HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It has been more than 10 years since Tri Bourne last visited New Zealand, competing on its once-proud domestic tour with Will Montgomery. He couldn’t remember the route he took to get there, or how long that itinerary would have taken.
“It’s 10 to 12 hours to Auckland,” Alice Zeimann told him. “Depending on the wind.”
She knows this because, well, Alice Zeimann is the type of person who knows these things. Already in 2023, Zeimann has flown from New Zealand to Southern California to Mexico to Southern California to Brazil to Southern California to the UK and, you guessed it, back to Southern California. She hasn’t been home, to Mount Maunganui, a jewel of a coastal city in New Zealand, since she departed for a California-based training camp this past winter. She has no plans on a return flight home, either.
Such is life of a New Zealand professional beach volleyball player: Pack your bags, hit the road, and stay on it until there’s nothing left to play.
“Honestly I just turn up and play,” Zeimann said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I feel like this year, I can’t think too much about it, I’m just going to turn up and we’re going to win matches … We do have a bit of imposter syndrome with it, having the confidence to show up and be like ‘We can compete.’ ”
Zeimann and her partner, Shaunna Polley, are the top-ranked team in New Zealand. If that doesn’t sound like much of a noteworthy accomplishment, you aren’t entirely wrong. Zeimann and Polley are currently ranked No. 31 in the world. The next Kiwi team? No. 135. And even that’s not really accurate. After a 2022 season that featured just a single main draw, Olivia MacDonald and Jasmine Milton are no longer playing together. Which makes Zeimann and Polley the only New Zealand women’s team in the top 200.
That limited supply of talent, however, isn’t the only factor leading them to be the top New Zealand team. In 2021, Zeimann’s rookie year on the Beach Pro Tour, the two qualified for the main draw in all six tournaments in which they played. They won a gold medal in Portugal, took a fifth in Bulgaria despite Zeimann requiring an emergency trip and an IV at the local hospital, and closed the season with a fourth in the Brno two-star. By the end of 2022, they were in the main draw of an Elite16 in Torquay, Australia, where they upset Americans Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth. The 600 points they earned as a team in Torquay was the most of their partnership. Anyone watching that match, which was more New Zealand winning it than the Americans losing it would have been forced to reckon with the fact that New Zealand now boasted a legitimately competitive team on the Beach Pro Tour.
“I feel like we’re at the point now where we’re a mid-major team and sometimes we win, more often we’re not on podium. We’re still in the proving-ourselves phase,” Zeimann said. “I think Americans have a good competitive mentality so easily. New Zealand is the head of the participation award. It’s hard for us to have a killer mentality, but now it’s becoming more natural. We’re competitive people, but it’s one thing to believe you can win against some of the teams on tour all of the time.”
The program is, make no mistake, on the rise. An influx of funding led Jason Lochhead, one of the best New Zealand players of all time, to return home to head the federation’s beach teams. No stranger to starting programs, Lochhead once built the Vanuatu federation from scratch, led Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton to an Olympic berth in 2016 and an eventual top-10 world ranking, and helped Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena to a second Olympic Games as a team in Tokyo. While the men’s portion of the New Zealand federation was set back by the retirement of its most talented blocker in Sam O’Dea, the women, with Zeimann and Polley, have an immediate contender to medal on the Beach Pro Tour and qualify for the Paris Olympic Games.
“I feel really fortunate to come into the program, after college, at the right time where Jason was freed up to coach us again and we also got funding from HP Sport in New Zealand,” said Zeimann, a 24-year-old who played indoors at Minnesota and beach at Florida State.
And, of course, just when the timing was perfect, the pieces in place…Polley got hurt. Such is sports. A niggling, in Kiwi parlance, ankle injury proved more than niggling, and the two had to pull out of both Challenge events in Brazil, leaving Zeimann to train on her own with Lochhead, or partnered with her good friend Lisa Reed, or coach Dan Waineraich, or whomever she could find.
“It’s really frustrating for her and the unknowns of the rehab process. For me when we’re overseas it’s pretty rough because you do feel adrift and your whole routine and pulling out of events is rough,” Zeimann said. “We couldn’t play Brazil. I really had to focus on the good things a lot. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the situation. We’ve been lucky the last two years. We haven’t had anything that’s really interrupted our flow.”
Which is remarkable when you think about it. When Polley and Zeimann first hit the road in 2021, Zeimann had only one year of prep on the beach, during the COVID-shortened 2020 season with Florida State. She had zero points to her name. Their first tournament was in Rwanda, a difficult place to travel and compete. Zeimann had no real idea of what life on the Beach Pro Tour looked like and then saw and felt nothing else until they flew home months later, a successful season complete.
“Every year it’s like that, and it’s getting better, but I definitely learned a lot with not getting sick of each other, how to develop our friendship and professional relationship, how to cope with losing, all of that,” Zeimann said. “This is our third year now as a partnership and now I know what’s going on and how to be and what needs to happen.”
Polley’s ankle is coming along. They will be ready to compete at the Asian Championships June 23-26, in Fuzhou, China. They’ll be on the cusp of making the Gstaad Elite16 qualifier, as well as the main draw in Challenges in Portugal and Canada. At some point, maybe even in 2023, she’ll return to New Zealand.
“The days blur together. But it’s just one of those things where you gotta do what you gotta do and I’m really fortunate to have a great training camp here, great practice partners, great sand, good weather,” Zeimann said. “It could be worse.”
It could be worse because Alice Zeimann is the type of person who knows that, yes, it could be worse than playing beach volleyball for a living, traveling the world, having friends with couches and extra beds to stay on all over the planet, from Gstaad to Hermosa Beach. Just as she is the type of person who knows that when you leave New Zealand in the winter and don’t plan on returning until … winter … things might very well go wrong, and sometimes there just isn’t much you can do about those things.
“Wherever the wind takes us,” she said of her winding and still very much upcoming 2023 season. “Wherever the cheapest flights are.”