Editor’s note: While many of the top players have moved on to Ostrava to play in another FIVB four-star where the Olympic berths will finally be decided, Travis and Adam are back in Bulgaria to play in a one-star. One day …
SOCHI, Russia — Twenty or so minutes after Loyola Marymount landed its second upset of the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships, I was on the phone with John Mayer. He’s the man largely responsible with the Lions’ turnaround, from a moribund 4-11 program with little funding in 2015, to the back-to-back West Coast Conference Champions who have dethroned longtime powerhouse Pepperdine.
I respect Mayer as much as I respect anyone in this game. I think he’s positively brilliant, a vault of information. I consider him something of a beach volleyball and life guru, sponging information from his playing days; the high-level thinkers on his podcast, Coach Your Brains Out; and, now, as a coach at LMU. I asked him how he approached LMU making its first appearance in Gulf Shores.
Did he treat it like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, measuring the court for his girls, then having them check the height of the net, only to find that it is the exact same dimension as any other court on which they’ve competed?
Or did he allow them to relish the moment, to recognize that, yes, the NCAA Championships are a bigger stage on which than they’ve ever competed, that this is different, that there is some significance to this moment?
His answer, as so many of them do, struck me.
“We talk about when the air gets thin, with everything going on,” Mayer said. “People who climb Everest, they get used to it at camp one, then they go to camp two and get more used to it. Pressure is a privilege. Every time you experience it, you get better at playing in thin air. We referenced that: ‘You guys are ready for this, you’re prepared to play in thin air.’ ”
As a writer, I know a good line when I see it, a precious golden nugget to lock away for the proper time.
I just didn’t expect that time to be a few weeks later, in Sochi, Russia, of all places.
Adam Roberts and I arrived in Sochi at 4 on Sunday morning. We arrived from Bulgaria, after losing in the second round of the qualifier for the one-star FIVB pro event held at Sofia Beach.
And here we were, competing three levels up, not only in a four-star, but the penultimate FIVB event of the 2021 Olympic race.
Here we were, eating dinner with Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Jason Lochhead. Here we were, exchanging pleasantries with Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo. Here we were, chatting with Anders Mol and Christian Sorum.
We were at an entirely new elevation.
I’d like to tell you that I felt as if I belonged there. That I wasn’t at all starstruck. That I didn’t sheepishly nod and smile behind my mask at Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan. That I didn’t wonder if Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich remembered playing me in China two years ago. That I wasn’t a bit astonished at the fact that Piotr Kantor, the Polish blocker after whom I’ve modeled — or tried to — much of my game, was rooming right across the hall from me.
But I felt all of those things.
I was in well over my strawberry-blonde noggin.
Perhaps this sounds strange to you, considering that if you listen to the podcast or read my writing, you know that I have met many of the top players on the World Tour, in some form or another.
But I’ve met them in the capacity as either a writer or a podcast host. Never as a player.
This was a new role for me. A new camp.
This was new air.
Now I wasn’t some scribe hunting for quotes and stories. I was a peer, an opponent.
I was a beach volleyball player.
You either get used to the air or you retreat down the mountain.
What’s it going to be?
Above all else, I crave opportunity in life. That’s one of the many reasons I’ve gravitated to sports such as golf and beach volleyball. You think you can hang with the best?
Put your money down, sign up, and play.
Find out for yourself.
Opportunity in both is abundant.
The FIVB is a little different than the AVP. You cannot simply jump into a Major qualifier on the FIVB, as you can, say, the Manhattan Beach Open. You must work your way up, bit by bit — NORCECA to one-star to two-star to three-star, all the way up to the Majors.
For the past three years, I’ve been doing just that, plugging away at NORCECAs in Martinique, La Paz, Bonaire, one-stars in Tel Aviv, the Cook Islands, Doha, a three-star in a middle-of-nowhere town in China. That’s the ladder.
I’ve been happy to climb it.
The cumulative result is enough points to contend for spots in four-star qualifiers. Coming into this year, I knew where I stood: One spot behind Bill Kolinske, and not far off, either. As far as points go, I was the best free-agent blocker available, though one issue remained: If everyone ahead of me signed up for the four-stars, I’d be blocked out due to the country quota that limits each country to four total teams in an event (three in main draw, one in the qualifier, with only six teams being able to contend for those four spots).
