How old is John Hyden?
So old that in 2008 Volleyball magazine did a story about how old he was then.
Yet here he is, nine years later, two weeks away from his 45th birthday (October 7). And all Hyden did this summer at age 44 was team with Ryan Doherty to win his 26th title at the AVP season-ending championship in Chicago, the oldest ever to do so, and then was named the FIVB Most Inspirational Player.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t start taking beach volleyball seriously until his late 20s and whose volleyball career nearly ended before it ever started.
Hyden tried out for the volleyball team at Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway, Calif., but was cut by coach Janet Jensen, the mother of former AVP professional Dane Jensen.
A chance meeting resurrected Hyden’s volleyball career when he ran into coach Jensen the following year, who asked him why he wasn’t trying out for the team. Hyden reminded her that she had cut him and she encouraged him to try out.
Hyden did, made the squad, but rarely saw the court that year.
He played a lot of sports as a child. He was 2 when his father, David, died in a Navy plane accident. His mother, Claudia, was left with three children under the age of 4. One of the ways she made it work was by keeping the family involved in multiple sports. Claudia played college tennis as well as playing adult softball and soccer.
“I think it was a way of babysitting and keeping us out of trouble and also staying healthy,” Hyden recalled. She coached a lot of our teams,and she played a lot of sports herself. That’s kind of what I’ve been in my whole life.”
In particular, Hyden liked basketball, volleyball and baseball, but showed far more promise in volleyball, earning All-CIF Southern Section honors at Mount Carmel High School.
“I kind of knew that if I wanted a scholarship, it wasn’t going to be through basketball,” Hyden said, despite growing to 6-foot-5. “So after my sophomore year in high school, I stopped playing basketball and concentrated on volleyball in club and high school and ended up getting a scholarship to San Diego State. I just knew I wasn’t going anywhere in basketball.”
Hyden was San Diego State’s MVP in each of his four years. He earned first-team All-American status in 1994 and 1995 and also set a record for most kills in a match (56). But he suffered a remarkably unfortunate series of late-season injuries. With the NCAA tournament looming in early May each year, he suffered an ankle injury on April 11, 1993, a broken foot on April 13, 1994, and a subsequent ankle sprain on April 12, 1995. San Diego State never reached the final four.
Hyden’s first taste of international competition was at the World University Games in 1995. That got him an invitation to try out for the national team under coach Fred Sturm, with an roster spot for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on the line.
Sturm told Hyden the 1996 team was pretty much set, but after Stanford graduate Scott Fortune sprained his ankle, Hyden was able to beat out teammate Dan Landry for the starting spot. The USA squad finished ninth, one point from reaching the quarterfinals.
Hyden continued to compete both with the USA team and internationally, first for Roma in the Italian league in 1997, then in the Brazilian Super league in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Hyden continued on with the USA team through the Sydney Olympics in 2000, then under the stewardship of Doug Beal in Colorado Springs. The squad failed to advance out of pool play.
“Five out of the six guys that started in the 2000 Olympics were somewhat injured,” Hyden said, “so that was somewhat disappointing, because I felt that we had a really good team going in.”
Things were going pretty well off the court, however, because it was around that time that he finalized his relationship with wife Robyn. They married in 2001.
“I met her in the dorms at San Diego State my freshman year. We were best friends for four years and didn’t start dating until my last year of college. I think being friends really helped our relationship. That was huge.”
They have two children, 11-year-old Samantha and 4-year-old Jackson, age 4.
“Make sure you throw my wife in there somewhere,” Hyden said. “Without her, none of this would happen. She and my trainer are the wizards behind the curtain.”
Robyn is an actress and producer, as well as massage therapist.
“I don’t get work done by her as much as people think, but if I need it, she’s right there for me,” Hyden said “She’s a huge part of this.”
Hyden also credits his trainer, Mykel Jenkins, for his longevity.
“I live in the Valley (in Sherman Oaks). I would have moved away from here a long time ago if I could do it on my own. My trainer, Mykel Jenkins, lives close to me, he’s only a few miles away and if I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. That’s the only reason that I live where I do. It’s a commitment.
“He’s the smartest trainer I know. He does all of his own research: medical journals, he’s always trying to learn more, between nutrition and weight training. He always comes up with the latest things to do. We’re ahead of the game so far on so many issues. He could have been a cajillion-aire, for example, we were working with something similar to a shake weight before that came out. He just thinks stuff up in his gym and we do it. He thinks of every little possibility. If I’m injured in one way, then he finds a different way to approach training. If my back is injured, then we’ll find a different way to get things done. He’s always ahead of the game somehow.
“From the time I got with him in 2005 until now, I’ve just trusted him. He’s always on top of the supplements, he’s on top of all of the nutrition, from day one he said, ‘You shouldn’t have to think of anything in the gym, or anything nutrition-wise. I’ll do all that for you. You just think about what you need to do on the beach.’
