The wall near the Huntington Beach Pier isn’t so much a wall as it is a mildly large ledge. Though to an 8-year-old Sara Hughes, a mildly large ledge may as well have been The Great Wall itself.
So there she’d sit, three or four days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., hopping on the wall between games of her own and runs to Jamba Juice. From her perch she’d watch. Namely, she’d watch Misty May and Kerri Walsh, a team that was considered likely to win a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games after a year on the AVP Tour in which they went 39-0 and won all eight tournaments. It was the first time anybody had gone undefeated on a beach volleyball tour of any kind.
So little Sara would watch, studying their movements, watching them compete, dreaming of becoming them.
Fifteen years later, little girls now dream of becoming Sara Hughes. In her first full season as a professional, in 2017, a parent would pull her aside, tell her that her daughter had a poster of Hughes hanging on her wall, that she has aspirations to become the next Sara.
“I was like ‘No way is that actually happening,’” Hughes said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
Yet it is. Already, Hughes has won an AVP tournament, five months younger than when May won her first professional event on the FIVB. Already, Hughes is sponsored by the biggest names in volleyball – Mikasa, Oakley, KT Tape.
Already, Hughes is sponsored by the biggest name in sports: Nike.
“My agent, the first time we sat down, asked me what’s my favorite clothing, what’s my favorite apparel, and I said ‘Nike. Always Nike.’ So that in itself is really a dream come true for me to call myself a Nike athlete,” she said, alongside names such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Alex Morgan and others of that ilk.
And yet for all of her precocious and uninterrupted success, for all of the All-America accolades and championships and bounty of trophies and awards, there remains one rather astounding absence in Sara Hughes’ career: She has never played a meaningful tournament in Huntington Beach.
“I think it’s always been in the back of my mind, like ‘Huntington, how cool!’ Then one day it hit, and I was like ‘Oh, my gosh. I get to play in a professional tournament in Huntington and it’s an AVP.’ I grew up watching the AVP!” Hughes said. “I was a ball-shagger, shagging balls for Mike Lambert and all those great guys. But now I am in Huntington and I’m playing in the AVP. Dreams do come true.”
Sure, she’s played in a CBVA here and there, but for justifiable reasons she doesn’t consider those professional. This week, as she mentioned, is the biggie, the 48-team monster of a draw, a four-star FIVB that collided with the AVP for a four-day double-elimination main draw against the best teams in the world, on the very beach Hughes learned to play volleyball.
“Huntington is where I fell in love with beach volleyball,” said Hughes, whose new partner, Summer Ross, also cut her teeth in Huntington Beach. “Just everything about it.”
Huntington has a way of doing that. The same wall that Hughes once dangled her legs upon as she watched May and Walsh is the same one that Ryan Doherty leaned upon when he first moved to California and became unofficially the world’s largest pizza delivery boy.
“I was told to aim for Huntington Beach rather than Hermosa and Manhattan,” Doherty said of his move from New Jersey to California. “Hermosa and Manhattan have great volleyball players but what they do is set up their practices well in advance. Now I live in Hermosa Beach, I know exactly when and where somebody is playing. If somebody is just standing by the court they’re not going to work in with us. It’s just not how it works.
“Huntington Beach, all the best players when I was there, just got outside the pier by 9 a.m., that’s when it starts. And if someone doesn’t show, then you can hop in. And if you have six or eight guys, you can get a king of the beach thing going.
“I was very lucky in getting to Huntington.”
The number of players whose stories begin in Surf City are nearly endless. Casey Patterson, though he now lives in Thousand Oaks, is nearly fanatical in his devotion to Huntington. Jake Gibb bikes there in the mornings. Ty Tramblie became an AVP winner from training on court two on south side of the pier, directly next to court one, that of Gibb-Patterson when they made their Olympic run.
“The way the courts are situated and how close they are together, it builds a community where Hermosa and Manhattan are either 715th street or 2nd or whatever,” Patterson said. “There’s no community because everybody’s so randomly a half mile down the street from somebody else, whereas at Huntington, everybody wants to be on that south side, just shagging balls, talking to each other, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ You’re interacting way more with the community, not just the team you practice with and then drive home.”
It does not have the prestige of a beach like Manhattan or Hermosa, home to the game’s most exorbitant talents and biggest tournaments, but there’s something about Huntington’s humble origins, its lack of glitz and glamour, its blue-collar feel when compared to the South Bay, that is magnetic.
“Everything is right there,” Patterson said. “You have the volleyball community, the courts all close together, you have the grass area, you have the farmer’s market whether it’s Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday, they build a community. It’s almost like you’re forced into hanging around each other and being with each other. That’s the magic of Huntington. It gives you every Southern California experience.”
The pier, though home it may be to a fantastic Ruby’s, does not have the beach volleyball walk of fame, as Manhattan does. Hughes doesn’t mind – she’ll sharpie her name right on that pier if she wins, just because “I want my name on the Huntington pier so bad.”
Her mind has not yet raced to the possibility of a podium, of a gold medal on her home beach, in front of her family and friends, on an international stage right at her doorstep. Though the tournament is close, the finals are nearly a week and more than half-a-dozen wins away. She knows this, and yet she also knows how much it would mean to win in her hometown, her first international victory in her first tournament in Huntington Beach.
“I don’t even know. Right now, I’m so excited about Huntington, I’m trying to contain and hold myself back,” she said. “It’s gotta be a point by point tournament because it’s going to be so tough and so long.
“It would be so much more than a win for me. It would be for my coach it would be for my friends and family. It would mean the world to me if I could just do well and get in the finals and potentially win this tournament. I could see myself crying if I win this tournament. I don’t usually cry but that’s something that would do it.”