The only thing I could do was sign up with Adam Roberts and wait, either for another team to leak enough points or funds or bail on a tournament. It is a weird thing, what happens next, for every team ranked fourth through eighth in the U.S.: A not so small part of you roots for the teams in front of you to lose.
It sounds terrible, I know. And it is. For so long, I’ve heard Tri Bourne talk about this internal struggle on SANDCAST, needing his fellow countrymen to lose to Russia, to Brazil, to Poland and Norway and the Czech Republic, all to help him make a living representing the United States. As I watched the stream of the Cancun Hub, I finally understood what he felt. I could empathize 100 percent with what he frequently talks about.
That is a terrible, no good, horrible thing to want to happen.
It’s totally backwards, yet also the cold, hard, emotionless fact of the matter. Reid Priddy struggled with that very concept when he began transitioning to the beach. Long an indoor player, and an excellent one, he wanted to create a similar culture on the beach as indoors: if your teammates improve, your team improves, if your team improves, your chances of winning a gold medal improve. He wanted Americans to work together more often.
Until he hit the road, and found himself in country quotas in Portugal, Australia, Switzerland, and Italy, coming to the same realization I am coming to now: Your team isn’t the United States of America.
Your team is, simply, your team.
You and your partner.
Everyone else is in the way.
“Tyler Hildebrand said ‘Hey, I know we can’t be teammates’ and I was like ‘Wait, can we be? Can’t we just all level up together?’” Priddy said on SANDCAST. “That was before I was really touring. Now that I’ve been touring I can see that it’s impossible because the FIVB has pitted us against each other and it totally sucks. I can’t watch you guys play. I can’t watch other American teams because I hate how I feel.”
I now get it.
I’m there myself.
At the end of the day, regardless of what happened with Kolinske and Evans, the team I’d need to beat to get into any of the four-stars this year, the fourth-ranked team in the United States, was Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner.
On Tuesday afternoon in Sochi, Russia, I’d get my shot.
Look at the picture above.
What do you see? Is that the picture of a nervous novice getting his first crack at a four-star?
It is not.
That’s the picture of someone with nothing to lose.
I can tell you exactly when that photo was taken. Adam and I were walking out of our boxes at the start of the third set of our country-quota match with Schalk and Brunner. They won the first, 21-19; we won the second, 21-17. It was about as 50-50 of a match as you could get at that point, neither team opening up big leads at any point. The score was within two points for more than 90 percent of the match.
As we sat in our box, Adam laughed.
“They have everything to lose,” he said, and he stopped there, not needing to finish the thought.
We had everything to gain.
That’s the beauty of being the underdog.
Even if you lose, all that’s happened is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Heck, even if you simply keep it competitive, some would view just that a win in and of itself (Adam and I wouldn’t, but many would).
And if you win? If you beat a team with an Olympian and multiple AVP titles to their name?
You’ve just made quite a statement, haven’t you?
Being the favorite is the exact opposite. There is nothing for you to gain. You’re simply trying to survive. Beat the underdog — and many, I’ve learned, did perceive us to be somewhat insultingly large underdogs — and all you’ve done is what you’re supposed to do. Lose and some might see it as calamitous.
Now, your hotel isn’t paid for, your food is coming out of your own pocket, your points go nowhere. Now you’re stuck in Sochi for a week before the next event in Ostrava. Now you’re left answering the most annoying question favorites get asked after a loss to an underdog: What just happened?
Adam and I were playing with a stacked deck. Not only were we the underdogs, but we were also as prepared for an event in southern Russia as we possibly could have been. For the previous week and a half, we’d been in Europe, training, lifting, competing against excellent teams in Bulgaria. There was no time change from Sofia to Sochi. Our flight was short, our travel easy. Schalk and Brunner, meanwhile, would be competing on jet-lag, on legs just two days off the plane and a travel itinerary north of 24 hours. They’d be adjusting to a 10-hour time difference.
