PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Just outside the kitchen of a beautiful home in a tony neighborhood in Pacific Palisades, behind the doors that remain open to allow a cool and lovely California breeze to drift through the house, there is a wiry 21-year-old young man with perhaps his two most prized possessions: A ball and a wall.

He passes against the wall to the right side of his body, then to the left. He hand-sets. Bump sets. Pokes with his right. Pokes with his left. Catches, tosses, hits a line roll shot with his left. Catches, tosses, hits a line roll shot with his right.

This is not the fidgety nature of a young twenty-something. Isn’t the squirminess of someone who just needs someone, or something, to play with. With that wall and a ball, and a mind that simply wants to work something out, Miles Partain has everything he needs. This ability to focus, to tinker for hours and hours and hours with nothing more than two inanimate objects, to attempt to satiate an insatiable curiosity, is something he considers more than a gift.

“The spark just comes from God,” he said. “You can’t really control it that much. Curiosity is a special gift and you can fan it into flame.”

If this were a literal flame, his home would have been subject to a raging inferno for the previous eight years or so. Probably more, but that’s the earliest his brother, Marcus, can recall Miles truly diving deep into any and all topics that piqued him, and specifically, volleyball. They began playing together when Marcus was 12 and Miles 11, close enough in age where Miles’ development wasn’t too far behind to keep up with big brother. But when Marcus turned 14, he would be jumping up to a standard men’s net, which is just a hair below 8 feet. If Miles were to practice with him, he’d have to play on the raised net as well.

For an hour every morning before high school, they’d head to the beach with Dylan Maarek, a professional player and their coach. Too small to hit sharp angles, Maarek emphasized the most efficient swing in the sport, telling them to attack into the deep middle. Miles had yet to blossom into the long and rangy 6-foot-4 build that would help him to become the 2022 AVP Offensive Player of the Year. His swings routinely hit the tape or, when he did clear it, sailed long.

“Miles would get so frustrated, and I would just say ‘Keep working on that high snap, that high contact, you’re still just 13. Once you get a little more physical you’ll be good,’ ” Maarek recalled. “Three months later he just started teeing off and I’m like ‘Holy shit, this was way quicker than I thought.’ ”

Miles’ progress, an early sign of an otherworldly precocity that would continue developing with alarming speed, both should and should not have surprised Maarek. He would make regular trips to the Partain’s home in the Palisades, noting the same, peculiar sight: A lanky teenager doing plyometrics up the hill. That would be Miles. No coach. No trainer. Just experimenting with a program called VertShock — one he found, like most things Miles finds, on his own — to see what it was all about.

“I just remember driving past him, pulling up,” Maarek recalled, “and asking his dad ‘Is Miles just doing plyos? Is he running a whole program by himself?’ He just finds programs on his own. He just grabs it on his own. What 14 or 15 year old just goes out on his own and tries plyometric work? Just that self-motivation, doing those things. A lot of people need structure, need people pushing them, but he would just go out and do it.”

That was the work Maarek could physically see Miles doing on his own, without the prodding of a coach or parent or teammate. What he didn’t know was that the wall above the glass doors in the kitchen, and the turf area between the pool and the house, was the left-hander’s personal laboratory, as was the skinny court in the backyard. As far as the plyometrics go, Miles had an actual program. But tinkering with various ways to set? To pass? To hit a high line? Where to load the elbow and his wrist on a swing? Playing one-on-one with Marcus? That was just the Partains being Partains, wandering down the road of self-exploration, honoring, as they see it, their sparks from God.

“If something comes to me and I don’t want to lose it I’ll just go to my field and work on it. It’s kind of like music, when something comes to you, you just go play it and see how it sounds and if it’s good you keep developing it and if it’s bad you just throw it out,” Miles said. “That’s how a lot of my volleyball game has developed.

“I have a wall outside my house I can hit balls against. A lot of my passing was developed that way, same with setting and hitting. That wall at my house is so good. You need it to be a certain height, because too low isn’t very good. I’ve probably hit 100,000 balls against it. You can get so much better with a wall. You don’t need anything, and it’s all about self-discovery too. It’s the best.”

