There we were in South Tyrol, Italy, to play snow volleyball.
It is April of 2019, and Riley McKibbin is standing atop Kronplatz Mountain, a towering peak in the Dolomite mountain range in northern Italy. He’s idling between matches of snow volleyball, a ridiculous sport being played in a setting of ridiculous beauty. Surveying the breathtaking scene before him — endless, white-capped mountain ranges, wild, untouched nature as far as the eye could see — he is asked if he could ever see himself moving back to Italy.
“In a heartbeat.”
His first two professional contracts, after earning All-American honors setting for USC, were in San Giustino, Italy, as was his penultimate one, where he set for CMC Ravenna in 2015. He loved the people. Loved the food and the wine. Knew and loved the language, one in which he was fluent when it came to volleyball and proficient when it came to life outside the gym. But it was at his kitchen table in Ravenna that he and his brother, Maddison, had cooked up an idea. After injuries and an experience in Greece that was unforgettable in all the wrong ways, Maddison had determined he finished playing indoors. What if they gave beach a shot?
When Ravenna’s season finished in April of 2015, Riley and Maddison packed up their bags and left for Southern California. It would take eight years for the when or why or how Riley would find a way to return to Italy again, though suffice it to say, it wasn’t exactly how he would have predicted.
For as long as she was setting goals as an athlete, Carli Lloyd’s vision was always to win an Olympic gold medal for the USA. A standout for Fallbrook Union High in San Diego, Lloyd was recruited to set for Cal, where she would win virtually every award there is to win: Player of the Year, All-America, All-Pacific Region, All-Championship, Seattle Regional MVP, Muscle Milk Student Athlete of the Week. It took no time for those awards to continue piling up in the Italian League, where she signed with Yamamay Busto Arsizio, winning the Italian League and Supercup, winning the CEV Cup, winning bronze in the Champions League, winning the Supercup again with Pomi Casalmaggiore.
In 2016, she won an Olympic bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro setting for the USA. In 2018, she’d take gold at the Volleyball Nations League in Nanjing.
She never did get that Olympic gold medal, though somewhere along the lines, the desire to do so had waned. The culture in the gym was changing. Her desire to compete had transitioned from more extrinsic — winning medals and accolades and championships — to intrinsic, for the pure love of competing and improving. And besides, in the fall of 2020, after returning from a season with Casalmaggiore, Lloyd grew understandably distracted from volleyball.
She was pregnant.
For many, if not most, female athletes, a pregnancy announcement doubles as a retirement announcement. For nine months, Lloyd was sharing her body with another, and for nine months after that, if not more, she would be recovering from delivering a daughter, Storm, that doctors liken it to major abdominal surgery. This can be heartbreaking. It was no so for Lloyd.
“I had already begun transitioning away from having this Olympic dream,” she said last week on SANDCAST with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I had already been away from the national team a little bit. I didn’t have these big lofty goals I was going after, I was playing because I loved it and because I kept getting better.”
Because she’s Carli Lloyd, the pregnancy hardly slowed her down at all. It had, in fact, galvanized a different sort of passion for the game. Indoors would be a bit rough on the body while pregnant, but beach? With the soft sand and minimal impact? With the constant running and shifting? With no resistance and the risk of injury next to none? It was the optimal pre-natal workout.
“I found a group of moms who played twice a week and my belly was growing and I was obsessed with it,” Lloyd said. “In my seventh month, [Riley] said ‘You have to stop!’ I loved it so much. Once I had her, coming back, it was my way to getting back in shape.”
The Hermosa Beach sand proved so effective, in fact, at getting Lloyd back in the world-class shape to which she was so accustomed that she competed for six weeks in the upstart Athletes Unlimited league in the United States and was offered a contract to set again for Busto Arsizio.
But with a newborn daughter to raise, for the first time, Lloyd wondered: Should she take it?
“When I had her I wasn’t sure if I’d want to come back,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t know if I could find the competitor enough to do it. Riley just kept telling me ‘These years are very limited, you’re not going to be able to play forever, so if you have any desire at all you should go after it.’ If I didn’t have him telling me that, I don’t know.”
