As he enters 2020, the universe isn’t finished with Phil Dalhausser just yet

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FIVB Vienna 2019 Saturday-Phil Dalhausser 3/9/2020
Phil Dalhausser hits against Germany in the 2019 FIVB Vienna five-star/George Davison photo

It’s about 4:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in Orlando, Florida, and Jen Dalhausser is lowering the net for her lone beach volleyball student, a precocious pre-teen who is picking up the game rather quickly. Jen looks at the next court over, where her husband, Phil, and Nick Lucena are practicing against Italians Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo, two of the world’s best beach volleyball teams of the past three Olympic quads.

It is a touch below 70 degrees. The mood is light, fun, amicable.

“This,” Jen says, looking at the scene before her, “is perfect.”

It can be said, without argument, that Phil and Jen Dalhausser have built a beautiful life here. They have two adorable children, Sebastian and Sophia. Between sets, Sophia will run over and give daddy a hug. When Phil asks to see the routine she’s been practicing at dance class, she’ll run back to the grassy area she’s been playing on, giggling the whole way. Sebastian busies himself playing made up games in the sand.

It is a wonderful scene in every way, one they get to enjoy almost every day of the week, and yet, beginning today, there will be small ripples in this glassy smooth life of theirs. Phil will be on the FIVB Tour again, to Doha, to Australia, to Cancun, three straight weeks on the road, in pursuit of one final Olympic Games.

So why, after one of the most remarkable and decorated careers in American beach volleyball, is Phil Dalhausser messing with perfection?

Because maybe the universe isn’t finished with Phil Dalhausser, who has made more than $2.4 million in beach earnings, and who has won just about every FIVB award imaginable, and who turned 40 less than two months ago.

***

Dalhausser is a spiritual guy, and here he would like to note that he is spiritual, not religious. He reads the works of Eckhart Tolle, Joe Dispenza, authors of titles such as Becoming Supernatural, You Are The Placebo, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, and The Power of Now, among others. He watches YouTube videos posted by a yogi named Sadhguru. It is through such works, and similar books and podcasts and beliefs, that Dalhausser is an ardent believer in the power of the mind, and its ability to, in a way, create our life paths before our physical selves can travel down them.

“This might be cuckoo talk but, man, I think there’s something behind it,” Dalhausser says. “Just these silly coincidences in my life, maybe I just subconsciously manifested it. Obviously, it goes against mainstream, but I don’t know man, there’s something behind it. It’s a little kooky-talk. I’m well aware of it.

Maybe that does sound like cuckoo talk to you. Maybe it doesn’t. Dalhausser doesn’t much care what you think, but he knows, when he looks back on his career, that he does not buy into the multitude of what some might call coincidences. His life has too many for them to be accidents without purpose.

Here, as way of explanation, he’d like to take you to 2005. Austin, Texas. He and his best bud from Florida, Nick Lucena, have made the final. Lucena can’t believe it. It was just two years ago that they were living the bachelor life in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, training at Adam Roberts’ beach-front pad by day, partying at night, living rent free, working enough as substitute teachers to pay for food and gas to get to tournaments. And here they were, California guys living in Santa Barbara, in the final of AVP Austin.

Could Phil believe it?

“Yeah,” Dalhausser told Lucena. “We belong here.”

“I always felt like I belonged,” Dalhausser said. “And I felt like I manifested it.”

They won. And whether you think Dalhausser manifested or not, he looks at that day, May 1, 2005, as the third and fourth major “coincidences” of his career at that point. The first was meeting Roberts, a professional player who extended the invitation to Dalhausser and Lucena to live and train with him and another pro, Matt Heath, in South Carolina. The second was Dalhausser, at the beginning of the 2005 season, turning down a partnership offer with 2000 Olympic gold-medalist Dain Blanton, choosing instead to stick with Lucena.

“I go up to Santa Barbara where Nick’s staying, and something just feels right about this, so I told Dain, ‘Listen man, I might be making the silliest beach volleyball move in history, but I got this feeling,’” he recalled. “Three tournaments later we win.”

Good timing, too. When Dalhausser informed his parents, the ones who had helped him pay for an education and a business degree at Central Florida, that he’d be pursuing a career in professional beach volleyball rather than putting his degree to use, they were, predictably, less than thrilled. To appease them, he put a time limit on it: If he didn’t “make it,” he said, “and I didn’t define what I meant by make it,” by the time he was 25, he’d give it up. Get a job. Do the 9-5 thing. Make his parents proud.

When he won Austin, he was 25 years old. His parents, Peter and Marianne, allowed him to forget the business degree. They were now his biggest fans.

Coincidence or cuckoo talk?

Read on. There’s more.

***

It’s June of 2005, two weeks before World Championships in Berlin, Germany, a $500,000 monster of a tournament. The United States is planning on sending Todd Rogers and Sean Scott, Jake Gibb and Stein Metzger, Dain Blanton and Kevin Wong. And then Scott breaks his pinky, bad enough that doctors tell him that if he tries to play, it could get to the point of amputation. He’s out for World Champs.

