This was supposed to document a typical life of an AVP pro beach volleyball player. But I won’t lie to you; this week has been anything but typical. Don’t think that Volleyball just jumped on the bandwagon; I promise I received this assignment before Dain Blanton and I won the 1997 AVP Miller Lite Hermosa Beach Grand Slam. But when that happened the entire premise of the story changed.
It was a huge victory for both Dain and me. Dain became the first African American to win an AVP tournament. And I avenged my inability to win an NCAA championship by winning the biggest prize-money tournament in the history of beach volleyball [$300,000].
First of all, I don’t normally start my week hung over on Monday morning, but then again it isn’t every day that you win your first Open. The whirlwind that carried Dain and me to a 15-13 victory over Kent Steffes and Jose Loiola in the finals continued to carry me form bar to bar throughout Sunday evening. With my credit card in hand, it seemed I found friends everywhere that I never knew I had. I must have bought 150 beers, 50 of which were poured over me during celebratory dances.
The frenzy continued on Monday as I received about 50 congratulatory phone calls – everyone from childhood idols like Karch Kiraly, Randy Stoklos, and Mike Dodd to my grandparents to high school and college friends I hadn’t seen in forever. That kind of support and recognition was incredibly gratifying and really made the victory sink in.
It would have been a great day anyway because most of the beach volleyball community gathered for a benefit golf tournament to help pay the medical expenses of Bob Heidger, who is the father of AVP player Rob Heidger and has been battling cancer. It was a lot of fun, and it raised about $16,000.
Tuesday was another crazy day. I’ve never had a press conference in my honor before, but today I had two. And they were both at the same time. Dain and I were invited to City Hall to promote the Nike World Championships at 10 a.m. and also scheduled for a national conference call with USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Free-Press, etc. So Mayor Richard Riordan was up front speaking, and I was sitting there on my cellular phone, looking like a pimp. (The company that makes my phone is actually a competitor of the company that’s co-sponsoring the event I was there to promote.)
By Wednesday, things had finally settled down and were close to normal. As usual, Dain and I trained against our good friends Lee LeGrande and Matt Unger, who also play on the tour. After lunch and a quick workout, there’s always plenty to do the night before you leave town for four days. Of course, by this time, I was so emotionally drained from the excitement of the win that I could barely pack my bags. I was looking forward to the flight just to get some down time. But at the same time, I was worried about the post-win letdown.
The Weekly Grind
We’re lucky this weekend. We only have to go to Chicago, so it’s a direct flight. That doesn’t mean that we anxiously await traveling to another city. Being on the road every weekend can get old fast. Don’t get me wrong. It beats a 9-5. But flying 10 to 15 hours a week wears on your body.
Being at the airport does have a certain drama to it, though. It’s a constant balancing act to figure out how long before your flight you should arrive at the airport. Obviously, you want to avoid loitering in the pre-flight lounge for too long, but it’s important to be one of the earlier volleyball players to check in. Why? Exit rows and bulkheads fill up pretty fast with a plane-load of AVP guys. This isn’t the NBA with chartered flights or first class. It’s dog-eat-dog, in a fight to the death for leg room. Hopefully, if you can’t score an exit row, there’s at least an aisle available. If not, the dreaded decision becomes necessary: Use an upgrade sticker or languish in the travel hell that is a middle seat, where you’ll inevitably be stuck between a pungent fat man and a chatty Texan who wants you to meet her Medusian daughter after she’s picked your brain about “that adorable sport…what is it again?…they play that on the beach?” I’m telling you, you haven’t seen a grown man whimper until you’ve seen an AVP player stuck in a middle seat.
This time I got to the airport early and got an aisle. Phew! The next question is when to get on the plane. Too early and you add a half hour to your flight, too late and there’s no room in the overheads for all your carry-ons. (AVP players don’t check bags.) I finally walked on the plane, past the usual array of First Class Upgrades – Stoklos, Steffes, Loiola, Eric Fonoimoana, etc. – and made my way towards my home in coach. (I haven’t quite mastered the frequent-flyer system yet.) I pulled out my flight entertainment, a CD player, travel Scrabble and a book. This time I was feeling spiritual, so I went with The Celestine Prophecy. And off we went into the blue for four hours of uncomfortable fun.
Well stoked on marvelous airplane cuisine, I got off the plane ready to scramble for ground transportation. Some rent cars, some grab cabs, and yet others scrounge for a hotel shuttle. Luckily, I got picked up, along with Ian Clark and Jim Menges, by a photographer from this magazine, Steve Woltmann. We made our way through rush-hour traffic and finally arrived at our host hotel. It’s expensive, but it’s a beauty. Sometimes we stay in some serious roach magnets, so it’s refreshing to go first class once in a while.