But she did have Riley telling her that.
Lloyd and McKibbin were going back to Italy.
To compare McKibbin’s days in Italy as a player to that of his days in Italy as a full-time father are almost comical in their differences. When you’re a player, your life revolves around the team — practice, lift, sometimes practice again. Travel. Compete. Eat delicious food, drink world-class wine. Maybe go out, party. Maybe stay in. Do this for eight months. Now? With an 18-month-old daughter in tow?
“Being a full time parent is way harder than any stressful work environment I’ve ever been a part of,” McKibbin said. “Not that it was stressful really, you would think it would be being in a foreign country with a 2-year-old but it’s so draining. I got super lucky that I could spend that much time with her but it was hard and it totally changed my perspective on parenting and workloads and sharing that with your partner. There’s a lot of great, a lot of challenging, but overall it was a super great experience.”
It was a symmetric, damn near poetic, reunion in Italy. Lloyd moved into the same apartment she had lived in more than a decade prior. She had the same neighbors, only now, the 5-year-old girl who once lived next door was a 16-year-old young woman. The couple she had bonded with when she was a 20-something kid out of college, who once helped her with her transition to a foreign country, was now offering babysitting services.
“It couldn’t have been a better situation,” Riley said.
So Riley would drop Storm off at school and get a lift in while Lloyd lifted or practiced with Busto. In the late morning, he’d scoop her up and be dad, whatever that meant for the day (this often meant watchingthe Disney film Moana on loop, though only the first 45 minutes; Storm loves the first 45 minutes).
“I definitely thought it would be easier,” Riley said, laughing. “I’m just super grateful that I got to spend those years with Storm. Before then, Carli was, in all honesty, doing most of the parenting. She spent most of the time with Storm. Maddison and I were so busy doing what we were doing with our work. You just don’t understand what the other side is going through or how hard – even if they’re just spending time with a little baby and sometimes they can’t even move. It’s like ‘It’s not that hard, what are you complaining about?’ And then it flips, and you’re like ‘This is impossible! Can you please just help me a little bit?’
“There are times where I’m asking for a break but she’s the one who needs a break. Gaining that perspective was amazing because I feel like understanding that side of things makes life that much better for everyone.”
Storm came to be loved by Lloyd’s teammates at Busto, there for every practice and home match.
“Going for eight months, I felt a little guilty pulling Riley and Storm away from home and trying to do this again but looking back, it could have gone better, the volleyball side of it, but the experience for us as a family was super rad,” Lloyd said. “I feel like I did my job. I wanted to find a balance of being a mom and doing my job as a volleyball player and one of my goals was just to tell Storm that story one day and tell her ‘Hey, you can do it too.’
“It’s really powerful and it’s really hard to have an athletic career as a mother because it’s our bodies that have to go on a break. I feel really good about it. I got really lucky with him because he had already experienced that world and knew what it took and already lived in Italy and could speak the language. The transition from us being here to going there was pretty smooth. He killed it. He was basically full time dad and it’s hard to do that.
“One of the coolest feelings was to look in the stands and see him with her and I felt really supported and we were in the right place a lot of the time. I’m really happy with it.”
Storm is now a hair older than 2. To take another contract would be a massive commitment, especially if that contract is in, say, Greece or Poland, where Lloyd has received offers. It would be a new language, a new country, where Lloyd has not known her neighbors for 12 years.
What’s next, then, for Lloyd and McKibbin? They’re not quite sure, and life can be kind of fun that way. McKibbin is producing content for Wilson and the AVP and keeping his own YouTube channel alive. Lloyd is currently training with the USA Volleyball beach program, finding her sand legs with Madi Kingdon, another national team player who is also tinkering with a potential career on the beach.
“I’m going to train and I’m going to be real diligent about the process and see how good I can get and how well I can understand the sport and if I still love it then maybe I won’t play indoor anymore,” Lloyd said. “I don’t know yet.”
Nor does she really need to. They’re just taking this life one day, one point, one re-run of Moana at a time.