Editor’s note: The author, Travis Mewhirter, is married to the former Delaney Knudsen.
TAVARES, Fla. – It’s May of 2018, and Delaney Knudsen — now Mewhirter — is deciding whether or not she is going to quit playing beach volleyball.
Just one year out of a brilliant, four-year career at Pepperdine, in which she won a national championship and was named All-American, she doesn’t know the next step.
Does she put her business degree to use? Coach full-time? She’s good as a professional, but good, as anybody knows, let alone someone with a mind suited for numbers, doesn’t add up in the bank account. The two main draws she made in 2017? Netted her a total of $1,750 before expenses and taxes.
After missing AVP Huntington Beach due to coaching duties at Pepperdine, she has a choice to make: Does she compete in the next stop, in Austin, Texas, or does she move on from the game that is practically a part of her DNA?
Was Delaney Knudsen finished playing beach volleyball?
Two and a half years later, the 25-year-old Mewhirter can take solace in her decision not to quit, in her decision to continue playing, despite the regular economical battle in her brain. Partnered with Kelly Claes in day two of the Florida Region Best of the Beach, she won her first professional tournament, beating one of the best teams on the planet, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske, to do so.
She was joined Sunday in the winner’s circle by Phil Dalhausser and Avery Drost, who beat Taylor Crabb and Trevor Crabb 17-21, 21-17, 15-10. The results follow.
The 40-year-old Dalhausser was glad to play near his home in Orlando.
“I just came out here to have some fun,” Dalhausser said. “I loved the AVP King of the Beach format, I always had fun with it, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is under an hour away from my house, this is perfect.’
“I just had some fun with it, squeaked out of pool, and today was just like gravy, playing with house money.”
Speaking of which, Dalhausser is, well, decent company to keep for the 25-year-old Mewhirter whose previous best professional finish was a seventh, at the 2019 AVP Manhattan Beach Open.
That’s what many will call this for Mewhirter. And it is. No doubt about that. But there have been small breakthroughs, one after another, enough for anyone paying close enough attention to know that this was possible, that, yes, she could compete with the best the world had to offer, that it was just a matter of time and circumstance.
She broke through two weeks after that Austin tournament in 2018. She played that one with Avery Bush, and though they wouldn’t qualify, Mewhirter would receive a partnership offer for the next tournament, in New York: Jessica Sykora, a 6-foot-4 blocker who had qualified with Mewhirter’s sister, Lindsey Knudsen, in Hermosa Beach the year before.
A problem. A big one, too. In Mewhirter’s and Sykora’s bracket was Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, the No. 1 ranked team in the world.
Someone wrote that “this is, barring an injury, as much of a lock to make it through a qualifier as any.”
And then Mewhirter and Sykora beat the lock. They beat the No. 1 team in the world, the eventual 2019 World Champs.
The first breakthrough.
Some breakthroughs happen all at once, an Eric Beranek qualifier-to-third-in-the-Manhattan-Beach-Open type. Some take time, little victories, stacked atop one another, building so quietly, so subtly, that only a few begin to notice — and then it happens.
That win over the Canadians didn’t suddenly turn Mewhirter’s career around, as some events have catapulted others. At the beginning of the 2019 season, she was left in a familiar predicament: Unsure. Unsure of what position to play. Unsure of whom she was going to play with. Unsure if this was a longterm path in life.
Straight into the main draw with Allie Wheeler in Austin, her first time being directly into the main of a small draw, she bowed out in two straight matches. In New York, site of her momentous victory over Humana-Paredes and Pavan, she failed to qualify with Emily Hartong.
But she loved Hartong. Loved how she worked. Loved her mentality, her physicality. The loss was just a loss. Nothing more. They’d get back after it in two weeks, in Seattle.
And they would, qualifying without losing a set.
Then they were winning again. Not just winning, but cruising over the two seed, Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, winning the first set, 21-13.
They’d lose the match in a tight third set, 13-15, but again, it was a minor breakthrough: She had a partner she loved, hanging with the team that would eventually win the entire tournament.
A phone call. Weeks later, in Santa Barbara. Hartong. Needs to talk. Her good friend and AVP veteran defender, Geena Urango, asked to partner. She felt bad, loved playing with Mewhirter, but she couldn’t turn this one down, you know? Mewhirter knew. She understood. No hard feelings. Urango was well-established, an AVP finalist.
So: Where to go now?
What about right in front of her, on the very sand on which she was standing? With the player she was running the CBVA Santa Barbara Open?
What about Katie Spieler?
They’d had success before. Trained together in the USA High Performance Program as kids. Made their first main draw together, in 2014, when they were teenagers. Made Manhattan the next year, too, via winning a few AVP Nexts. Spieler was looking, and whether she realized it at the time or not, she was looking for more than a partner.
She was looking for a lifeline.
She’s big into faith, Mewhirter. All of the Knudsens are. Her sister, Lindsey, a former standout at St. Mary’s, is currently finishing up the last leg of a year-and-a-half long mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. None of them play tournaments on Sundays, unless, of course, it’s an AVP or professional level tournament, in which it is their livelihood to do so.