I’m making the travel sound miserable, but the truth is, the players all look forward to Chicago every year. It’s a great town with nice accommodations, fantastic restaurants and a great volleyball following. We’re sold out here every year.
Ian and I are rooming together this weekend because Dain’s girlfriend is in town. We checked in, threw our stuff down and collapsed for an hour nap before our 7:30 dinner at a restaurant called Maggiano’s. Before my nap, I always make a habit of reading the most recent player-information packet. What looks like a bunch of numbers to most can provide an amazing amount of information that is extremely relevant to my income and performance. Ranking lists, seeds, tournament match-ups, new partnerships, etc.
I’m gonna throw in an unsolicited endorsement here. If you’re ever in Chicago, you have to go to Maggiano’s. It’s an Italian-style dining hall of which a Mafioso Don would be proud. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Mafia decisions have been made in some dark back room here.) For other restaurant decisions, I recommend following the advice of Dodd or Stoklos. Those guys have been traveling for 2000 years and have every town pretty much wired.
I write with such enthusiasm because eating on the road is normally a big gamble. It’s pretty much a given that you’re spending $20 to $30 for dinner, but the range of quality is wide. We were stuck with Hooter’s in Corpus Christi and some skanky sports bar in Indianapolis. We fared better in Tahoe where we found a Charthouse overlooking the lake. And at Maggiano’s, the feast was fit for Caesar: calamari, stuffed artichokes, bruschetta, Italian salad, chicken parmigiana, chicken marsala, garlic shrimp, tiramisu. And all served in enormous portions. I gorged myself with Unger, LeGrande and Clark and then waddled back to the Westin.
After a few hours of channel surfing, hoping to find a good HBO movie or at least SportsCenter, we finally made it to sleep. My sleep is always restless before tournaments because I’m eager to play ball. The further into the tourney we go, the less sleep I get. Today, however, we have a first-round bye, so I have the luxury of sleeping in.
I woke up at about 9 and lumbered toward the bathroom. My superstitions demand an immediate shower.
I have a lot of superstitions but no more than the average guy on the tour. Karch wears the same pair of shorts all weekend and then never wears them again. Kent doesn’t rinse off after games no matter how grubby he is. Some listen to music, some use the toilet at strategic times. Others get adjusted by the chiropractor before every game. Hey, whatever works.
My superstitions aren’t particularly unusual. I have lucky hats, lucky shorts, unlucky shorts. Now that I’ve won a tournament, I have to emulate that weekend in its entirety. Protein powder in the smoothie, a dab of peanut butter for good luck, bright shorts with a black hat. Whatever edge I can get, I’ll take. Even if it’s just in my head.
In our first match this morning, we easily beat a qualifier team. With these three-day tournaments, we have a lot of time to kill between matches, especially with a first-round game that’s early and quick. Play one on Friday, two or three on Saturday, then hopefully two to four on Sunday. Some people choose to chill back at the hotel or watch movies, and others see the Chicago tourist sights. But most players hang out and watch games. Obviously, this serves the business objective of better understanding the tendencies of your opponents. But mostly, we watch to cheer for friends and keep an eye on anybody who is close to us in the rankings.
I won’t lie to you about sportsmanship or impartiality. I often root silently against teams that are ranked near me. A lot of times, their losses are just as important to my ranking as my wins. Also, I offer silent support for my friends. It’s great to see Matt Unger yelling “Ayahh,” raising the roof and flexing his biceps at 3-1. Or to be there when otherwise uneventful games climax in dramatic overtime fashion. Friday was particularly painful as I watched my good friend Kevin Martin blow a 12-4 lead and lose 16-14 in overtime against my close competitors, Heidger and [Brian] Lewis.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendly wagering that can make even the blandest match-ups exciting. Whitmarsh, or some other savvy bettor, lays down the line, and we all flock like sheep to a slaughter. You have to release your competitive fire somewhere when you only play one game a day.
Confessions of a Table Hog
Watching games isn’t the only way to eat up down time. There are even more pleasurable options, like indulging in one of the tour’s greatest perks: the medical tent. You’re thinking, what’s so great about injury treatments and IV bags? Think again. I’m talking massage.
The AVP has an expert doctor or chiropractor at every tournament. The rest of the staff is made up of local volunteers who are massage therapists, PTs, ATCs or chiros. They help out just for the chance to work with pro athletes and better educate themselves.
I admit it. I’m a massage-table hog. It used to be that Tim Walmer, Leif Hanson, Andrew Smith, Scott Friederichsen, Mark Kerins, and other old-school players would dominate the tables. But these days, Dain, Rob Heidger and I take full advantage of the luxury—pre-match, post-match, injury, full body…you name is. Sometime I’ll even invent symptoms just to get a massage and a little TLC. It’s almost as hard to get Marvelous Marvin Hall, the referee, off the massage table as it is to beat him to the blender for a smoothie at the food tent. But if I have to push the big guy off the table, I’ll do it.