Dylan Maarek, Miles Partain, Marcus Partain
Dylan Maarek coaches Miles Partain (middle) and Marcus Partain (right)/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

“He was going to be nasty”

That’s how his game, considered by many to be one of the best in the United States, has been crafted and honed and developed: A curiosity, and a willingness to scratch his own itch, with little more required than a ball and a wall. Sometimes he didn’t even need the wall. He’d show up to the beach some days and ask his good friend, Tim Brewster, another up-and-coming talent, to take a look at different variations of setting.

“He’d say ‘All right Tim, what do you think of this way to set? Or this way to set?’ And he’d show you six different things that didn’t look any different to me but felt different to him,” Brewster said. “He’s super inquisitive. He’s always trying new things.”

Sometimes those things stick. Take the option-heavy, jump-setting offense that has proven devastatingly effective already, in just one full season playing on the AVP Tour and five events on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. It wasn’t planned, more necessary than anything, and necessity, it has been said, begets creativity. And Miles Partain is nothing if not creative.

When Miles was 15, Marcus, who was still his partner, began feeling pangs of discomfort in his lower back, enough that his arm swing, and therefore offense, became limited. Without the threat of a swing, the blocker could pull off the net, or the defender could simply wait and chase down the shot that would inevitably come. In the worst case scenario, the blocker would pull while the defender waited for the shot. If they were to continue playing together, they’d need to figure out a new way to score.

Maarek was watching the first time he saw Miles truly open up on an option swing. It was in the third set of a final down at a USA Volleyball tournament in Chula Vista, against Brewster and John Schwengel.

“Marcus was struggling to side out, Miles went up for an option and just ripped it. Literally bounced one,” Maarek said. “I was like ‘Holy shit.’ That was the first time I saw him connect and be as explosive as he could be. I knew, right then, he was going to be nasty.”

What Maarek saw was not a finely-tuned offense. It wasn’t something the Partain boys had repped out, ad infinitum. They had just decided to try it the day before.

“It came pretty easily because we knew how to set,” Miles said. “We were playing some bigger blocks because I was 15, Marcus was 17, we just thought we’d do a bunch of shoot sets. It started a little bit on a whim, like anything does, and it worked pretty well.”

Such is the Partain signature penchant for humility and understatement.

By “pretty well,” what Miles means is that, with their creative, fast-moving offense, in a few months’ time, they’d shatter the AVP record in becoming the youngest team to qualify for a main draw. Miles was 15 years and 7 months old, lowering the previous bar of 18 years and 9 months, when he and Marcus qualified for the 2017 Hermosa Beach Open.

“I remember not really understanding what it meant to do that when we qualified,” Marcus recalled. “I think we thought we just had a great day, won a few matches, and we got to play tomorrow, which was the coolest part.”

Miles Partain
Miles Partain jump sets to distract the defense/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The joy of a Miles Partain breakthrough

That last bit may be the most telling aspect of the Partain personality: It was a cool thing, sure, to qualify, to set a record, to be main draw players, to join the likes of Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson and Taylor Crabb in the players tent and all of that other stuff that would usually show up on a rookie’s social media, but what they prized more than anything was that they just got to play more volleyball. It helps to explain Miles’ reaction, or non-reaction, really, when he won his first AVP, in Atlanta last summer with Paul Lotman. Or his first FIVB gold medal, in Dubai last fall with Andy Benesh. Or a critical NORCECA World Championship qualifier victory just last week, one that took a load of stress off a tension-fraught Olympic race.

All moments were met with the same, blasé reaction.

“I tell people I think he was legitimately sad he couldn’t side out again and play more volleyball. That’s Miles,” Lotman said of their win in Atlanta. “To me, that was a perfect Miles moment. Didn’t know how to react and I just gave him a big bear hug and was like ‘hug me back! Please, this is an amazing moment!’ ”

Miles acknowledges that moment, his first AVP win, as such. But at the forefront of his mind was a hyper-awareness of the pitfalls that often come with winning a tournament. The swelling of the ego. The complacency. The dearth of evident weaknesses on which to work and tinker with the wall back home.

