A SECRET LOCATION SOMEWHERE IN HAWAII — It began around dawn, the sun bathing its gentle morning light on the shores of Oahu. The world not yet awake, the only sounds to be heard were the lapping of the waves on a golden beach, and the deep breaths of a few men. Every now and then, a man named Douggie Johnstone would stroll by and get a rare glimpse of Danny Alvarez’s training group.
“What are you doing?” Johnson would ask. “Secret training?”
And Alvarez would just grin and get back to work.
Shh, Douggie, that’s a secret.
Nearly two decades after Alvarez pioneered the advent of “secret training,” what was no longer a well-kept secret was the talent of Carly Kan. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter had led Punahou, a private college prep school in Oahu, to an 18-1 record and the second of two straight Hawaii state titles as a junior in 2011 and a senior in 2012. MaxPreps named that team No. 9 in the country. The plaudits earned Kan the attention from schools around the country, as far in the mainland as Missouri, where Kan committed to play libero.
There are, of course, few outside hitters in the NCAA who stand 5-foot-9. Which is why coach Wayne Kreklow had Kan, whose talents were many, slated to play libero. But the first time Kan played volleyball in Missouri, she did so at an open gym, where Kreklow and assistant coaches Deng Yang and Lindsey Hunter were not present. It was a players-only practice, and Kan’s teammates, perhaps empathetic to the fact that Kan would not, in all likelihood, be swinging at many balls over the next four years, told her to “just hit,” Kan recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “When practice started, I was like ‘Well, when am I going to move over?’ And I never did. I never actually played libero.”
“She went to the first open gym and they said ‘I think you’re playing outside hitter,’ ” Alvarez said, laughing. Kan would become a three-time All-American — one of only two Tigers to accomplish that feat — and leave the school No. 2 all-time in kills and fourth in attacks.
But how, it’s fair to wonder, did this 5-foot-9 libero become such a deadly attacker?
Shh, that’s a secret.
Danny Alvarez was going to be a basketball coach. He played hoops, loved the game, and had a good mind for it. But the thing about Hawaii is that it is, indeed, a small collection of islands, and only two Hawaiians have ever gone on to play in the NBA. (Trevor Crabb, in fact, is still notoriously $100 in debt to Riley McKibbin for guaranteeing he would become the third; he did not.)
“Yeah,” Alvarez said with a laugh, “that dream faded a little bit.”
So he got into investing and, like many individuals who spend their first 20-some years living mostly outdoors, playing sports, surfing, moving, abhorred the office life. At Outrigger Canoe Club one morning, Alvarez saw Karrie Poppinga, one of the most talented players on the island at the time, training on the beach, “being coached by somebody, and I thought ‘She’s not going to get good doing that,’ ” Alvarez said, laughing. “It was terrible. I knew how to coach, so I knew how to do drills and how to play beach volleyball, so I created a curriculum. She was my first athlete in the mid to late 90s.”
Poppinga would go on to become the most accomplished female beach volleyball player out of the state of Hawaii, flying up the ranks on the erstwhile Women’s Professional Beach Volleyball Association, making a final in the 1997 season-ending event on Kauai with Angela Rock. Hawaii, for the first time, had a model, someone who could inspire the likes of, say, a Carly Kan, to get into beach volleyball, displaying that such a thing was possible. Equally important, it also had a coach — literally the only coach — who knew how to train a beach volleyball player.
When the AVCA introduced the emerging sport of Sand Volleyball as a potential addition to the NCAA programming, Alvarez called Scott Wong, the Hawaii indoor assistant tabbed with the head coaching position of the fledgling sand team in 2011, and told him that “I might be the first person on the island who has ever coached beach volleyball, so if you need someone to do it…”
Wong agreed to a tryout practice for Alvarez. Two hours with the team was all Alvarez needed.
“The girls went back and had so much fun,” Alvarez said. “Most of the time, what they were doing was throwing the ball in and just scrimmaging. It was still the fall, Scott was indoor, and he said you can take them. I hated my investment job, and I had time. I love coaching, and he let me do it, and just from there it’s been awesome, and representing the University of Hawaii, in Hawaii, I’m just a fan. It’s a big honor.”
It took just two seasons for the Bows to become a national power, finishing the 2014 season 19-4, advancing to the AVCA semifinals. Over the following two years, Hawaii would combine to win 36 matches while losing just 13, finishing fifth and fourth, respectively, in the national championship tournament.
That off-season, they landed a transfer from Missouri named Carly Kan, a rare talent who had played on the beach her whole life but left the island for a successful career indoors. But Kan had always envisioned a professional career overseas following her graduation.
How did Alvarez get her back onto the beach?
Shh, that’s a secret.
It would be easy to assume that Carly Kan played loads of beach volleyball as a kid, a barefoot grom patrolling the sands of Queen’s Beach and the Outrigger Canoe Club. The sport, after all, has a deep history on the islands, and some still argue it to be the birthplace of beach volleyball. But women’s beach volleyball doesn’t have the deep history the men do in Hawaii. There was no Stein Metzger or Owen McKibbin or Kevin and Scott Wong. No Tri Bourne, Trevor and Taylor Crabb, Brad Lawson, Spencer McLaghlin, Riley and Maddison McKibbin. No Erik and Kawika Shoji or Micah Christenson or Micah Ma’a. There was, really, only Karrie Poppinga.