There are several different philosophies regarding the medical tent. Some players only go in when they’re hurt and do it discreetly. There’s Karch, who never goes, “so no one will ever know how I’m feeling.” But I prefer to think of it another way. If I’m always in there, no one will know whether I’m hurt or just getting another massage.
Friday evening was uneventful. Ian, Unger, LeGrande and I followed the crooked concierge’s advice and went next door to a steak house. We paid $35 each for overbearing service and mediocre red meat, and I’m sure our friend back at the hotel got a $20 kickback. Oh well, live and learn.
As we walked back, a vicious thunderstorm hit the area. That made for another night of HBO and SportsCenter. Too bad volleyball isn’t big time enough to get on ESPN.
I often play Scrabble against myself for two purposes: killing time and exercising the mind. But tonight Ian and I played. Though the combination of lightning and a photographer’s flash is a little unnerving, we managed some great words. In the end, I destroyed Ian 355-248. I don’t mean to brag, but don’t mess with me in Scrabble. I was an only child with too much free time.
It’s Raining Again
I got up at 7 for my first-round game, and as I arrived at the site, the sky opened one more time to remind me who was boss.
The players’ tent, medical tent, food tent, and media tent were all under six inches of water. And even worse, so was center court. This wasn’t just ordinary water, either. There was a layer of Lake Michigan scum a few inches deep emitting a toxic odor.
The crew was scrambling, once again, to make the site playable, roto-tilling the courts, moving the tents to higher grounds, drying off the electrical equipment. The list was long. But these guys are used to it. Rain has affected nine out of our 12 tourneys. It brings down everyone’s morale, hurts attendance and increases the potential for injury. What a pain in the ass! The crew, led by Rodney Grove, gets very little thanks for a tough job.
Rain makes Tour Director Matt Gage’s job difficult, too. All the players want to know if we’re playing or not, and if so, when. At this tournament, Dodd and Stoklos had their own opinion: “postpone until tomorrow then play single elimination.” Karch just stretched silently in the corner. Dain and I, of course, were on the massage tables. Others wanted to play no matter how hard it was raining because it improves their chance of winning. Rain makes the ball heavier, which neutralizes jump serves, slows down hits and makes hand setting more difficult. Earlier this year, Dain and I lost a match in San Antonio to Ricci Luyties and Jim Nichols largely because of a heavy ball. If two teams can’t agree on a ball to use, we flip for it. That time, they won and chose one that was mud soaked. Shoulder health be damned. Remember, it’s dog-eat-dog.
When play finally began, Dain and I made quick work of our first opponents: Mike Schlegel and Jeff Rogers. Then we began politicking to get on NBC. Winning the Hermosa tournament last week and scheduled to play Olympic silver medalists Dodd and Whitmarsh next made our quarterfinal a compelling match-up. And Whitmarsh and Dain convinced the producers to spotlight our match over other possibilities like Steffes-Loiola vs. Fonoi-Ivie.
That was a big deal. I had never been on NBC before, and the crowd was large. But I liked our chances. We seem to match up well against Dodd-Whitmarsh. It has to do with their serving I think. Regardless, they’re always a tough match. And it’s never easy to beat your childhood idol.
Before the match, I thought about Hovland’s advice for crunch-time situations.
“Breathe in through the nose, out the mouth.”
“Leave your soul on the court.”
Words to live and play by.
I also emulated Randy Stoklos and his Stuart Smalley-esque ability to supply self-affirmation. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Randy’s version is a little more direct. “You can’t call that on me. You’re calling that on the best of the best. No one can set that ball if I can’t.”
Dain and I got off to a great start, 5-0, then went down 9-5. Chris Marlowe said on TV that we were “in the tank.” (My parents always tape the show, and I watch it the minute I get home to critique my technique and make sure they’re not ragging on me too hard.) But then we won 15-11 with some big serving and blocking. Needless to say, it was a dramatic and exciting match – good for TV and good for us.
That earned us the right for a rematch against Steffes and Loiola in the winners’ semis, but we ended up losing that match 17-15. I’d go into details, but they’re a little too painful. Let’s just say the Windy City lived up to its name. The game ended with me getting blocked. Steffes and Loiola have won nine of 12 tournaments [this year], and they’re a tough draw no matter when you play them.
Glory Days Gone By
I wish I could tell you about all the raging and partying that goes on. I mean, I hear Hov’s stories about the glory days all the time. They could fill a magazine. No, make that a book. He tells me he used to walk to the semifinals and then maybe play one or two tough games before facing Smith and Stoklos in the finals. So they would all go out and tear it up on Friday and Saturday night.
