As Carly Wopat said, “my heart and brain told me to go the beach.”
So here she is, entering into the 2019 pro season at 26 and almost a rookie but having the benefit of playing with one of the seasoned veterans of the sport, Brittany Hochevar.
“I saw myself 10 years ago,” said Hochevar, 37. “Playing on the USA national team, trying my hand at beach, trying to hook on and learn from the best.
“And her work ethic, clearly, just her physique, is already at an extremely professional level.”
No doubt about that. Wopat, the former Stanford star, is 6-foot-2 and as physically imposing as anyone on the sand.
“What was attractive to me is that she’s a freaky athlete, she’s a war machine, you just have to aim her. Either you adapt or you die,” Hochevar said.
“Carly is the type of athlete that is revolutionizing the game. Her attitude, professionalism and obvious work ethic are convincing factors as well as the fact that she touches 11 feet-ish.
“At this point in my career I’d rather take a chance on her, launch a career, switch to the left side and see what we can do in a year and a half, rather than play the point spreadsheet game on a stale and extremely expensive Olympic qualification system.”
Although Wopat grew up in Santa Barbara near East Beach, she never received any beach training. But Stanford introduced beach volleyball in 2012 before her junior year.
“They basically took our whole indoor team and threw them in the sand,” Wopat said. “I was thrilled, so excited about it, but most of the girls weren’t. It was basically a second volleyball season. It was the very beginning of the building and construction of the program, so it wasn’t very developed yet, but it was cool to start that program.”
There’s much more to the story, however. Wopat’s late twin sister, Sam, was with her from the start of their volleyball careers.
“We first started playing volleyball in the fourth grade, and our PE teacher, Tina Brown, took a group of us and started an after-school group at the Page Youth Center, it was just so fun,” Carly recalled. “Tina had a way of making learning that sport really fun, and that group of girls ended up going on to Dos Pueblos high school, and made up the core of people that won the CIF.
“Volleyball just stuck out. It’s so fast, it’s a very skill based sport, you can take an incredible athlete, and they’ll be terrible at volleyball. I like that about it, that you have to work at it, spend the time to develop the skills, it’s a unique sport in that sense.”
Dos Pueblos High School won the CIF Southern Section Division III championship when they were seniors.
“I had so much fun. I have so many great memories from those years learning and playing on the volleyball team,” Wopat said.
The twins grew up in Goleta near Santa Barbara and were three-sport athletes in volleyball, basketball, and track and field.
Sam was a championship high jumper and Carly held the high school discus record for some time. Their father Ron was a football and track athlete at Lawrence University in Kansas. He placed 12th in the 1980 Olympic trials in the decathlon, and went on to be nationally ranked in the hammer throw. Their mother Kathy competed in gymnastics and track and field (shot put, discus, and javelin) while at UC Santa Barbara, a tall gymnast at 6-1.
Younger brother Eli, a 6-6 opposite, just completed his junior season at Stanford. He had 60 kills this year.
The Wopat twins got scholarships to Stanford, where they were coached by John Dunning and got as far as the NCAA Tournament regional finals.
But in March 2012, in the spring of their junior year, Sam Wopat committed suicide.
“It’s been seven years. People who have experienced great loss know that it never leaves you, but over time the grief and process changes, and it becomes a part of you,” Carly said. “How you choose to respond to these sort of tragedies that can occur in your life makes all the difference.
“It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of personal growth, but I know that I just want to live my best life, and that’s the best way that I can honor Sam, to be the best person that I can be, and make the most positive impact that I can in the time that I have on this world. That’s the journey that I’ve been on, and for me, volleyball has been a way to play for the both of us, because it’s something we both loved.”
That will be on display in a big way at their prep alma mater.
Dos Pueblos High School has begun fundraising to build a three-court beach volleyball complex in Goleta. The facility is to be named the Twin Palms in honor of Sam, who is also honored with a memorial near Stanford’s beach facility.
“It should be huge, honestly.” Carly said. “These will be NCAA regulation courts, and there are no courts from far up north down to Ventura for college tournaments.
“These courts will be used by high school students and I hope that it can add more opportunity to play and help the sport develop. It will also be used by many other members of the community and local colleges. My hope is that it will fuel the passion, opportunity, connections, and skill that volleyball can provide young people. It has fueled so much throughout my own lifetime and taken me to so many different levels. It only makes sense to give back to volleyball. There’s so much that I like about it.”
