Alexa Strange begged her mother to let her miss the first day of third grade. Begged her repeatedly, because she just knew that the teacher would have roll call.
“I knew that as soon as the teacher said ‘Alexa Strange’ all the kids would laugh at me, and couldn’t believe that my last name was Strange. They always laugh, it’s so embarrassing.”
Tara Strange gave her daughter a piece of advice that has stuck with her ever since.
“Alexa,” her mother said, “I want you to do something. When they call your name, I want you to do something for me. Just raise your hand and act very confident in it.
“And pretend like it’s the coolest name you’ve ever heard. And you claim your name and watch how the people around you react to that.
“I just want you to give it a shot. Just pretend.”
Trust that Alexa no longer has a confidence problem. Start with Instagram, where the 6-foot pro beach volleyball defender has 27.8 thousand followers. It’s not the account of a shy person.
Strange, who was born in Palos Verdes but moved to San Clemente at 7, doesn’t like labels. She defies them. She’s left-handed (however, she writes with both hands), bisexual, biracial (half Indian, half Scandinavian), a pro athlete/painter/model/influencer/announcer. She listens to classic rock as well as ‘60s psychedelic Hindu music.
Strange, was 7 when she attended a father-daughter summer camp on Catalina Island. There was a game called “jailbreak,” something she’d never seen before.
“The game is like an introduction to volleyball,” she explained. “They had a beach volleyball net. You call someone’s name and throw it over the net, and if the other side doesn’t catch it, that person’s out.”
Alexa’s defensive skills were evident even then.
“I jumped in immediately and just completely dominated the entire game. I just ran all over catching everything. No one could beat me. I don’t think I lost a single game, and I was just such a natural at it.
“All the dads were watching, and were saying, ‘Oh my goodness, Alexa is so athletic, you have to get her into volleyball. She’d be so good.”
Alexa convinced her father Greg to let her stay at the camp for an additional day so she could continue to play more jailbreak.
“I vividly remember that that was an ‘aha’ moment where I really, really, liked the dynamic of this game.”
Strange excelled at volleyball and basketball but chose to focus on volleyball at San Clemente High School, as well as competing for Coast Volleyball. Strange was a highly touted recruit who went to Nebraska.
“Coming out of high school, I definitely wanted to get a brand-new experience. Something very different from what I was growing up with than Southern California,” Strange said. “I was dazzled by their athletic department, their support for the program and the fan base that they had.
“It’s an amazing school because they really know how to develop players and get them to the next level.”
She played sparingly as a freshman in 2012, getting 25 kills, 55 digs and 15 assists. In the spring of 2013, she paired with future USA indoor Olympian Kelsey Robinson on Nebraska’s inaugural beach volleyball team. They went 8-4.
That reignited her passion for beach volleyball, and when USC coach Anna Collier offered her a beach volleyball scholarship the decision was easy, Strange said. What’s more, Strange’s parents both attended USC and younger brother Aaron played men’s volleyball there.
“It just looked like so much fun. I knew Anna from the youth program at USA volleyball, and had competed in a few FIVB youth beach tournaments,” Strange said. “She offered me a scholarship to come to USC, and as soon as that seed was planted, I knew I had to go.
“I love Nebraska. It was a great experience and I would never change going there. I gained so much. But I loved being able to play beach volleyball at USC.”
There was plenty to like, as the Trojans then won two national championships, going 28-0 to win the AVCA championship in 2015, then repeating to win the inaugural NCAA championship in 2016 (finishing 34-2).
Strange, paired with Canadian Sophie Bukovec, went 33-10 in 2015, 23-5 at the No. 2 position. In 2016, they went 33-9, 25-6 in duals, again at No. 2.
Strange left USC with a degree in political science and economics.
“People sacrifice doing exactly what they want in the short term to build a career to be successful in the long term,” she said. “It’s super-admirable, but it makes you sort of uncomfortable in the short term, but you’re working for a better future.
“In contrast, I think that I’ve always been a lot more whimsical and following my intuition and heart more.”
Strange is plenty busy, whether it’s playing, modeling, content creation, sponsorships (her financial backers include Reef, Tommy Hilfiger, and Gecko Hawaii), announcing (she worked for India’s pro league, the PVL last year) or painting (primarily in oil and acrylic paints).
“I’ve painted as long as I can remember. I’ve always been an arts-and-crafts-type person. My dream has always been for my art and volleyball and mind to converge in the future in a way that has a symbiotic relationship with each other, make a living and be happy.
“I have sacrificed the comfort of more stability to do something that I love, hopefully to get to the ultimate goal of having a career doing what I want to do and being fulfilled.”