These days, there’s a lot more parity and also a lot more money at stake. Starting with the second round, you have to play well to win. And when you do win, the rewards are much greater. Which explains why there isn’t as much partying.
Don’t get me wrong. Some people still party. There are lots of big nights when everyone turns it up a few notches (after Hermosa, after Manhattan, at the AVP banquet, at the Cuervo events, etc.). In Chicago, the rabble-rousers all go on the annual Volley Trolley, a five-bus bar hopping tour with more than a hundred players and raging fans.
Me, I’d rather be playing on Sunday. You should see the bloodshot eyes and hear the crazy stories the next day in the players’ tent. I tried the Volley Trolley last year, and believe me, Sunday is more fun.
So, Saturday night I went to my birthday dinner, this time with my family and some of my parents’ friends. My parents don’t fly to events too often, but one of the nice benefits of this profession is that your loved ones can use it as an excuse to travel and congregate at places like Miami, Lake Tahoe, Chicago, San Francisco, and Kauai.
After a late dinner and some tiramisu for dessert, I went to bed a little later than usual. My roommate, Ian, was already asleep. But guess who we play in the morning? Yeah, Ian and David Swatik. I thought about waking him up with a little MTV or SportsCenter. Just kidding.
One of the unique things about this tour is the bond you share as one of 64 players who are together every weekend for six months. It’s somewhat fraternal in nature, and there are all kinds of cliques and clashes, friends and foes. There’s Santa Monica vs. Manhattan Beach, young vs. old, Stokie vs. everyone.
So this morning, Dain and I have to play Swatik and Clark. Dain and Ian were partners throughout 1995 and then split up on bad terms. Swatty and I grew up together – same high school, same club, same grade school soccer teams, and more importantly, beach partners for the better part of five years. He brought me on tour straight out of college, and then we split up because of mediocre finishes.
Swatty is one of my best friends on tour, but I have a job to do. Is it harder to play an enemy or a friend? Tough question. The way I look at it, all’s fair in love and war. Someone said that once, I have no idea who. But it seems appropriate here.
A few months ago in Dallas, LeGrande-Unger played Albert Hannemann-Wayne Seligson. LeGrande and Seligson are roommates and best friends. Hannemann and Unger were partners and the young guns of ’94-’95. LeGrande-Unger won, but not before the tension brought red cards, 35 “AYAHHHs,” one “I’ll kick your…,” and a “Tell your idiot partner to shut the f… up.”
It can get nasty out here, but trash talk is part of the game. Just ask Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. But a few hours after play is over, everyone is together drinking Miller Lite.
Anyway, we overcame Swatik-Clark, winning 14-12 in a close but emotionally uneventful match. Next up was Dodd-Whitmarsh again, who I have a .500 plus record against. It’s hard to describe what a weird feeling it is to play your idol. I mean, I used to camp out at the Manhattan Pier just to get a good seat for Hovie-Dodd matches. So to even be on the same court sparks a lot of emotions.
Because center court was a swamp, we played on a court reminiscent of old-school opens. No bleachers, just lounging- and standing-room only. I think MD got nostalgic for the 1984 Manhattan Open because they played like the young lions we’re supposed to be and beat us in a windblown battle. Whitty blocked us off the court, which prompted me to have a meeting with myself regarding offensive game plan. But we will meet again.
After we lost, my interest in the tournament waned. Yes, it’s always enjoyable to watch top-quality volleyball, but after I’ve been eliminated it’s just about the last thing I want to do. (For the record Steffes-Loiola won, Stoklos-Tanner were second and Dodd-Whit took third.) Sappy though it may sound, I like to spend time with my family or friends right after a loss. Since my parents and grandma were there, I went directly to them and chilled for a bit. You can’t get too mad at yourself in front of your grandma. Too much love in the air.
After a little cool-down period, it was time to start the mad exodus out of town, back to the home front. I rushed into the tent, filled up an ice pack, grabbed a few snacks and drinks for the road, and headed out. Usually, I try to squeeze in a 15-minute leg massage, but today there was no time. My dad and I took a cab back to the hotel, showered, then hoofed it to catch a train to O’Hare Airport.
As I waited for the plane to fill up and take off, I evaluated how this week’s results would affect the rankings and seeds in the player packet. I also planned my week of training and made mental notes regarding which skills need work. I’ll do anything to keep my mind off the five hours of travel ahead of me. (Yes, even self-Scrabble.)
Just as the pilot began his takeoff, the emotions and adrenaline of the weekend finally overcame me, and I dozed off to sleep. In four days, we’ll start all over again in Cleveland.
Originally published in September 1997