“That takes everything off of me, and I just do what I’m told, and it’s amazing how his mind works. He can just put things together, too. Nothing is ever the same in the gym. It’s always something different. That’s a huge part of me playing this long, not getting bored. He makes it that way.”
“One of the first years I got with him, at the end of the season I decided that I would take two to three weeks off and I think that lasted three days before I was calling him to ask, ‘Hey, can I get back in the gym with you?’
“My body needs it, it craves it. I don’t have an off-season from the gym. I won’t go to the beach the whole off-season. From now until I start up in January, I won’t hit the beach at all. But I will hit it with him. We definitely dial back, instead of three times a week during the season, I’ll see him twice a week. We’ll work on a lot of core strength, shoulder and knee rehab, and a lot more pilates and yoga-style stuff. A lot more band work and less weights in the off-season.”
As into volleyball as he is, it was only after the 2000 Olympics that Hyden began to dabble in beach volleyball.
“I didn’t grow up playing on the beach,” Hyden said. “The first four or five years were a learning process, always picking guys’ brains, talking to Todd Rogers or watching Todd, and Stein (Metzger), and Dax (Holdren) and picking up things from them, I was always trying to learn something new every year. I still think I’m learning something new each year.
“With beach, I don’t have a coach telling me stupid things to do. How can you beat having the beach as your office? Even if I do have a coach, we can talk, we typically see more eye-to-eye on things, I have more leeway on what I want to do. With the indoor game, I’m doing plyos after a four-hour practice. That’s not right. The beach has always been a much more fun game for me. You only have to rely on one other guy. Of course, that’s a lot to rely on, but it’s still one other guy, not five other guys.”
Still, the transition was difficult at first.
“Those first few years you’re struggling to find a partner, especially on the beach, you have to find someone that’s going to take a chance on you. It’s still hard for new guys. The points are such a huge thing, you have to grind until someone take a chance on you.”
Remarkably, Hyden has made at least one final from 2004-2017, a span of 14 years. Part of that comes from Hyden’s impressive work ethic.
“It’s a 24/7 job when you get older,” he said. “Nutrition is key. You have to know your body. You have to watch your nutrition in the off-season. When I first met (Jenkins) in the off-season, I would allow myself 10 pounds in the off-season, because I knew I could come back from that. Now I allow myself five pounds at the most, because it’s much harder to get off and I just don’t feel as good, so I’ve cut back completely on the sugar, because I can tell when I’ve had too much sugar. I can feel the inflammation in my body and my joints. I go by how I feel, but I only allow myself five pounds.
“I know that if my knee starts hurting, then I’m not rolling out enough or I’m not getting in enough massage. I know that if my shoulder’s hurting, I know what I need to do for my shoulder to feel 100 percent. What’s key as you get older, you just know your body a lot better, and you know how to fix it easier.”
Hyden keeps his diet simple in order to maintain fitness.
“A huge part of nutrition is making sure you always have enough water,” he said.
“During season, I’ll have oatmeal in the morning, maybe with some peanut butter or protein powder in it for breakfast, or I’ll have eggs on a piece of toast with avocados and some hot sauce. I’ll eat eggs almost every day.
“I’ll have small meals throughout the day, eating every two hours or so. If I train, I’ll have a protein drink with it and snack on walnuts, almonds, pumpkin, sunflower seeds throughout the day. A lot of fruit, apples, grapes, typically the purple grapes for their antioxidants. I’ll have shakes throughout the day, spinach and beets, with an orange thrown in, lots of greens.
“For meats, I’ll have chicken. If I’m really trying to cut weight, I’ll have sardines, tuna, or salmon. Usually if I’m trying to cut weight I’ll go with the fish. I’ll have beef all the time too, whether it’s steak, or lean hamburger patties with ketchup and mustard.
“I don’t try and cut out gluten. I think that’s a fad. I think it helps a lot of people, but most people don’t need to cut out gluten. I’m not a big pasta or bread eater and when I got with my trainer, I cut those out and I don’t need it.”
Staying at the top of a physically demanding sport like beach volleyball at age 44 requires dedication. And lots of warming up.
“The toughest thing about it is I have to warm up again. How many frickin’ warmups have I been through in my life, it’s amazing. I have to warm up when I see (Jenkins). I have to warm up when I hit the gym here. I have to warm up for every single practice or game I play. Man, that’s a lot. That’s probably the hardest part of this, it’s trying to get your body warmed up again.”
As a veteran, Hyden has recently begun to take talented rookies under his wing to develop their skills. He’s considering coaching when he stops playing and enjoys developing young players, such as Tri Bourne in 2013 and this year, when he joined with Doherty, who is a youngster to the beach at 33.
“I do like it, I like it a lot, actually. There’s guys out there where you can see the potential. Tri, I don’t want to say that he lucked out, but he kind of did,” Hyden recalled.
As it turned out, Bourne — he was “super raw,” Hyden said — called Hyden’s former partner, Sean Scott, in 2012, hoping to train with him. Scott referred him to Hyden.