If there were ever a time Adam and I would have a competitive edge over Brunner and Schalk, it was on Tuesday afternoon in Sochi.
So I was smiling and laughing as I walked onto the court for the third set. Adam was cracking jokes. We were light.
We had everything to gain.
And we came out strong because of it. We jumped on Brunner and Schalk, taking a 9-6 lead, hanging on for 11-9, stretching it to 14-11. We were operating with a devastating combination of hyper-efficiency and every potential lucky break going our way. We tagged lines. Schalk played a ball that I think was going to land an inch or two out, and his dig floated just beyond the ref’s stand. Balls that hit the net bounced our way.
But Schalk did not qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games on sheer chance. Brunner has not won multiple AVP titles on dumb luck. They’re world-class beach volleyball players.
And when losing the match suddenly became very, very real, they tightened up. Brunner beat me on a joust to make it 14-12. Then he made a huge move into the angle to roof one of the hardest balls I’ve hit in my life.
Schalk made a spectacular dig on an Adam line shot and converted, as he would on a staggering 75 percent of the digs he made throughout the match.
In a blink, not only had we let three match points slip away, but we were now staring down the barrel of a match point against us.
Adam slivered a line shot, nicking the net, getting just enough of a redirection to throw off Schalk’s dig. Another break in our favor. Suffice it to say, our smiles were now gone, replaced by a grim determination to not suffer one of the worst third-set meltdowns of either of our careers.
I hadn’t been served much that match, but they gave me the next two. For the past two weeks, I’d been swinging better than I ever have in my burgeoning career. Jordan Cheng, one of my best friends and the coach of Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, had warmed us up earlier that morning. He said I looked as if I were floating on my attacks, in complete control. I was a different player than when he last saw me.
I wasn’t shooting. Not with how I was moving, jumping, swinging. Not with the match on the line.
I bombed away, first at the same angle Brunner had blocked me earlier, then deep line on the next.
The later it gets in the match, players have a tendency to go to their strengths. When it’s a full count in the ninth inning, you don’t throw a pitch you haven’t thrown yet. You throw your strikeout pitch, whatever that pitch may be: curveball, fastball, sinker.
Whatever your strength is, you lean into it.
Schalk is one of the best angle sideout players I know. Even when you know he’s likely attacking the angle, he’ll still beat you angle. His swings are high and sharp — too high, much of the time, for me to block; too fast, much of the time, for Adam to dig. He’s one of the best offensive players in the world.
Here we simply played the percentages. It’s all you can do in beach volleyball. It’s poker on the sand — no guarantee, even if you play your hands how you should, that you’ll win.
I had picked up a few angle blocks throughout the match. We bet on me to do the same.
I blocked Schalk’s swing, taking an 18-17 lead to the switch.
Again, I took the angle. Again, I blocked the cut shot — directly into Brunner’s awaiting cover.
Then: Another break.
Brunner swatted Adam’s ensuing shot, and I windmilled my left arm blindly, lifting the ball back up into the air. Schalk knew it was a lift. I almost stopped playing, so ugly it was. But my body had blocked the ref’s view, and for all he knew, I had poked it back up, not thrown it. I put the transition ball away, giving us the final match point we needed.
If you’ve ever seen Adam serve, you’ll no doubt have chuckled a bit. He walks it off like an NFL kicker, meticulously measuring his steps until he’s a good six feet behind the end line. It’s why I call him Justin Tucker, my beloved Baltimore Ravens kicker, when he goes back to serve. After he’s a good half-mile back, he pops in a spinless float serve, and it dances and bobbles and rises and sinks with absolutely no rhyme or reason. It’s a nightmare to pass, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it for the foreseeable future.
From my vantage point as a blocker, I can never actually see the serve, but to watch that thing on video after is pure comedy. Adam’s serve began on Schalk, dipped to Brunner, rose, then sunk back towards Schalk. Pure chaos. Schalk and Brunner both crashed into the seam to pass it, then both pulled away just enough for the ball to glance off Brunner’s platform and shoot blessedly to the sand.
An ace for the biggest win of my career, and one of the biggest for Adam’s.