“I played beach mostly just for fun. It just wasn’t that big or popular,” Kan said. “In high school there was a little more competitiveness to it, and there was a beach club that started up my senior year, and we practiced twice a week.”
But there was, when compared to the men, and especially when compared to the likes of Southern California and Florida, exceedingly little beach volleyball being played on Oahu. So Kan went to Missouri, and by the time her exceptional four years were up, Hawaii had become one of the biggest powers in the sport of NCAA beach volleyball. When then-assistant coach — now head coach — Evan Silberstein asked if Kan would want to play beach after her indoor career at Missouri, “I was like ‘Uh, yeah! I’ll come home and play,’ ” Kan said.
It took her all of one year for her to break another record. Starting on court three, Kan and Ari Homayun won 31 matches, 11 more than the previous high for a Bow. As a team, Hawaii won 28 matches, 10 more than its previous best. They finished third in Gulf Shores, which is still the best result Hawaii has had at an NCAA Championship. The next year was much of the same: Kan upped her win total to 33, going 21-1 on a stacked court three that would feature a handful of future AVP main draw players — Zana Muno, Savvy Simo, and Macy Jerger, to name a few — and Hawaii would again finish third in the NCAA Championship.
All of this success, both indoors and on the beach, left Kan with a choice: Which version of the sport would she pursue as a professional? She’d always wanted to play indoor, but here she was, proving she could make it on the beach. In the end, a contract in Germany, for Schwarz-Weiss Erfurt during the 2018-2019 season, felt too good for Kan to pass up.
“I still had the indoor dream,” Kan said. “I thought I would pursue that as long as I could.”
Which begs the question: If Kan was playing indoor as late as 2019, in Germany, how did she get so good, so fast, again on the beach?
Shh, that’s a secret.
Kan remembers Alvarez begging her to come back to the beach. Alvarez remembers it taking no particular prodding. What they can agree upon is that during the summer following Kan’s rookie season in Germany, she was playing a beach tournament with Amy Ozee, “and she walked over to me and said ‘I’m over Germany, I’m done with indoor. You think I could be a pro and live here?’ And I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ ” Alvarez said. “There was a belief. We got there and she just walked up and it was the start.”
Alvarez, and what he jokingly labels his “secret training” beginning back in the early 90s and then with Karrie Poppinga, were back, only now with Kan.
Two months later, Kan was competing in her first AVP, in Seattle with Nikki Taylor, “and we don’t make it, but I’m like ‘Whoa, I just did that,’ ” Kan said. “And then a couple months after that, I qualified in Chicago. It was a whirlwind.”
But as soon as Kan was rediscovering her footing and passion on the sand, alas pursuing a professional career on the beach, the world was thrown into upheaval by a pandemic. The AVP cut its 2020 season to three events, limiting the field to the point that Kan had no opportunity to qualify. The following year wasn’t much different, with three events again, though Kan took advantage, setting a career-best ninth in Chicago with Chelsea Rice. The world didn’t get a good look at Kan during those two years as she sneakily developed into one of the best all-around players in the country.
What did her and Alvarez do during those down years?
Shh, that’s a secret.
The Secret Training of Danny Alvarez is now more of a running joke than it is an actual secret. Trevor Crabb posts about it on Instagram, as does Tri Bourne. When Silila Tucker, a native Hawaiian and one of the rising defenders on the men’s side, visits home, he asks Alvarez if he can jump in on this secret training, whatever that means.
“We started posting and putting secret training and it kind of worked,” Alvarez said.
Indeed, Kan’s 2022 season is all the evidence one needs. Kan and Kaitlyn Malaney opened the year by making the finals of the Panama City AVPNext, qualifying for a Pro Series in Austin. Then they made another final in Denver, which they followed up with a win in Waupaca. More main draws followed, in Fort Lauderdale, Manhattan Beach, and Chicago, between which they added a fifth in Virginia Beach. But the early momentum of three finals in four events had faded, and Kan and Malaney went their separate directions, Malaney to Molly Turner, Kan to a 6-foot-4 blocker out of Montana named Jen Keddy.
Keddy joked, constantly, that they, with all of a half-practice as a team, could win the season-ending event in Central Florida. With many of the top teams either resting or competing in Australia on the Beach Pro Tour, “people were like ‘OK, Geena [Urango] and Emily [Capers] are number one, so who’s going to get second?’ ” Keddy said. “That was kind of the vibe going into it. No one suspected. Carly and I didn’t either, and I kept saying ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to win’ but nobody was thinking of us as a real threat.”
And then they became the realest of threats, winning all five matches to claim their first AVP titles. But it was more than just Kan’s first AVP win: She became the 59th female winner on the AVP Tour, and the first woman from the state of Hawaii to win an AVP.
“She believed that she could do it,” Alvarez said. “We talked about it and said that if we do it, we’re going to be all in.”
Now Kan is looking to begin her international career, which she tested at a NORCECA in La Paz, Mexico, where she and Malaney won gold.
“The end goal, it seems farfetched, but Olympics, like all of us,” Kan said. “I always thought the progression was to prove yourself on the AVP and then think about international. I think now it feels like the right moment.”
She’s still in search of the right partner, and Alvarez jokes that they must be 6-foot-3 and willing to move to Hawaii. But after winning at every level of her career, after claiming an AVP title, it doesn’t seem too farfetched at all. There’s no more wondering about the talent of Carly Kan.
The secret is finally out.