Mewhirter: “I’ll be that man in the arena until I know victory”

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Travis Mewhirter at AVP Huntington Beach earlier this season/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Travis Mewhirter is a sportswriter who gave up his full-time job at a newspaper so he could move from Florida to Southern California to play more and be around more beach volleyball. He’s competed on the AVP Tour this year but this week at Hermosa Beach failed to get out of the qualifier — again.

I had to appreciate the irony.

Even after I had shared a very long, cathartic moment with the Pacific Ocean, staring into everything, staring into nothing; even after I had missed far too many blocks and hit a loopy line shot when I probably should have just hit the daggum ball, and then watched as Charlie Van Reese dug it easily and ripped a swing –- another swing –- right past my seam, sealing my fate in the AVP Hermosa Beach qualifier.

Even after that, I laughed to myself at the irony.

The tank top I had packed for the day to replace my roughly 40-pound, sweat-soaked shirt, was a gift from my girlfriend.

It read Hakuna Matata — no worries for the rest of your days.

It was perfect.

This column will be different. The vast majority of my columns –- all of them, I hope –- focus on the success of others. As a student of journalism since I was 15, I’ve been taught that’s how it should be, and I like it better that way.

But as I was driving home from Hermosa, I got a call from my editor at VolleyballMag.com, Lee Feinswog, who was positively beatific.

“Dude,” he said. “You’ve got your own thread on VolleyTalk. You’ve officially made it.”

We both laughed, because threads on VolleyTalk, while sometimes decent sources of information and opinion, can also be borderline absurd. The first example that comes to mind is one titled “Reid’s career goes poof.”

This came after Reid Priddy and Ricardo Santos fell to a heroic, 14-9 comeback effort from Billy Allen and Stafford Slick in the semifinals of AVP San Francisco.

This is Priddy’s first year playing beach full-time. A few months ago, he was in the qualifiers. Now he’s playing with the most decorated blockers in history, making semifinals.

His career will not go poof.

But sometimes VolleyTalk can propose something reasonable. In this case, a user by the name of 405lax posed a question within a statement: “By no means is this meant to hammer the guy (that’s me) but if you can’t qualify in this qualifier, I think it’s fair to say it’s time to reassess what exactly you are doing. That’s the piece I want to read from him, a deep introspection and discussion of the brutal nature of qualifiers and when to say uncle.”

It’s a very fair question, and one I plan on answering, not only because 405lax took the time to ask, which I appreciate, but because I spoke about that very same thing with Maddison McKibbin earlier in the day.

Maddison, if you missed it, had an excellent photo in Sports Illustrated this week, blocking in the San Francisco finals. I gave him my copy, since I was done reading it, and he told me that he appreciated me illuminating, among many aspects of this beautiful sport, the brutality of the qualifiers, and that I should continue doing it.

A deep introspection of qualifier life seems to be the request of the day.

Here goes.

I loathe losing. I loathe losing more than I loathe tequila, social security and New York City. TimeHop recently informed me that the first time I touched a volleyball –- indoor or beach –- outside of gym class or jungle-ball high-school graduation parties came almost exactly three years ago, at a blind draw tournament at a bar in a pinprick of a town in Florida named Navarre.

In the three years since, I have lost more in beach volleyball than I did in anything in the first 23 years of my life.

And in those three years, I’ve recited Theodore Roosevelt’s brilliant speech, The Man in the Arena, enough times, after every single loss, that it’s practically branded upon my soul.

If you are unfamiliar with it, this is the part you’re most likely to remember, though there are countless other gems throughout:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I come short again and again.Mike Stewart, Brett Ryan, Brian Miller,

I’ll be the first to tell you that it sucks. And I’ll be the first to tell you that it packs an extra sting, another squeeze of lemon juice into the wound, when you see teams that you have beaten over and over and over again qualify instead, make main draw instead, see their dreams realized instead.

It’s human to be jealous, envious. And I am. But I am also unspeakably happy for my good friend Myles Muagututia, who is one of the kindest, soft-spoken, humblest, most accomplished athletes I know, as well as his partner Kyle Friend. They’ve busted their ass, and they made main draw.