“It was a high, but I’ll get way more excited if I learn how to — I used to not be able to hit line at a late decision point very well and it would severely limit my attacking options. The process of learning that and some of the breakthroughs I came to when adding it to my game was way more fun than winning Atlanta to me,” Partain said. “At least a pure fun. Atlanta was very fun but it was different. It’s more pure when you’re working on something and you find that breakthrough by yourself and I go tell Marcus or something. That’s really fun for me. And winning Atlanta probably made me worse for the next tournament, mentally. I’m entitled, I’m going to win everything — and I did play worse the next tournament.

“I’m trying to win as much as possible like everyone else is but winning takes away from that. Usually people don’t play as well, they play much better after losing. It’s always better to lose in a practice right before a tournament starts. If you lose, you need to be focused.”

Andy Benesh gets a good kick out of this explanation. He’s heard it before. Now Partain’s running mate for the Paris Olympics, Benesh had attempted so few jump-sets before their teaming up there’s a solid chance he could count them on one hand. While playing with Adam Roberts, Benesh earned a comical reputation for his refusal to hit balls on two, despite getting served perhaps 10 percent — maximum — of the time.

Yet when Partain opted for Benesh this season, choosing the 6-foot-9 28-year-old over a host of other elite blockers, Benesh knew it would be Partain’s option-heavy, jump-setting system he’d have to learn, and learn it quick.

In the fall and early winter months, Benesh would meet Partain at the UCLA racquetball courts, which contain three of Partain’s most cherished practice elements: a ball, a wall, and an enclosed space that eliminates any time-wasting shagging. There they worked, for three hours at a time, on Benesh’s jump-setting.

“If anybody was watching, they would have to be saying ‘What are these idiots doing?’ ” Benesh said, laughing.

“Andy was working really hard, working on the spacing, the timing, the fake hitting, vision, and just being able to adjust in all different directions depending on the pass,” Partain said. “All that stuff he was able to work on in a concentrated way. Sometimes people want to work on stuff little by little but he went full blast.”

He did so because he knew how absurd a task it is for the blocker on the other side of the net to attempt to defend Partain’s system. In 2022, Benesh played against Partain in New Orleans, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and Phoenix. He only won once.

“When I played Miles and Paul, I just served Miles because I didn’t want to deal with it,” Benesh said of Partain’s option ability. “I was looking at it, and I thought I could do it, and I knew he could teach me since he wanted me to do it too. If we could make this offense symmetrical, it would be a nightmare for me as a blocker.”

But first, he’d have to learn the system himself, one that is run by only one other team in the world: Sweden’s David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig, who are currently ranked No. 2. Sweden has been running their jump-setting system since they picked up a ball, Partain since he was 15. Benesh? Since November. Often, practices were not a pretty sight. Partain wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Miles talked about how he learned how to do it, his brother, Marcus, encouraging him to do it, even if he felt stupid doubling balls or option in the net three times in a row. I would say I would not be this far along if not for Miles’ encouragement,” Benesh said. “I would say he’s the best jump-setter in the world. I know the Swedes are good, but nobody is doing the feint like Miles is doing. I can’t do it all the way yet. Sometimes I do, but him being there to support me throughout the process — there were some practices that were rough. We did a USA practice and I think we optioned seven balls out in a row. Mike [Dodd] and Patty [Dodd]  are just like ‘You guys are ruining our drill.’ Whatever.”

Those practices, where they ruin drills and hit balls out of bounds and double and are, all around, terrible, by their standards — those are Partain’s favorites.

Miles Partain-Dubai Challenger-Itapema Challenge
Miles Partain celebrates a win at the Dubai Challenger/Volleyball World photo

Fail often, fail fast

“He gets more excited when we do something awful than when we win. Even after the NORCECA win, he said ‘It’s great that we won, but it’s also bad.’ I got what he was saying,” Benesh said. “If we get killed in a practice, he’ll say ‘That’s a great practice!’ I’ll still be pissed off and frustrated. I’d spray a ball 20 feet out of bounds, and he’ll say ‘That’s great.’ Totally straight face, a little smile. He just loves failing as many times as possible, as quickly as possible, to find the answer. Even myself and most people will get discouraged even though they know they’ll fail along the way, but he loves the process so much.”

