to learn in New Zealand that could possibly be worth $14,000?

Well, Mark replied, we’re going to go zorbing.

If you’re wondering what in the world zorbing is, allow Burik a moment to explain.

“It’s when you get put in a clear bubble and they send you rolling down a hill,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

So, no, Mr. Burik was not going to hand his son a $14,000 check to go zorbing in New Zealand. But he did have faith that Mark would find his way to New Zealand at some point, and he’d get to go zorbing or bungee jumping or hopping off of bridges or whatever else he would do – and studying was likely not one of them – on his own dime.   

“Once I got the volleyball bug,” Burik said, “I knew I was going to take it as far as I can.”

He means far in every possible sense of the word. Physically, he has gone quite far, to the point that when his longtime girlfriend, Janell Haney, suggests what could be a fun overseas trip for the two, Burik will reply, “Oh yeah, that place is fun.” And then she’ll get frustrated, because she wants to go somewhere new, but finding a new place in the world for Burik to travel is quite a difficult endeavor these days.

He’s gone bungee jumping in New Zealand. Played on the national tours in Austria, France, Norway and Sweden. He’s run volley camps in Germany, Spain, Switzerland. He’s flown in helicopters in Rio, been discouraged at the state of an FIVB one-star in Cambodia.

“I’ve just had trouble saying no to tournaments and saying no to an adventure or trip,” Burik said. “It’s too much fun. There’s too much world to go and see to say ‘No.’ And if volleyball is either your ticket or your excuse, why not?

“I think I love the fact that even if I’m going somewhere to travel, I’ll hunt down my local volleyball contacts, because if you’ve got a sport like volleyball, and you’re pretty good at it, you have built-in friends wherever you go. You don’t even have to do all the tourism stuff and wonder where you have to go because your built-in friends will bring you.”

Burik now is one of those volleyball contacts for players all around the world who are looking for a place to play or train or build a community at any time of the year. Five years ago, Burik founded VolleyCamp Hermosa, a now-booming and wildly popular adult camp of sorts for players of all skills and ages.

He founded it, of course, on some of the most ridiculous premises. He wanted it to be a volley hostel, where he’d find all of the broke and hungry 20-somethings in the sport, give them a bunk to crash in, a court to play on, and a bunch of guys to play with, and let it run wild. It worked for a bit. Burik rented three apartments, squeezing in four bunk-beds in the master bedroom of one.

“It was so much fun and so crazy,” Burik said. “I was cleaning toilets at 3 a.m. getting ready for the next turnover.”

To the surprise of perhaps only Burik, he was evicted from one of his houses – “I did it all legally,” he is adamant to assure you – and has since sent the VolleyCampers to local hotels, where he does not have to clean toilets at three in the morning. Though the hostel vision for VolleyCamp has since changed, the impact of it has only multiplied. Rare is the day you will not see Burik and his coaching staff on second street in Hermosa, teaching from sun-up to sundown, VolleyCampers rotating in and out of the courts the entire day, all year long.

“It’s gotten to a point where it runs itself,” Burik said. This has allowed him to expand into other projects, all in the name of growing the sport. He’s building a YouTube channel, Betteratbeach, with an eponymous website, betteratbeach.com. He’s authoring webinars. Conducting film studies with players from all over the planet via FaceTime and screenshare.

“If you get one, solid piece of advice from one great coach, that’s going to affect the rest of your career,” Burik said. “People think one piece of advice is just one piece of advice but it’s not. It’s thousands of points.”

But it’s not just about improving as a player. It’s about building up this sport that has for so long needed a growth spurt. It’s about building the community that allows players to grab dinners with strangers in Austria, to crash on a couch in Rio, to know the best local spots in Spain, with the only connecting thread being the sport of beach volleyball.

“It goes beyond beach volleyball for me,” Burik said. “It’s about getting a platform. My why is more – get the platform to start making the world better. I think I do that successfully with my coaching. I think I teach people how to be better partners, how to talk to each other better. I teach them how to talk to their partners, similar to how they talk to their wife or girlfriend. You don’t want to nag, you know? You want to build each other up. In the end, my why is about getting a platform and helping, even a couple people. It’ll make their lives a little bit easier.”

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