All that, just to earn a spot in the qualifier.
I’d like to ask you a question.
What do you do, after you’ve won the biggest match of your career? How long do you celebrate? Drink in the moment before turning your preparation to the next match, which is less than 24 hours away, a match that is also single elimination, and will be against an opponent of similar talent as the one you’ve just barely beat?
Do you immediately go back to your room, cue up the film, begin stretching and studying the film, because there’s more work to be done? Or do you revel in the moment for a bit, reflect for a few hours, soak it in?
I’m asking because I don’t know the answer.
I think it’s important in life to recognize when you’ve accomplished something of note, even if you must quickly regain focus. To speed through life without pausing here and there when you’ve done something important is, in my mind, to miss out on so much joy. To pause too long and too often, however, will slow you down, if not halt your progress altogether.
I wrestled with this dilemma — a good dilemma to have, mind you, but a dilemma nonetheless — for the next few hours as my phone lit up with messages on Instagram, WhatsApp, text, Facebook. People were even emailing me, congratulating us on the win.
Yet the fact remained that our tournament was literally just getting started. Winning the country quota didn’t advance us one iota in the tournament itself; it simply entered us in the tournament.
The next morning, we’d play an Argentinian team who recently won the South American Tour finals, beating Marco and Esteban Grimalt in the finals.
I’d played the Argentinians, Nicolas Capogrosso and Julian Azaad, before, in a CBVA in Huntington Beach a few years prior. They’re good, but beatable, as was the next team in our quadrant, Germany’s Philipp Bergmann and Yannick Harms. As far as four-stars go, it was a fantastic draw. We wouldn’t have to beat Guto, the Brazilian defender who recently made the Doha finals. We wouldn’t have to beat Marco Krattiger and Florian Breer, the King of the Court champs.
We’d just have to beat two teams who were not as good as the one we had just beat. A tall task, but far from an impossible one. I’d have pegged both matches as a wash — no favorites either way. You can’t ask for much more in your first four-star qualifier.
Around 9:45 the next morning, I couldn’t have asked for a much better position to be in, either. Just as we did with Brunner and Schalk, with split the first two sets with Argentina, 17-21, 21-19. Then we jumped all over them in the third, leaping out to a 5-2 lead. Azaad was in a hole. We had dialed into his troubleshooting pattern, and as much as I’d like to tell you what that is, I am not going to. Adam made a great dig, earning an opportunity to go up 6-2. His line shot sailed an inch wide.
Still: Simply getting those opportunities is enough to tunnel further into the opponent’s head. Sure enough, we had another chance to go up 7-3. I had scrambled to pick up an overset, laying out to flip it back up to Adam. He’s turned this play over 1,000 times in his head since. He saw an opportunity to overset or slap it to the deep corner. Instead, he set me with nobody at the net. Just popping up off the ground, I couldn’t get a full approach, jump and swing on it, so I chopped it down the seam, an easy dig for Capogrosso, a 6-foot-9 blocker who had played flawlessly all match. He put the ball away to make the switch 4-6 rather than 3-7.
A monumental difference.
Then the wheels came hurtling off.
Up until that point, we had avoided our Achille’s Heel: The big run. In every match we’ve lost, that’s the common denominator: We fall prey to a debilitating run, digging ourselves a hole out of which we cannot climb.
This was a run of a haunting variety. Our 6-4 lead disappeared amidst a storm of errors, blocks, aces, and digs. Within minutes, we were looking at an 11-6 deficit.
An 8-0 run.
We allowed more than 50 percent of their points to come without a single retaliation.
You cannot recover from that.
We lost, 15-10.
On the surface, our finish is worth a paltry 20 points apiece. We made zero money and lost quite a bit. But if points and money were the only thing to gain in Sochi, we’d have been insane for making the trip. There’s something far more valuable, more permanent, than points, which will be washed out soon enough, or money, which will find a way to be spent, whether it’s in Sochi or Hermosa.
I gained experience on the game’s biggest stage. I beat a team I haven’t ever beat, and was never expected to beat.
I’m getting accustomed to a new elevation.
A new air.