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DJ Klasnic is living the volleyball dream — and then some

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIFORNIA — DJ Klasnic laughs through the friendly jabs.

“You guys always make fun of me for being the oldest college player,” says the 28-year-old Serbian who, yes, is still in college, studying computer science and competing for the Westcliff University men’s beach volleyball team. It was quite a steal for Westcliff coach Fernando Sabla when Klasnic moved from Florida to California. A roster typically filled with indoor converts and beach rookies now had a bona fide professional anchoring its court one. Not that Klasnic landed at Westcliff because it was necessarily his dream to do so. It was mostly on the whim of Klasnic’s girlfriend, Marine Kinna, who had committed to finish her own career at LMU, in Santa Monica.

Then, as he was living it, he realized it was one of his many dreams after all.

“She asked if I wanted to come to California. I’ve never thought about it. This is new and risky but it’s a great thing for my career,” Klasnic recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Things were great with Marine and I was ready for the risk, a new adventure.”

It was one of a number of right-place-at-the-right-time moments for Klasnic. The only reason he was in Florida to meet Kinna in the first place? Years prior, the Serbian women’s team was practicing in Florida and asked if he might want to come train. Sounded good enough to him. He told his parents he was making the move from Serbia to Florida. Their response? A mix of confusion and bemused curiosity.

Klasnic didn’t even know where in Florida he was going.

“It’ll be good for my career,” he told them, still without any idea what city he’d eventually land in, “and I’m going.”

That decision touched off a string of events Klasnic can only shrug and describe as luck, ignoring, in an endearing sense, the fact that luck tends to find those who put themselves in position to be found by it. Few would consider moving from Serbia to an unknown city in Florida, to train for a career that does not exist in Serbia, simply because they were invited to do so. Yet Klasnic, fueled by both ambition and naivete, did exactly that.

It’s an unusual aspiration, for a Serbian to become a world-class professional beach volleyball player. Before Klasnic turned professional, a Serbian team had never won an FIVB medal. Only a pair of brothers, Nemanja and Nikola Vucic, had ever carved out the unique path that is making a living — or somewhat of a living — playing the sport. Klasnic followed them closely.

“For me it was ‘Wow’ it was so cool,” Klasnic said. “I thought it was never going to happen.”

Which helps explain why he bought the flight to the United States, sight unseen. Didn’t know where he was going or who he might meet along the way, only that it was in the proper general direction: West. Suddenly, the players he had grown up watching on YouTube and wherever else he could find AVP highlights were standing across him on the other side of the net. He wasn’t just participating, either, a useful practice pawn. He was beating them. A lot. In his first 14 tournaments in Florida, from 2018-2020, his worst finish was third.

People noticed.

Piotr Marciniak, a longtime professional and fellow European — Marciniak competed for Poland and was one of the top players on the NVL Tour — let Klasnic crash at his house and play defense for him. Ricardo Santos, one of the greatest blockers in the game’s history, a man with a gold medal around his neck, did the same. So did Phil Dalhausser.

“The door opened,” Klasnic said, and even now, he can hardly believe it. Who was he, a kid from eastern Europe, to be training and competing with the greatest players in the game, guys he had grown up idolizing and watching on TV?

“It was a dream even meeting Phil. At one point in Orlando, I didn’t have a place to sleep and Phil said you can sleep at my house and I’m like ‘OK, I’m sleeping at a gold medalist’s house’ and same with Ricardo. Living the dream,” Klasnic said. “I don’t know how I ended up here. You have to be lucky to succeed in this sport. You have to be lucky enough to come from a small country to here. You can’t just decide you’re going to California, you gotta find your way, step by step. There was a road in front of me and I was just walking, following the path, and if it works, it works.”

DJ Klasnic
DJ Klasnic lays out/Mark Rigney photo

He has stayed the path, and it has rewarded him in kind. This year, after attempting to get the proper green card that would allow him to compete on the AVP for half a decade, he was alas cleared to play. He made his first main draw in New Orleans with Brian Miller, finishing seventh. A month later, in Huntington Beach, he took another top-10. In Chicago, he stunned Manhattan Beach Open champs Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander and then took Dalhausser and Avery Drost to three sets. In Laguna Beach two weeks ago, he finished third.

“I dedicated everything to that and I really tried to work different ways and improve my game and the logistics to play AVP and I’m excited to live my dream,” Klasnic said. “Something that I was dreaming, I’m still dreaming but I’m living it now. I can’t believe I’m playing with the top players and having great partners. I’m not watching, I’m going there to win. This is for me a chance to live that professional beach volleyball life and compete with the best.

“Winning my first medal on the World Tour in 2017, it was ‘Wow, I can do this.’ Winning gold with Lazar [in 2022], ‘Wow we can do this.’ Going to AVP and qualifying, ‘Wow I can do this as well.’ It all ultimately makes you bigger.”

Some might consider it a step down, to make the semifinals of an AVP, to go toe-to-toe with Dalhausser after upending the Manhattan Beach Open winners — and then go back to college, competing with and against mostly raw beach players. Klasnic loves all of it, every step of this winding and wonderful journey.

“When I was young, I was thinking I would love to play college in the US. It would be the best time of my life,” he said. “But I wanted to live the beach volleyball dream. After a couple years, I got the opportunity to live both dreams at the same time. Go live the college life, compete against other colleges, study in the US, have the team and meet people and create friendships and a the same time play beach volleyball. Again, lucky enough.”

Westcliff is 5-1 this season, with the AVCA National Championships scheduled for Nov. 4 in Huntsville, Alabama. Does Klasnic, a bona fide professional both on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour and the AVP, who has criss-crossed the globe and is nearing 30, find it funny that he’s teammates with teenagers? Of course. Will that damper his enthusiasm? Not in the least.

“I’m just so excited to lead that team as a captain,” he said. “I was brought here as an experienced player to teach the other guys and lead the team. I’m trying every day to be that example, the way I work out, the way I practice, to show them that this is the way.”

The way of the itinerant Serbian: Walking the unknown path, step by step, leading to one dream after another.

“My goal in beach volleyball is to see how far I can go. Is that Future, Challenge, Elite? Medals? Not medals? AVP? Win an AVP?” he said. “That goal drives me: How far can I go? Once I start going backwards and start making worse results, then maybe it’s time for something else. As long as there’s something in front of us, I’m so excited.

“I’m 28 and I’m just getting started.”