He loves it to the point that when he maxes out a skill, or reaches a temporary plateau, Partain will begin tinkering again. There was that time, for example, he altered his defense, standing around the 10-foot line — if there were one in beach — in an experiment to dig everything with his hands. It lasted about two weeks.

“He might bring it back, I don’t know,” Benesh said, laughing. This is what Partain calls the art side to learning, a craft he splits into two categories: statistically driven, empirical learning, and experimental, spontaneous, creative learning. Currently, he’s leaning artsy, tinkering, tinkering, tinkering, forever fanning that divine spark into a flame that sometimes burns things down and sometimes produces gold medals and AVP wins.

“There’s the science-art spectrum. You can be super data-driven — three sets of eight, every time, every day, track everything, measure everything — or just do what we want, be in the flow state of having fun, making stuff up on the fly,” he said. “I’m more on the art side right now. You kind of have to know the science rules, and once you know the rules you can know when to break them.”

It’s helpful, too, that he has a coach in Mike Placek to rein him in when need be. Not that Placek ever really needs to do much reining. He knows better than to put limits on Partain and his tinkering.

“I was in awe on the sidelines for what he could do. He was hitting on two and I only remember him getting blocked or dug once, and I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, how does he keep doing it?’ It didn’t matter if Paul’s pass is 20 feet high or to the right or left, his foot work and confidence is just so good,” Placek said of the first time he coached for Partain last season. “It’s one thing to hear about it and see it on TV, but then you see it live and you’re just wowed and he keeps evolving and pushing his limits and it’s really fun to watch.

“There’s a huge love and joy for the game and I think that’s the coolest thing as a coach is just watching him. He loves every aspect, whether it’s putting up a boogie board block against him, hitting options, working on a pokie jump set with the right hand, it’s just everything is fun. So much about it for him is mastering all these different skills to become the perfect all-around player, which I think is super unique. I try really hard not to hold him back and let him do his thing. You never know when you’re going to need that weird touch in the game. You can see the joy and it’s really fun and contagious.”

He summed up his role as Partain’s coach as, simply, “finding that line of insanity of when and where we want to jump-set.”

Miles Partain-Paul Lotman
Miles Partain hits against Logan Webber/Andy J. Gordon photo

“Live by the sword, die by the sword”

Before their season debut, in Challenge events in Itapema and Saquarema, Brazil, this spring, Partain, Benesh and Placek decided that they would, as Benesh described it, “live by the sword and die by the sword.” They knew the FIVB had been cracking down on hand-sets, and especially lifts, something which Benesh is particularly prone to do as a blocker with hands that are low and slow.

“I didn’t know how it would be called, I didn’t know if they’d all be lifts, but one conversation we had was that if they called every jump set, we’d lose 21-0,” Benesh said. “It’s been a burn the boats mentality and it’s been really freeing. Miles has been so encouraging and really helping me struggle through it and that’s helped accelerate me so much.

“To me, it feels like we’re on the forefront of exploring the modern beach volleyball game, which is pretty fun.”

The results of that trailblazing, burn-the-boats mentality have been equal parts mercurial and, somewhat counter-intuitively, remarkably consistent. The first set of the season was an 11-21 dud against Hungary, one in which the passing was off, the options and jump-sets forced, the new system seeming to be an apparent disaster. But they steadied out, won the following two sets, knocked off Alison in the ensuing round, qualified, swept Cuba, knocked out Evandro, and became the first team to claim a set off eventual gold medalists George Wanderley and Andre Loyola. The next week, they performed even better, finishing fourth.

Their Brazil trip put Partain and Benesh in an excellent position in the early goings of the race to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Their average finish is 640 points per tournament, highest in the USA among the men. They are finishes they likely wouldn’t have had if Partain didn’t make one of the most difficult decisions of his young life, to leave the UCLA indoor team.

When the news was released that Partain was no longer a Bruin, it was met with justifiable scrutiny and no shortage of questions. In 2022, as a sophomore, Partain was voted the MPSF Player of the Year, setting UCLA to the highest hitting percentage in the nation. When UCLA lost to Penn State this past February 9, Partain’s last match with the team, the Bruins were still 9-1 and among the few favorites to win the NCAA national championship.

