Eric Duda went from being stranded elsewhere in China to winning a gold medal. His USA women counterparts had two players just 14 years old and they won silver.
What could have been a disaster turned out to be a monumental event for the Americans at the first Beach ParaVolley World Series event two weeks ago in Pingtan, China.
Not only did Duda finally make it, but he, Chris Seilkop, and Dave Newkirk defeated Poland for gold, while Autum Reagan, Meredith Gross and Skye McDermott took the women’s silver medal, falling to China in the final. It was Seilkop’s first gold medal in 25 years of competition.
“It was so amazing,” USA coach Jon Aharoni said. “There were so many distractions, diversions, and yet they stayed on target. It was really fun. A lot of learning for the old guys, a lot of mentoring from the old guys to the young girls, it was a neat trip.”
Duda said he incorrectly read his visa, and, after having been to China before, “ … I thought that I had 50 days left,” he said.
“I arrived at JFK airport and I was informed that the visa had expired in 2017. They explained to me that I had misread the visa.
“The JFK airport employees advised me that I could fly to Hong Kong, which didn’t require a visa, and then travel back to Fuzhou, with the understanding that once I got into China, I could travel within China for 144 hours visa-free.”
So Duda flew to Hong Kong, but learned that was not true in his case. So he went about expediting a visa. Normally it can take up to a week, but he got it in a day and a half.
In the meantime, the USA men had already forfeited to Slovakia and Poland in the first day of pool play.
“As soon as I got it, I booked my flight back to Fuzhou, and finally arrived at Pingtan Island at 9 p.m. and played the next morning,” Duda said. “The biggest concern was how I was letting my teammates down based on my error. I had to keep on communicating with them that I truly was sorry and would do anything to make it up to them.
“My secondary thought was, ‘I hope I don’t get stuck in China.’ You get that idea that, on a whim, they could really make this tough for me. I was very thankful for the Chinese authorities to speed up the process as much as they did, but it makes you feel helpless, being basically at the whim of a foreign government.”
The USA had to beat its last pool-play opponent, the India 2 team, and won. That put the Americans up against Germany in the quarterfinals.
But Germany elected to protest Duda’s late arrival by forfeiting their quarterfinal match, sending the USA into the semifinals against Slovakians Rudolf Makovini, Martin Dubovsky and Juraj Kucej.
A 16-21, 21-5, 15-12 victory sent the USA into the championship match against Poland’s Adam Stepien, Artur Wasowicz and Rafal Wojtowicz.
“That Polish team had never lost a match before,” Aharoni said. “They had beaten us in an unofficial tournament a few years back and they were ready to mow right through us.”
It was windy for the final and the Americans were prepared.
“Luckily, I had spoken to the guys about training in the wind, because any team that is worth its salt will be able to play the same game that they would without the wind, and we didn’t miss a beat,” Aharoni said.
“Luckily that wind popped up, and was as real difference-maker for us. We were just a little bit more in system than they were.”
It resulted in a 21-19, 14-21, 15-8 USA victory.
“In the first set, Chris was unstoppable. In the second set Eric took the lead. And in the third set, Dave, out of nowhere, goes off for four aces and a bunch of kills and just put us in an untouchable position,” Aharoni said.
“They shared the leadership responsibility, they shared the side out load, they shared the aggressive go-after-it load. We were just a many-headed dragon that couldn’t be stopped.
“As stressful as it was when we were up 12-5, because I knew how good the Polish team was, they took care of business in a manner that any coach would be happy with.”
And their opponents weren’t their only obstacles. All the teams played on a net that was two inches too high.
“Just enough to throw off your shots, where a shot would normally crawl over the net, it falls right into the tape. It forces you to second-guess everything,” Duda said.
Aharoni was impressed at what each team member contributed.
“I’ve never seen anyone train as hard as Dave off the court. He had to make a couple of last-minute adjustments to his prosthetic, because it was considered an advantage. Three days later, he was on the squat rack getting ready for his next competition, even though he doesn’t yet know where it is. To me that is him in a nutshell.
“Seilkop, that guy finds a way to find his pinnacle of performance in big matches. I’ve never seen someone get so focused to care of business the way that he did during the finals. It was a joy to watch.
Duda, once he got there, the guy is just a very, very good volleyball player. He’s an incredible passer, a good setter, and just a marksman. He has put balls within inches of where he wants to, causing tons of chaos for the other team. He’s really the captain that leads by example.
“You put that team together, and it was so great to be a part of that team.”
By contrast, the women were relatively inexperienced, with Reagan the oldest at 17 and Gross and McDermott just 14. Only Reagan had international ParaVolley experience.
They lost to China’s Li Min, Xu Danshu and Chen Yalin 21-19, 21-10 to take home silver.
“The women were absolutely fantastic,” Aharoni said. “They were 14 year olds playing against 20-25 year olds, against players in the peak of their athleticism. They were new to beach volleyball, they were so coachable, they learned basics of my systems such that they were competitive.
“They walked out with a silver medal, and I couldn’t be prouder of their journey. They tried new foods, and even had an opportunity to mix it up with the Chinese for a friendly one day.
“I think they created life-long Para-beach volleyball fanatics in them. They’re adorable in their level of friendship, in their love of reach other, and I really couldn’t ask for anything more of them.”
It was good for Aharoni, too.
“I can’t wait to see their careers unfold. The level of passion that they took the court with was inspiring. My wife told me after the first women’s camp, ‘I haven’t seen you this passionate about volleyball in a long time.’ It’s really refreshing to see, and it almost brought me to tears.
“It was so amazing to have so much success. And by success I’m not talking about a medal, I’m talking about the fact that they loved that sport, and it was amazing to give them that first opportunity to compete at the world level, and I know that they will follow that up.”
Aharoni sees a bright future for each.
“Autum is the above-knee amputee. She’s just a firecracker. She’s constantly overachieving. I didn’t expect her to attack from the service line the way she absolutely did, and have run after run of serves, amazing digs, and would touch balls that she had no business getting near. She’s a fiery athlete, and working with her was so much fun.
“Meredith, I think the amount that kid learned in a week will change her for life, from the food, to the competition, to being an amazing teammate. She will grow a ton physically, and she got a taste of what she wants to do with her life, I’m guessing that as we speak, she’s training to get ready for her next competition.
“In her first serve, of her first international tournament, she backed up to the line and hit one of the most graceful, gazelle-like jump-floaters and blasted the eventual MVP of the tournament. It was awesome. She had no fear, into the wind, and just went for it, and lit this lady up.
“As for Sky, there was a moment when she sprained her ankle, and she wasn’t sure that she could go, and then had her best match of the tournament. She was blasting the ball off the service line, great spikes all over the place, I don’t understand how this 14-year-old girl, in her first international competition, could step up in that manner. I foresee a long future for that kid. If she plays her cards right, I could see her cracking the NCAA ranks as well.”
Aharoni insisted that USA volleyball’s assistant coach for the women’s sitting team, Michelle Goodall be credited with the assist.
“She 100 percent saved us from losing it time and time again. In term of setup, training camps, and travel. That woman bends over backwards for this team, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Beach ParaVolley is hoping to be included in the 2028 Paralympic games in Los Angeles.