They have the big picture perspective running in the background at all times. Volleyball is important, yes. It’s what paid for Mewhirter’s college education and is her current career. But, in her view, our time on Earth is but a blip in the grand scheme of things.
Life is bigger than volleyball.
When Spieler asked if Mewhirter might want to play AVP Hermosa in 2019, it made little volleyball sense. Here was Mewhirter, who had just settled into her role defending on the right side. Her biggest win was as a defender on the right. With Spieler, she’d have to block full-time, on the left — a new position on a new side.
She did the obvious thing: She said yes.
Because maybe Mewhirter was put on East Beach that day for a reason. Maybe she was exactly whom Spieler needed in her life at that time.
The summer of 2019 was a tumultuous season of life for Spieler. One month before she would partner with Mewhirter, her boyfriend, Eric Zaun, committed suicide. It crushed the beach community, and there are no words to describe what something like that can do to a person as close to Zaun as Spieler was.
And then, in the midst of the lowest point in Spieler’s life, something a little sensational began happening. They took a fifteenth in Hermosa, nothing special. But then they went to Chicago for an AVP Next Gold, Zaun’s favorite city. They won, beating a string of professional teams in the process. Then they won again, in Seaside, an event Zaun had won the year before.
Morale, as they would so often discuss, and still do, was high.
It was high on the court, with two big-paycheck wins, and a few main draw berths guaranteed, and it was high off of it. They became best friends, those two. Rare was the evening they weren’t together, peppering or hitting shots at sunset, watching the sun melt below the Pacific.
Morale would stay high, too: A seventh at the Manhattan Beach Open, Mewhirter’s career-high finish in an AVP. Their highest as a team.
Little breakthroughs abounded.
Opportunities for those would come in short supply in 2020. Her college season coaching for Pepperdine was cut short, canceled due to COVID.
Amidst that wreckage, though, was an opportunity, one she’d never had as a professional: An off-season. Never before had she been able to train full-time prior to an AVP season. Off they went, Mewhirter and Spieler, training five, often six days a week. Sometimes double-days. COVID would eventually limit things, of course, but Mewhirter had a glimpse: How good could she be if she trained like a professional, against other professionals?
What if she gave this career a legitimate shot?
More little breakthroughs ensued: A second on the beach in Waupaca and a first on grass. Back to back to back eleventh-place finishes in the AVP Champions Cup. Another win at grass nationals in South Carolina.
In terms of prize money and average finish, the last two seasons had been the best of her career. In terms of relationships, personal fulfillment, and happiness, it was two of the better years of her life. She had a best friend, a partner, a career on the beach.
Or did she?
There are generally two types of professional beach volleyball players in this country: The full-time professionals, who make a full-time salary playing all over the world to do so. And then there are the domestic professionals, those who play well in the AVPs and local tournaments but require a side hustle, or full-time job, to make it work.
Was she good enough to make the commitment? Good enough to spurn a part-time job and focus solely on beach volleyball?
What did she want her life to look like for 2021 and beyond?
She still isn’t sure what her next step is, Mewhirter. But as she sits on a barstool in an AirBNB in a Podunk town of 23,000 named Leesburg, Florida, eyes red and swollen from a flood of the happiest of tears, she’s content.
Hours before, she and Claes manufactured her Big Breakthrough, the one with the capital B. They beat Kim Hildreth and Allie Wheeler in the semifinals, and the seventh-ranked team in the world, Kolinske and Stockman, in the finals.
She won her first professional tournament, and the $7,000 that came with it.
“I think I’m a jack of all trades, and I’ve always been that type of player,” she said. “This format allowed me to shine. I just have fun playing volley and it’s easier to have fun when you win.”
It was fun, too, for Drost, who was picked up by Dalhausser en route to their victory. It’s the first major win for the 34-year-old, and yes, it counts as a win, whether he won his pool or not. He earned getting picked up by one of the greatest to play the game. He earned wins over Miles Partain and Theo Brunner in the semifinals, and Crabb and Crabb in the finals.
It’s a funny concept for Mewhirter’s mother to wrestle with, her daughter, in the same company as Dalhausser.
“Am I correct in concluding that today, Delaney Knudsen Mewhirter takes home the same paycheck as Phil Dalhausser?” she asked after her daughter’s victory.
Yes, ma’am, you are correct. That’s your oldest, being named the Best of the Beach, alongside the Thin Beast.
Just two years after pondering quitting.
Dalhausser had nothing but praise for Drost
“He almost beat me out of pool,” Dalhausser said. “I thought we played great together, I knew that he would give me 150%, and he probably gave more than that today. I thought he played great.
“We beat two good teams today, and I’m happy I made the decision.
Drost was appreciative of the chance to play with Dalhausser.
“Being a defender is the direction I want my career to go. What a perfect opportunity, when you’re trying to become a higher level defender, and then you get the call from Phil,” Drost said.
“Everything about it is a huge deal, because obviously if Phil doesn’t pick me up, I’m not in the tournament today. I hoped, but I didn’t expect the call. There’s a lot of good guys out here. When Phil told me, I was thrilled and I went to bed excited about this opportunity. This was a gift for me.”