I’m thrilled for the Partain brothers, Marcus and Miles, a combined 32 years of age, the Davids who unloaded one hell of a slingshot to topple the 59th-seeded Goliath in Matt Motter and Mike Placek, who very well could have been the best team in the entire qualifier.

I couldn’t be more stoked for my buddy Travis Schoonover, who was banned by the AVP for four years, went and succeeded on the NVL, then waved that ban a goodbye with a two-bird salute on Thursday when he qualified with Dave Smith.

Ric Cervantes and Mike Stewart, another pair of wonderful, humble young men whom I never heard say a single negative word about anyone or anything, deserved this, too.

The Seattle fellas, Brett Ryan and Brian Miller, have done all the right things, and would you look at that, they made a main draw, which will likely guarantee automatic berths into the next two. They’ve already sealed up Manhattan, and a good finish in either will boost them into Chicago.

But, yes, I’m human. Of course I look to Myles and Kyle and scratch my head and wonder why that couldn’t be me, because not three weeks ago I was beating them in practice, and hardly a year ago, I was playing with Myles as my first California partner, and we got our first win in a qualifier together.

Of course I look to Ozz Borges and Bruno Amorim, both of whom I consider friends though neither of whom I can immediately recall ever losing to, and wonder how they could make it and I couldn’t.

Of course I look to the Seattle guys and let my head droop, because as good as they are, and as great of people as they are, and as much as I enjoy seeing them succeed, my perpetually wandering mind immediately rewound to the first round in San Francisco, when I beat them with Schoonover.

Of course I look to Mike Boag, and I shake his hand and genuinely mean it when I say congratulations, but also wince a bit, because my mind was already replaying my match against Boag in the Huntington Beach qualifier, when DR and I soundly beat him in two.

Of course I look to Jake Rosener and Garrett Wessberg, and while I’m happy for them and their tremendous main-draw accomplishment, I’m also happy while gulping down one more heaping swig of Abita Purple Haze, because not too long ago, in a CBVA in Manhattan Beach, Jorge Martinez and I took them down in two, which was preceded by a two-set win over Spencer Sauter, another main-draw player, and was followed by a win over Schoonover, and the automatic main-draw team of Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens, all of which preceded us pushing AVP semifinalists Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun to three sets in the final, which we lost.

I think all of these things because I’m human and that’s what inherently deeply flawed human beings do. I try not to write about these stupid things I think because it’s childish, petulant, immature, and altogether crappy.

But this is an introspection, and I intend on it being a very honest one, because I think that what I’m currently thinking and writing is what 78 other losing teams are likely thinking and not writing.

So, what do I intend to do now?

Call it uncle?

Excuse me, but hell, no.

I do not intend on calling it uncle.

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I have accepted losing as part of the process just how my second-grade self once accepted that Santa wasn’t real. Ruefully, a little pissy, while also logically wrapping my brain around the fact that reindeer cannot fly and not even a magical, overweight, ageless man can employ an army of elves to build toys for a year and deliver every single one of them around the globe in a single night.

Believing that I should be making every main draw three years after first picking up a volleyball is hardly any different than believing in Santa.

I say this ruefully, and more than a little pissy, while also logically wrapping my brain around the fact that this is a tour for professional athletes, and three years and precisely zero coaching –- aside from bugging the living crap out of every beach volleyball player I know, asking what I can do better and how –- is not nearly enough to be a professional volleyball player.

Have you ever seen anything of significance accomplished within three years of launch? I haven’t.

So this is me calling my shot.

I will make a main draw.

Maybe that won’t come this year, maybe not the next. But it will happen. I know it will happen because I’m a firm believer in the process, and though not everyone will notice, I have noticed every micro and macro improvement throughout this dreaded, crappy, wonderful process.

