On Wednesday, 49-year-old Eric Fonoimoana received a surprising phone call from Jeremy Casebeer.
Would Fonoimoana play with him this Friday at the AVP Hermosa Beach Open?
Fonoimoana, a surprise 2000 Olympic gold medalist with Dain Blanton in Sydney, retired in 2007, but is still active in volleyball with his Dig for Kids foundation, the E-invitational draw tournament, as well as coaching at Mira Costa and the Elite Volleyball beach club.
But when he got the call?
“My reaction wasn’t ‘Yeah, for sure.’ I was more like, ‘Are you sure? There’s no one else out there?,’ “ Fonoimoana said he told Casebeer.
But Casebeer’s partner, Reid Priddy, was hurting.
“Reid had a little tweak in his calf that wasn’t worth pushing for where we are in the season,” Casebeer said. “We want to finish the season strong and I heard that Eric had won the Solstice tournament. So I gave him a call Wednesday hoping I could bring him out of retirement. I feel pretty damn lucky to be playing with him.”
Most players would jump at the chance to play with Casebeer, who was named the AVP’s best server in 2016. He and Sean Rosenthal lost in the 2016 AVP New York championship match, his best career finish.
Fonoimoana only plays beach volleyball for fun these days.
“I retired at least 11 years ago,” Fonoimoana said, “I think I retired 11 years ago in Hermosa. I have been playing, I have been healthy, I have a ton of experience, and it’s been fun.”
He said he’s been playing a lot of four-man.
“And that’s a little different, with four guys on the court, and long rallies as well, and I played the Dinosaur (an age-based doubles event in Kau’ai, Hawai’i) this year. It seems that everything I play is to have fun. If I can be healthy and have fun, I’ll ride the wave as long as I can.”
He and Casebeer didn’t have much time to practice.
“We serve-received for an hour yesterday. So we played a ton,” Fonoimoana said with a laugh. “My thing is, if I can just be healthy, that’s a plus. And also to be fresh for the next game. For me, the hardest thing is to sit around and play again at a high level, because it takes me so long to recover.”
Fonoimoana and Casebeer played well Friday. They defeated Bobby Jacobs and Michael Boag (21-16, 21-14), but lost to Phil Dalhausser and Jason Lochhead (21-10, 21-12) and to Riley and Maddison McKibbin in a three-setter that took an hour, 10 minutes that thrilled the stadium crowd (21-12, 15-21, 12-15).
Fonoimoana may very well be the oldest player to win a match in the main draw, but the AVP was unable to confirm it.
“He’s easy to play with,” Casebeer said. “He makes my job very easy. He has awesome ball control, great vision, and his statistics were pretty ridiculous for his first match back.”
Fonoimoana believes that he can contribute to the partnership from a strategic standpoint.
“I’m trying to teach Jeremy a few things as well while we’re playing together and give back to further the strategic part of the game. If I can do that, then I’ve done my job. I don’t want to be too much luggage for him, it’s more how we communicate.”
Fonoimoana’s career extends through both the side-out scoring and rally scoring era that began in 2000.
“Rally scoring is a sprint. I’ve played both ways. I was always more of an endurance athlete. This type of scoring is a sprint. You don’t have to be physically fit, playing for the long run, the game’s over, and you’re like, ‘Gosh, I just started sweating.’
“Back in the day, with side-out scoring, I enjoyed it because it was more of a grind. You had to be mentally tough, patient, don’t worry about little things, and you make plays to win. And that’s the way it should be,” he said, adding sarcastically, “it’s shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, they served in the net, we win.’ That’s exciting.”
He said he likes the AVP’s freeze rule.
“I think that’s a great option. I like that if you hit the net, you get another one. I’m not a proponent of allowing net serves. I think that it’s a bad rule, but at the same time, again, I’m just enjoying the moment.”
During his first match, Fonoimoana hit a net serve that dribbled over and he looked momentarily confused.
“I kind of knew about it but I wasn’t 100 percent sure what that meant. I didn’t know if I was going to get another serve, I thought I was, and then, ‘Oh yeah, I remember now. It’s a do-over.’
“At least it’s a do-over, it’s not like back in the day, ‘You missed a serve. You know better, you can’t hit the net.’ “
Fonoimoana’s nickname when he was on the tour was “The Body.” He still looks ridiculously fit, putting some of today’s players to shame. His fitness regimen?
“I play once a week, I work out with my girlfriend Lisa once a week. I do a lot, but mainly, it’s the way you eat. I don’t do too much weights any more. I do some, but that’s not part of the program. I do yoga, kickboxing and I don’t eat big meals.
“I share a meal with my girlfriend, we share a plate for dinner, but for me, food is more about the fuel part. I eat because I should eat. I probably don’t eat enough, that’s one of my downfalls, but I’m not exercising enough to eat all that.”