For the most part of the period between 2005 and 2017, Larissa França was a nightmare for American players competing on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. Paired with either Juliana Felisberta or Talita Antunes, the fiery Brazilian defender got in the way of USA teams on multiple occasions, denying the country several medal opportunities at the international level.
And yet, last month, when she surprisingly decided to resume her career after more than two years of retirement, Larissa chose to do so on American soil.
The location of the veteran’s unexpected comeback, the second in just six years, is just one of the several intriguing nuances of her decision to return to the sport. Larissa, one of the winningest players in the history of the game, made interesting partner and coaching choices for what will likely be her final adventure on the sand.
Larissa, 37, has been married to fellow beach volleyball player Lili Maestrini since 2013. Now she’s decided to have the 32-year-old blocker as her partner on the court, as well. Since they got married, every time the topic of them eventually playing together at some point came up, it was always shut down with a solid “not going to happen.”
Until it happened.
“It’s going to be wonderful to play with her,” Larissa said. “I feel like it’s something we had to experience together. I believe we’ll both learn a lot from this experience and it will be great for us and our family.”
Their family was a pivotal reason for their decision. Larissa was away from the sport since the end of 2017 and she had two unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant in the last couple of years. Lili succeeded on her first attempt in 2019 and interrupted her career during the pregnancy of their first son, Gael, who’s now four months old.
The prospect of having their son watching her play was something that motivated Larissa to make yet another comeback and with Lili also in need of a partner, the first answer she was looking for was standing right in front of her.
“I was starting to plan my return after Gael’s birth and Larissa decided she wanted to play in front of our son as well,” Lili added. “We know it’s going to be a unique experience and we want to enjoy each minute of it. We’re no longer just athletes, we’re athletes and mothers and that’s very special. Just the thought of the two of us playing together and looking at him cheering for us at the stands, it gives me goosebumps. I feel like we’re going to be a trio out there.”
The prospect of life partners sharing a volleyball court in the highly-competitive professional environment is probably not unprecedented in the sport, but with several players seeing their relationships with their partners deteriorate after a tough run of form, it has to be something carefully considered.
One of Larissa’s trademarks has always been her competitive spirit, which saw her develop a successful, but complicated relationship with Juliana, with whom she won an Olympic bronze medal, the 2011 World Championships and 45 World Tour gold medals. The video below, even if in Portuguese, gives a good idea of how intense the defender used to be when dialoguing with her partner during competition.
Truth be said, Larissa’s behavior switched to more of an encouraging one between 2014 and 2017, when she partnered with Talita. But still, the never easy task of leaving work problems at work will need to be considered.
“As athletes, we’ve always been competitive and demanding with our partners, but we love each other and we know when and how to talk about sensitive topics in our personal lives, so it’s just a matter of adjusting it to our careers as well,” Lili said. “We respect each other a lot and that’s never going to change. All we want is to enjoy this stage of our lives with our baby.”
The idea of having fun and enjoying the moment led the duo to plan their comeback in a curious way. Instead of locking themselves up in a training center in Fortaleza, where they live, they decided to head to Florida and take the first steps of their newborn partnership there.
Lilli had an invitation to spend some time training in Florida and competing in minor events as she regained her form. With the highly competitive Brazilian tour season coming to an end, they thought coming to America was the right thing to do.
But they still needed a coach to guide them through the first steps of their comeback and that’s how the legendary Ricardo Santos got started in his new job as their coach. The 45-year-old Brazilian Olympic champion has been living in Orlando, where he runs a volleyball club, and competing on the AVP Tour since 2017. When they were considering playing in Florida, Larissa and Lili got in touch with him and, almost by chance, found more than what they were looking for.
“Everything happened so fast,” Larissa recalled. “The possibility of playing the first tournaments after our return in Florida was really appealing and we were weighing our options when we reached out to Ricardo. When he mentioned he was looking for a team to coach, we asked if he’d be interested in taking us. He’s a legend in the sport and a couple of weeks later we were already in Orlando.”
Last weekend, Larissa and Lili played as partners for the first time in a Tampa Bay Beach Bums event, in which they won six matches in just two days and defeated AVP player Adrianna Nora and fellow Brazilian Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima in the final.
The first coaching experience, however, will not end Ricardo’s playing career just yet. The veteran blocker, who won the same tournament playing with Piotr Marciniak, will continue playing the AVP and has already been contacted by some players who are interested in having him as a coach in the domestic tour.
“I was preparing for this transition for a while and with them, it’s a different challenge as they have both been out for a long time,” Ricardo said. “But their quality is undeniable and that helps. They did really well in their first tournament last weekend, but we aren’t going to rush anything or skip any steps.”