SOFIA, Bulgaria — It’s Thursday, June 10, and I’m sitting in the basement of the Sofia Beach hotel, roasting in a sauna heated to 102 degrees Celsius.
The only sound you can hear is the creaking of the wood and the irregular pitter-patter of my sweat as it drips off my arms, my chin, my legs.
For 35 minutes, I will sit here, and I will sweat, and I will think. I will sit and sweat and think until I’m light-headed and a bit dizzy and a small puddle has formed at my feet.
I’ll think of how long this trip has been, one that began exactly a month ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to Istanbul and then, to Sofia, Bulgaria. I’ll think of a trip that began in this hotel, one that would become a home away from home, a beach volleyball oasis at the base of the lush Vitosha Mountain.
But this does not feel like home right now. It feels like a rushed ending to a good story, one where the author was just kind of…over it, and ended it.
Life is unscripted like that.
You cannot rewrite the endings. You simply accept them, examine them, turn them over, and you move on.
So that’s what I do in this sauna: I accept the three consecutive FIVB tournaments I played with Adam Roberts, and I examine each one. I turn over three tournaments in which we had opportunities for breakthroughs, and I search them, going through them with a fine mental comb, wondering why we fell just short each time, where we could have been better.
Where we must be better, if when we are to make our breakthrough.
It is not easy to do this, of course, not least of all because our final loss, to a Hungary team I’d describe as, at best, average, is still fresh, barely an hour old. Each examination hits like anvil, and it is only compounded by a host of other emotional bludgeons that make our final loss that much more devastating. Each loss is coupled with the fact that I have not seen Delaney in more than a month, a stretch of time that has proven far more difficult than I imagined it would. Each loss is weighed down further by the day: June 10, the eve of the second anniversary of Eric Zaun’s death.
Tears begin to well. I don’t know the exact source of them, but soon they are rolling, slipping off my cheeks to join the sweat pooling at my feet.
And so I sit on this bench, and I sit, and I sweat, and I think, and I am mentally, emotionally, spiritually, broken.
I can’t tell you the last time a loss hit this hard. It is a silly thing, for a 30-year-old grown man to become so emotionally distraught over the fact that a team from Hungary scored 21 points on a beach in Bulgaria faster than you did.
What I’ve discovered in the past five weeks, as Adam Roberts and I hit tournaments in Bulgaria, Sochi, then Bulgaria twice more, is that life on the World Tour is much more than playing beach volleyball. The investment is as much, if not far more, emotional as it is financial. You lose on the AVP or in tournaments around the U.S. and you can go home. You can put on Morgan Wallen while you wash the dishes and your wife pops dark chocolate into your mouth. You can walk down the strand in Hermosa Beach and watch a pretty sunset and sleep in your own bed and wake up and go through your own routine. The sting of a loss is quickly salved.
The World Tour is different.
I’ve now seen up close how difficult the life of full-time international player is. These past several weeks were just a sample, barely a dipping of the toes. It is easy, if you haven’t done it, to view this life as glamorous, luxurious, a dream. In many ways, it is, and I hope I can speak for the vast majority of us when I say that I am beyond grateful for what this sport allows us to do.
But it is hard.
It is hard to leave your family for five weeks. It is hard for the most important relationships in your life to be relegated to laggy, pixelated FaceTimes and iMessages at weird hours of the day. It is hard to be permanently jetlagged, living out of hotels, eating strange foods in restaurants where you have no clue what you’ve just ordered. It’s fun, too, mind you. A world of fun. And delicious — most of the time. It’s fun to hike up waterfalls and tour movie studios and walk through ancient monasteries and soak in hot springs and build relationships you know will last a lifetime. It’s fun to allow this sport to take you to some of the most random corners of the globe.
There is a sacrifice you must make, to reap all that fun. I just hadn’t experienced it yet.
Prior to this trip, the longest I’d ever been gone for volleyball was a week: China in 2019, and in Doha, earlier this year. I wasn’t able to feel the immense difficulty of the sacrifice so many of these players are making on a near-weekly basis. But strolling through the restaurant in Sochi was to, at times, stroll through a place where many players ate by themselves, their phones propped up against a coffee mug or salt shaker, their significant others on the other end of the device. That’s what your relationships become on this tour, for three, four, five months out of the year: FaceTimes at breakfast.
The emotional toll of that adds up.
“Just wait till you have a baby,” Tri Bourne told me, when we were talking about the difficulties of homesickness on the road. “That changes every day you miss.”
I do not have an adorable daughter, as Tri does. I have not missed the birth of any children. Our family’s financials are not hanging in the balance of me winning matches. Men like Bourne and Gibb and Patterson and many others bear a burden far heavier.
But there was a complex dynamic in our house these past five weeks. Delaney is the vastly superior volleyball player in our little family. That is not self-deprecating humor; it’s just the truth.
With the way the FIVB schedule has shaken out, however, Delaney is perpetually on reserve lists, frozen out on account of a lack of points. Eventually, of course, Delaney will get her shot, and she will very soon, in Gstaad with Brooke Sweat. But for this trip, she couldn’t play on the FIVB.
It has been weird, me playing while she waits.
We were able to do this together once, in Tel Aviv. We both played the one-star there in 2019, and both took fifth. It was a bit of a dream, to do that as a family, a glimpse into what the next few years might look like: We’d both make a push at the international level until we’re ready for kids.
But Delaney was home for this trip, while I was on the World Tour for five weeks, living the life that’s been carved out for her essentially since she could walk. Unlike me, she wants to see how close she can get to the Olympic Games. She wants to be a full-time player, with nothing on the side. Instead, I am the one traveling, doing everything she wanted to be doing.