“I trained with him one time and I saw this athletic ability, very much like Sean, Sean’s height, and agility, and I thought that maybe I could mold him into Sean,” Hyden said. “Sean’s got something else. I’m not sure there’s many guys out there that are like him or can be like him, but I could see that Tri can mimic Sean’s game. I didn’t have many players to choose from at the time, so I decided, alright, let’s get Tri going.
Bourne and Hyden became a team in 2013. Bourne was impressed with Hyden’s singularity of purpose from the start.
“John’s very focused. It’s a very strong part of his game, because you know that he’s coming in with purpose and intention every match,” Bourne said. “You never have to worry about where his head’s at. That allows you to focus on yourself.
“He’s always prepared, physically and mentally, he comes in with a game plan every time, which sounds simple, but it’s not always the case with a lot of players.
“He’s super-confident in his skills and his preparation and that’s what translates, no matter what his body’s doing. He’s able to adapt and make it work. He never loses that confidence.
“Especially four years ago, playing with him was huge. It was the ideal situation for me. It was what I was looking for at that time in my career, how to be a professional, and he was the epitome of that. I absorbed as much as I possibly could. I took every trick in the book that he would teach me. It’s worked out great for me.”
Together, Hyden and Bourne played four seasons, winning three AVPs and once on the FIVB tour. But this year, Bourne got sick and is still recovering from an autoimmune condition.
Accordingly, Hyden was forced to switch partners at the last minute before last February’s FIVB Fort Lauderdale event. That led him to Doherty, who was without a partner.
“Tri got the news two days before our flight that he couldn’t go to Florida,” Hyden said. Going down the list, who can actually go to Florida and play FIVB and Ryan was the default guy.”
They talk, trained together one day, trying “to figure out how we like to set each other, set up a few play calls, went off of that, and played really well together. “
They finished fourth in Fort Lauderdale and a partnership was born.
“Ryan seemed to want to learn a lot on the court and we didn’t know if Tri would be back this season, so that’s how it worked out,” Hyden said. “It was a coach-player relationship and we went from there.”
Hyden-Doherty lost in the championship match of the AVP season opener in Huntington Beach to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, finished fifth in FIVB Rio, seventh at AVP New York, fifth at AVP Seattle, 33rd in FIVB Porec and fifth at FIVB Gstaad.
Then, at FIVB Olsztyn in Poland, they made it to the final before losing to Marcus Bockermann and Lars Fluggen of Germany. At the FIVB World Beach Championships in Vienna they placed 17th before heading back home for AVP Manhattan Beach, where they finished seventh.
That set up AVP Chicago, where they beat Dalhausser and Lucena in the final and Hyden became the oldest player to ever win an AVP title.
“It’s been pretty great so far,” Doherty said. “John is about as smart as any player I’ve ever met. He’s a consummate professional, really takes care of his body, is super-efficient when it comes to practicing and finding the best possible way to do things.
“I’ve learned a lot from him in a short period of time and looking forward to learning as much as I can from him next year.
“Everything that John does, he does for a reason, whether that’s insane or not. He sleeps with a white-noise machine on and then he puts a pillow over it to mute it. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t just turn it down rather than just turning it up to its loudest setting and then muffling it, so finally I asked him about it after an entire season on the road, and he said, ‘Oh, the pitch is too sharp if you play it as is, if you put the pillow over it smooths it out for a much softer sound.’ ”
That’s similar to the adjustments he makes on the court.
“Obviously, getting older you’re not as quick, so defensively I have to rely more on my instincts and my knowledge of the game more than just being quick and running down balls,” Hyden said.
“In the weight room, I never put weight on my back, it’s always dumbbells, holding them to the sides or bands, light weight, I don’t go huge, heavy weight. Getting older, you have to find ways to compete.”
Some of the keys:
“As a hitter, you have to know who’s on the other side of the court, both on blocking and on defense. Depending on the weather, whether it’s really windy or not, and how the wind’s coming in, I either play against the blocker or play against the defender. Sometimes I won’t even look at the blocker, I’ll just play against the defender the entire time. Other times I won’t look at the defender, I’ll just play the blocker.
“It really depends upon who I’m playing and what the weather’s like. When it’s windy, once that set goes up, and you look at the defender and come back to the ball, the ball can move a foot or two from where you thought it would be. You can’t look as long, so then you have to play the blocker. If it’s not windy, you can look forever, and when I go up, I can see with my peripheral vision and play the defender.”
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are three years away. Could he compete for one of the USA spots at age 47?
“It’s in the back of my mind,” Hyden admitted. “I don’t see how it can’t be. I’m definitely year-to-year. I’ll play this year again and see how my body is holding up and how hard it is to train and go from there.
“This year there weren’t that many tournaments, I think I played in four or five FIVB and four or five AVP. Last year we played a ton of tournaments trying to qualify for the Olympics and I had to deal with nagging injuries all year.
“It’s a tough decision to make. I feel great right now. I can play next year and we’ll see where it goes from there. The problem is for guys that want to go to the Olympics, it’s got to be a two-year commitment. I can’t just bail on somebody.”