When Wopat left Stanford after being named a Volleyball magazine three-time All-American, however, beach was the last thing on her mind. Her professional indoor career took her right to the USA gym, where she was part of the team that won bronze at the 2016 Pan American Cup. She also played pro for four years in Cannes, France; Halkbank, Turkey; Toray, Japan; and Beijing, China.
“I first trained with the USA national team in my senior year in college, in 2014, and earned a consistent spot for the last three years,” Wopat said. “I was pursuing the 2020 Olympics with the current squad.”
But in March 2018 she tore her MCL.
“It took me out of competition that summer, which was devastating because I would have had a lot of great opportunities to prove myself and show what I’ve got.
“That was difficult, and I wasn’t healthy enough to get a contract overseas yet, so when August rolls around, and by this time I’m back to full play, I don’t have a contract, and I’m living in Hermosa. I went to the Manhattan AVP.”
And that’s when she decided she would play in the last AVP event of the season, the 2018 Chicago stop. She partnered with Elise Zappia and they finished 33rd.
“That just got the whole beach volleyball thing rolling for me,” Wopat said. “It’s funny, I was just having a conversation with someone about this, and it just didn’t start rolling, it just launched.
“It’s been a little overwhelming at times. I was working really hard at first when I was making the transition to pursue beach volleyball. And it kind of ignited this new fire, this new passion in me.”
(Wopat was the guest on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter this past January and talked about her transition to the beach).
She got into the p1440 development program — “I was getting amazing training every day” — and then she hooked up with Hochevar.
“I was looking at these two different options, at going for 2020 Olympics indoor, as I had been doing, or taking the road towards the 2020 Olympics in beach with Brittany.
“I talked to a lot of people, I talked to Karch (Kiraly), and my heart and brain told me to go to the beach.”
Hochevar was intrigued.
“I actually caught wind of the fact that one of the top indoor players was dabbling on the beach, and I didn’t know if she was just rehabbing from the knee injury, or if she was really interested in beach,” Hochevar said.
“She said, ‘Oh, I love it, it’s in my veins,’ and I thought about it, I walked on the strand, caught one of her pickup games, and after watching her 30 minutes, it was like, ‘Yep, that’ll do.’ ”
Wopat and Hochevar have played in three events this year, the FIVB two-star in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in February where they finished ninth, and a three-star in Sydney, Australia, in March, where they placed 33rd after losing in the qualifier.
This past Sunday they earned valuable entry points, winning a silver medal in the Cayman Islands NORCECA.
“We had some battles, we had a lot of three-set matches,” Wopat said. “There’s no replacement for competition is my takeaway. You can train however much you want. You have to throw yourself into the fire to really learn quickly.
“That first tournament we jumped head-first into the fire, but we learned really fast.
“Not making it out of the qualifier was really hard to swallow, after paying the money, and working hard to get there. Other beach volleyball players know how difficult that can be on a player. It puts into perspective what you need to work on. For me, I get really motivated when I lose. That might sound really weird, but it really motivates me.
“When I came back I had this fire to push even harder to get even better.”
Hochevar, who sees “glimpses of brilliance” in Wopat, recognizes that they have strong potential as a pair.
“She’s real smart, she’s a Stanford grad. And sometimes you have to keep those Stanford grads out of their own heads and let the brilliance of the body take over,” Hochevar offered.
“I think she’s progressing very well. We’ve made some adjustments. I’m now on the left side, we moved her to the right, so now that she can settle into those spaces and those specifics. The rubber will meet the road pretty quickly.
“The different nuances, the timing, the block timing, have been interesting and new to her, and that’s taken a little bit of time, but as we watched Brandie Wilkerson, for example, her block timing was screwy for a while when she first came out. When she figured it out, she went straight to the top of the rankings, and I feel the same about Carly.”
Their schedule includes the AVP season opener this week at Huntington Beach May 3-5 and the NORCECA in Varaderos, Cuba, May 9-12.
“We match up with top teams really well because we’re physical, we play a high flying game, we’re fast,” Hochevar said. “We match up better with the top teams than the middle-of-the-pack chunky, veteran teams, because of Carly’s experience.
Wopat is stoked about her new career and the possibilities it holds.
“I’m super-excited. This will be my first-ever AVP main draw. It’s my first full AVP season, I’m just excited to see what I can do, in front of my friends and home crowd,” she said.
“We have a pretty unique offense, we’re running a lot of fast sets. We both attack with different tempo sets, and she’s an incredible setter. It’s really hard for teams to time and stop it. I’m excited to see what we can do.”