Things were, more than occasionally, tense.
On a Sunday night in Sofia, Bulgaria, four days before Adam and I would lose our final match, Jade Race, Adam’s fiancé, asked a question I hadn’t considered in quite some time: What are your goals with volleyball?
In other words: What are you doing out here?
We pondered that question over a bottle of white wine, five days before this trip would reach its premature end. We pondered it, together, while watching the replay of the Ostrava finals, where Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil won their second consecutive gold medal.
Winning gold medals on the World Tour is exactly what Claes and Sponcil have wanted to do their entire lives. Becoming Olympians in this sport is exactly what they have wanted to do their entire lives.
What do I want to do as a player in this sport?
I have no Earthly clue.
For the majority of what you could loosely label my “career” as a beach volleyball player, the beginning was also the end of my goals. When I moved from Florida to California, I wanted to make one main draw. Just one.
In Austin of 2018, I did that.
To my own surprise, I hadn’t thought of it, until Jade and I cracked open a bottle of wine in Bulgaria, nearly three years later.
Then again, I never thought I’d be any good.
I didn’t think I was much good — near the top level, anyway, where you must compete if you are to do this as a legitimate career — before this Eurotrip. Sure, I could make an AVP main draw here and there. I could win a medal at a NORCECA. I could medal in watered-down one-stars and qualify for three-stars and then get beaten up by the main draw teams. I could hang with great teams in practice.
But in tournaments, my record against great teams, and how I felt when I played against them, wasn’t great. Yes, I played against Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger in an AVP main draw in Hermosa Beach, but I didn’t feel like I really belonged on the court. Yes, I’ve beaten many good teams, but my vision of what a professional athlete is has never aligned with my vision of what I am myself.
In some respect, that has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. I put that out into the world quite frequently, either on the podcast or in my writing or funny bloopers on social media. Much of it is self-deprecating humor I don’t fully believe.
But there is always a kernel of truth in every joke.
Somewhere along the lines, something changed, either in Bulgaria or Sochi or perhaps back in February, in Doha. There hasn’t been an identifiable event, a light bulb moment, an “aha!” where I suddenly come to the realization that I can be every bit as good as the people I admire so much in this sport. It has just been a slow slide, a bit like falling into a dream. You can never can recall how you get to where you are in your dreams.
You’re just … there.
I can beat all of them.
So here I am, competing overseas for five weeks at a time. Competing against Olympians and beating them. Competing against FIVB gold medalists and beating them, too. Not just beating them, but feeling, and playing, as if I’m the best player on the court.
I never expected to be here, playing like this. I never expected so much of my emotions to become tied to the results of these matches. I never expected it to be so devastating on a spiritual level to lose.
I’m not alone in that. Most every player I’ve spoken to on the podcast or in various interviews here and there has had similar moments to the one I had in the sauna on Thursday night. Every athlete who fell short of the Tokyo Olympics is there. Sarah Sponcil’s came not too long ago, in the gap between the Gstaad Major and the Espinho four-star in 2019.
“I felt like I had nothing together,” she said of that moment. “I was missing home, I felt like I was trying to change so many different things in my game, and you can’t change a whole lot and still feel like you’re playing free. Everything was just crazy in my mind, and definitely had some teary moments, and I was just honest with Kelly and open and vulnerable and I was like ‘I am not OK right now.’ To get closer you have to be vulnerable in those positions and it sucks to acknowledge that you don’t have it all together.”
She didn’t have it all together and, at the end of this trip, neither did I.
I’m back together now.
It took one long hug from Delaney, one walk down the Strand, one jump in the ocean. Just like that, every negative emotion I felt in that sauna felt silly, immature, dramatic. Yet I know I’ll feel them again, the next time I lose, and there will be a next time. I know I’ll feel them again, the next time I’m away from home for an extended period of time, because there will be a next time. I know I’ll feel all of these things again, because every player above me has felt these things before, and feels them at the end of every trip that doesn’t end with a breakthrough of some sorts, which is most of them.
“After you lose or when you get knocked down stay down there for a minute,” Emily Stockman wrote on Instagram after returning home from Ostrava, her Olympic journey officially complete. She was quoting Tim Grover, the legendary trainer who worked with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and so many others. “Understand why you lost, what were the reasons, why are you down here? Why did you lose? Why did you get knocked out? Because if you just jump right back up you’re gonna lose again and again, and you continue to go lose the same way. So every time I lost I stayed down for a second, minutes, hours, days, weeks, but when I stood up I was different.
“I’m not sure how long I’m going to stay down, but I guarantee I’ll be a different person when I get back up! I’m down now and Tokyo is out, but my journey’s not over!”
What’s her next goal? Maybe she doesn’t know yet. Maybe she’s still working it out, as I am. Uncertainty, I’m learning, is a way of life on the World Tour.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going,” Thomas Merton, a monk and theologian, once wrote. “What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
What I am certain of is that, in less than a month, I’ll be back on the World Tour. I’ll be more prepared for the next trip than I was for this one. Many of us — most of us — ended our recent trips overseas down, in one way or another. Some of us will stay there longer than others. But when we stand back up — and we all will, because competing is what we do, what we live for — we’ll be different. We’ll pick ourselves off whatever floor we’re on — a mountain cabin in Colorado, an apartment in Redondo Beach, a house in Hermosa, a sauna in Bulgaria — and get back on the court.
And we’ll rise.