Strange played her first full pro season in 2018, playing with Falyn Fonoimoana, Bailey Bars, Emily Hartong, and Sheila Shaw. She finished 13th three times, in AVP Austin, Seattle, and Hermosa Beach, and finished 21st in New York and San Francisco. She also finished 17th at p1440 San Jose and 33rd in FIVB Huntington Beach.
In 2019, her highest finish was 13th in AVP Manhattan. She got a 15th in Chicago, and Strange finished 17th four times, in Huntington Beach, New York, Hermosa Beach, and Waikiki.
“After my first year,” Strange said, “I felt like, ‘This isn’t so bad. I’m already basically through the qualifier at this point.’ And I took the initial success for granted a little bit. And last year was a bit of a humbling experience.
“I learned a lot last year, I’ve always set high goals for myself. I learned a lot from the mental aspect of the game, that’s something that I’ve picked up from talking to other experienced pros that have played for AVP for 10 years. It is up and down and it’s a learning process.
“My takeaway from all of that, coming full circle, is that I’m doing this for the right reasons, doing it because it’s fun. I’m still treating it as a professional, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the process while doing it, and not getting too wrapped up in the end results.”
Strange blamed expectations and the continual partner swaps (she had four partners in 2019, playing with Emily Hartong, Bree Scarbrough, Brittany Howard and Falyn Fonoimoana). Partner changes, of course, are commonplace in pro beach volleyball.
“These teams are breaking up and rebuilding all the time and they’re going nowhere,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m running in place. Something that is of the utmost importance to me is finding someone that really wants to build something together. It’s a story, it’s a journey. It’s a whole experience. And that’s what I’m really seeking out of this sport.”
Now, with the current state of the COVID pandemic, she doesn’t have a partner for 2020.
“I want to find someone that’s committed and not just a couple of months. Let’s work through adversity and try and build something together and invest in some semblance of consistency.
“I think that’s something that drives a lot of us. You’re in the middle of a tournament, it’s going pretty good, and then you didn’t get exactly the result you want. And then you break up.
“And then all the progress you’ve made, that’s done. We’re in the middle of the freaking season, it’s like you have a professional basketball team, the team is so much better at the end of the season than it was in the beginning, because of all the work you’ve done together.”
She’s confident in herself, of course, and remember, that goes back to being the “Strange” girl at school. She took her mother’s advice to heart, so when her name was called, and the kids laughed, young Alexa’s hand leapt up with confidence and purpose.
“Yup, that’s me,” Alexa said with assurance as her classmates’ laughter died off. “It was awesome. As soon as I like carried myself that way, it completely changed the narrative and perspective of how people perceived me and my last name. And it turned from being something that was embarrassing and seems like a weakness or something and something positive and cool and unique.”
She still gets inspiration from her mother, and also father Greg. Her parents are her biggest fans, and “watch” her matches in an unconventional manner.
Tara is blind, having lost her eyesight after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Her father suffered a retinal detachment, which left the couple with one good eye, so you’ll see them together on the sidelines of Strange’s matches, with Greg providing the commentary for Tara.
“My dad will describe everything that’s going on to her. He’ll be her eyes, and in that way, she can kind of see me play.”
Alexa also did play by play for her mom at matches they were watching together, which greatly contributed to her success as a Indian PVL announcer.
She is obviously close to her parents, but it was difficult for them when Strange came out as bisexual.
“I don’t even like that word, bisexual,” Alexa said. “It’s all just labels. It’s just like I’m open. I remember asking my mom at 10 years old, ‘How do you know if you like girls or guys?’
“It’s hard for my parents to think of me that way, and I think it’s like that for a lot of parents, but I feel like the generation before us isn’t fundamentally going to understand as we evolve in the collective consciousness, and my generation perceives things differently than the black and white that our parents did. It’s hard to make them understand and see. It’s hard to make people see you on the inside.”
Strange came out after her USC career.
“I told certain people that I’m comfortable with, and I think a lot of people knew, and I would tell anyone that asked, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to be in people’s faces about, and I didn’t want to be defined as that,” she said.
“I didn’t want people to perceive me differently, especially on the team. I wanted them to see me as Alexa for what was there.
Accordingly, Strange values self-love, self-belief and non-conformity.
“I had a lot easier time coming out than most people do. It’s extremely hard and traumatic. My parents instilled in me values of self-love, believe in yourself and be true to yourself. And don’t conform your values just because the whole world is telling you to do something. My parents really instilled those fundamental values inside of me and that made it a lot easier for me.”
The confidence she gained as a young school girl certainly paid off.
“I learned that it’s so important how you carry yourself in how people perceive things. Since then, I really love having the last name Strange, because every time I hear it it reminds me of how important it is to believe in yourself and love yourself. And if you do that, it’s very contagious and people around you can see that.
“And not only will they see how you feel about yourself, but I think it inspires people to also feel loved about themselves. Those feelings are contagious. So that’s my last night name in a nutshell.”