Last year, in Huntington Beach, when I won my first qualifier match, I celebrated like I won the whole damn tournament. I celebrated because that first monkey was off my back, and also because I knew full well that I was going to get my ass handed to me in the next round by Ty Loomis and Ed Ratledge, and they kindly dispensed of Myles and I quickly, painlessly.

Four-hundred and forty-two days have passed since that qualifier, and I’ve seen a great many changes in my game. I can occasionally pass in the correct zip code, sometimes I even hit it in the big box on the other side of the net commonly known as ‘in bounds,’ I hand set everything I can get my paws on, which is, for the most part, everything, and the refs don’t blow their whistles so much anymore when I do.

Most notably, I’ve seen my mindset change. I go into tournaments — with the exception of Huntington Beach, in which Chase Frishman and Mike Brunsting were in my bracket — expecting to qualify.  Maybe I’m crazy for thinking that, seeing as I’ve never done it.

But I also believe that to achieve anything noteworthy, you need to be a little crazy. I believe all of this. Truly, I do. But this does not mean that I do not doubt myself.

Far, far from it.

Would you like to know why Schoonover and I didn’t play together in Hermosa?

I thought that I had tanked so badly in San Francisco that he wouldn’t want to run with me ever again, and I’d have never blamed him for it. I didn’t even bother reaching out.

Turns out, he would have been happy to run it with me, because Schoonover loathes blocking as much as I loathe tequila, social security, and New York City.

And I also can’t help but wonder if Schoonover and I would have qualified had I played in Dave Smith’s stead. Maybe. Maybe not.

All I know is that I did not qualify, and Schoonover did, but what matters to me is that I wasn’t sitting behind a computer screen, watching livestreams, wondering the two most haunting words a human being can wonder: What if?

I don’t have to wonder what if.

I was the proverbial man in the arena, and while my face was not marred by dust and blood, I erred, and I came short again, and I recognize that there is no effort without error and shortcoming.

This will happen again, and again, and again…and againandagainandagain as I continue to grow and my goals change and with it so will my definition of shortcoming.

I know this. It’s a tough thing to accept, but it’s something I have long accepted. Am I about to drop my professional goals as a writer, abandon my career, go live with Zaun in a rusting Dodge Sprinter and devote myself fully to beach volleyball?

No.

But will I stop playing? Absolutely not.

Beach volleyball will never make me rich in material fortune, but it has already made me rich in every intangible aspect of life.

Travis Mewhirter and Lakaylah Lake

Beach volleyball is how I met my girlfriend of more than two years, who still loves me no matter how poorly I play, and who isn’t afraid to tell me just how poorly I did play. Beach volleyball is how I met all but a handful of friends in Florida, and it is how I have met every single new friend in California. Before picking up this sport, I could count on one hand the number of beaches I had been to. Now, it may take 20 or 30 minutes for me to sit down and chart all of the places I’ve been and seen, and all the memories and stories that accompany each photogenic, sometimes alcohol-blurred setting.

Beach volleyball has led to my greatest passion, not playing beach volleyball, but writing about it. Of the 10 or so outlets I currently write or edit for, VolleyballMag.com and DiG Magazine are without a doubt my favorites, and I can assure you this is not for the pay.

Beach volleyball is, put simply, my muse.

And some day, if the stars align and God continues to smile down upon me for a bit longer, maybe I can be a beach volleyball player who writes, and not the other way around.

For now, I’ll continue to be the man in the arena, and I’ll continue to fall short, and I’ll continue to learn because of it.

When I’ll make a main draw, I do not yet know.

What I do know is this: I will never be, as Roosevelt so brilliantly wrote, one of “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

For now, I know defeat, and I’ll continue to be that man in the arena until I know victory.

So there you have it. There’s your introspection, your deep dive into the mental gymnastics of a qualifier player, your beach volleyball equivalent of the man in the arena.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Travis, I’ve been reading your recent articles and always enjoy them. I happened to walk past you at the end of the day yesterday (Thursday) in Hermosa and I did in fact notice and silently admire your Hakuna Matata shirt. Keep writing the articles we enjoy reading and keep playing as much as you can. You’ll get there!

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