What happened?

While many of Partain’s peers, partners and coaches laud the 21-year-old for his ability to tinker, to lean on the art side of the science-art learning spectrum Partain mentioned above, Miles is as much, if not more so, data-driven than he is experimental. The math of attempting to do three tasks — UCLA indoor, professional beach, and school — at a high level was no longer adding up.

Something had to go.

“It dawned on me when the FIVB schedule came out, how many percentage points I was sacrificing on Andy and I and our odds on qualifying, with three out of four [finishes used for entry points], World Champs, the finishes you need to obtain for World Champs, the training, having to come off the indoor season, which ended two days ago, and then all of that takes a lot of emotional focus, so it might be nice to have a dead week or dead month,” Partain said. “I wouldn’t have had any of that. You kind of need to go straight to the beach and grinding and getting up and running and get the plane up and flying before these Europe tournaments that are coming up, some of which we might not have even got into if I didn’t play these Brazil tournaments.

“Before January, I was like ‘This is going to be difficult to do both.’ I tried to do both but it felt like I was taking too much away from beach and beach is where I have more intrinsic passion. I wouldn’t have left if our team didn’t have other setters but we had two other good setters. I didn’t feel like I was abandoning them. I thought it was a good decision to leave. I wanted to continue playing beach.

“It was lose on either side. I was going to lose on beach if I stayed, I was going to lose on indoor if I left. So I was in a little bit of a pickle. I knew I wasn’t abandoning the team, so that gave me a little more clearance in my head. I wouldn’t have done it if it was like the Hawaii setter leaving. If he left, that’s a big deal, but if I left, I knew we had good hands to set the team. So I said I’m going to step away from the team. Got to play full-time beach and I’m happy I got to.

“I’m happy the guys won and I kind of thought me leaving would potentially make them better as a team because I thought it might improve some of the team dynamic with playing time stuff which is a big part of every team. They won, so my theory is at least not contradicted. I was really happy they won.”

The team would finish 22-1 without Partain, including a four-set win over Hawai’i to win the national championship — just as Partain wanted and somewhat expected.

“He and I have had conversations since and I know he has with guys on the team,” UCLA coach John Speraw said. “It’s all good. There’s a lot of forgiveness and grace with this group. I think it allowed this team to move on and really focus on the task at hand.”

UCLA
Shane Holdaway digs, but with his face, against UCLA’s Miles Partain/Jim Wolf photo

“USA’s next top guy”

Sometimes it’s the art side, the tinkering, that Miles leans on to make decisions, to find what works for him. Sometimes it’s data. Rarely is he wrong — or, at least, rarely is he wrong long enough for his decision to have a drastically negative impact.

“Sometimes I feel like he’s been manufactured by a company, the way he thinks,” Benesh said, laughing. “No matter what he’s doing, he’s trying to be as productive and efficient as possible. It’s pretty surprising from somebody that young, too. From an outside perspective, I think people probably think he’s really quiet, but one on one, he can talk for 10 hours about anything.”

Oh, yes, Partain’s range of interests is wide and all-encompassing. When he and Ty Loomis decided to partner up for the 2020 AVP Champions Cup, they talked on the phone for two hours. In more than two decades of playing professionally, Loomis has never once been on the phone with a partner for that long.

“Right away,” Loomis said, “I knew he was USA’s next top guy.”

Despite a 16-year age gap with Lotman, the two would talk endlessly on “life, love, religion,” Lotman said. “He’s just a very inquisitive person. He wants to know everything about everything. He’s just curious and he’ll ask you a million questions. It’s a deep dive into, sometimes, nonsense, but I think that’s the part of him – his brain is just going into a different dimension sometimes and if you can reel it in, if you can focus him, he’s amazing to watch and to play with. I think that’s very obvious. That’s his brilliance.”

That’s his spark from God.

And in the mind of Miles Partain, it’s his duty to fan it into flame.

***

To hear and/or watch our entire interview on SANDCAST with Miles Partain:

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here