Even before Scott’s pinky breaking, Rogers, who had been practicing in groups with Dalhausser, had his mind on moving to a bigger partner for the 2006-2008 Olympic push. But Dalhausser was third on his list of partners, behind 6-foot-6 Mike Lambert and 6-7 Gibb. In that moment, however, Rogers needed a quick fill-in, and neither of the former could serve as the band-aid he needed. He turned to the 6-foot-9 Dalhausser.

“I’m like ‘Yeah, let me get a plane ticket,’” Dalhausser said.

They practiced once and still finished seventh, higher than any other American team. It was critical for a number of reasons, though one in particular: Rogers and Scott, for all the success they reaped in America, had never medaled on the world stage. With one day of practice, he and Dalhausser nearly pulled it off at the World Championships.

“The rest,” Dalhausser says before trailing off, allowing the lengthy, unspoken resume of he and Rogers’ partnership to speak for him. The “rest,” was 29 AVP wins in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons. It was three straight FIVB wins leading into the 2008 Beijing Games, where they were the No. 2 seed and heavy favorites to win the gold.

And then the universe went to work again.

***

The Olympics come around twice a decade, and they do so with much pomp and circumstance, with celebration and ceremony, unrivaled pressure to go with never before felt pride of playing for one’s country. It is more than a competition. It is an experience. Sometimes, those experiences don’t bode well for the competition.

Like the Opening Ceremony.

Beijing’s Opening Ceremony has been labeled, almost unanimously by news outlets, as the best ever. More than 100 heads of state came to see the extravaganza, which cost more than $100 million.

So no, Dalhausser was not going to miss them, even if he had to play the next morning. Rogers participated in the Parade of Nations and then bailed. He and Jake Gibb, who was playing with Sean Rosenthal, were in the hotel by 11. Dalhausser ambled in at 4 in the morning.

They played a few hours later.

Not that it should have mattered all that much. Dalhausser’s primary role in that partnership was to bomb serves and set Rogers. Their first-round match was favorable, too, against Latvia’s Martins Plavins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs, the No. 23-seed. The last time Dalhausser and Rogers had played them, in Brazil in 2007, the Americans won 21-8, 21-14.

Dalhausser admitted in a previous interview that he “took them lightly.” He also readily admits that the Latvians gave him a bit of a shock when they served him every single ball, something that no team had ever done. It just so happened to be the day after Dalhausser was on his feet for seven straight hours, marveling at the glitz and glamour of the Opening Ceremony.

“It’s funny,” he said. “It’s almost like they sensed a weakness.”

They did. And it worked, as Latvia shocked the world with a 21-19, 21-18 upset of the Americans that is still considered to be the greatest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history.

“It was brutal,” Rogers said. “It sucked. No other way to say it. It was a serious bummer. It kind of was because Phil was terrible that game. He was exhausted and you could tell; he couldn’t jump, his legs were basically dust.”

Yet here is the secret that few realize about that loss: Some cuckoo talk was at work. Latvia’s upset ultimately paved the way to what would become the easiest road to the gold medal match for the Americans. Dalhausser and Rogers pounded Argentina and Switzerland in straight sets in their next two matches, claiming the No. 2 seed out of Pool B. It so happened that in the 2008 Olympics, the No. 2 seed out of Pool B was the perfect spot to be.

Had Dalhausser and Rogers won their opening match, as they should have, their road would have matched them up with Brazilians Fabio and Marcio in the quarterfinals, and then rivals and 2004 gold medalists Emanuel and Ricardo in the semifinals. Instead, their bracket was marked by a Who’s Who of underdogs. To get to the gold-medal match, all they had to do was avoid another seismic upset.

Sounds easy enough. It was anything but.

In the opening round of bracket play, Switzerland’s Martin Laciga and Jan Schnider, after stealing the second set, 23-21, to push it to three, bombed three straight jump serve aces to open up a 6-1 lead in the third.

“I remember looking at Phil going ‘Well, if he keeps serving like that, we’re toast,’” Rogers recalled. “He was just playing that well, and you can’t move Phil over to the line because this guy could serve whatever spot.”

Laciga came back to Earth, popping a passable serve that the Americans sided out. Dalhausser blocked him on the ensuing point. And then Laciga, a legend in his own country, made the mistake that possibly cost the Swiss the match: He called a timeout.

“Freaked out,” said Dalhausser, Swiss-born himself. “It was way too early.”

They came out of the timeout and Dalhausser blocked another. And then another. Suddenly it was 6-5. Suddenly, arguably the best male team the world had ever seen was gathering momentum, and there was nothing the Swiss had left in the tank to stop it.

“After that,” Rogers says, “we were all good.” And they were, pulling out a 15-13 win, finishing the match on a 14-7 run.

From there, as Dalhausser likes to say, “the stars just aligned.” The universe was doing its thing. Destiny was manifesting itself. How else can you explain the Germans stunning top-seeded China in straight sets? And then, one round later, Georgia (albeit with transplanted Brazilians Renato Gomes and Jorge Terceiro) slipping past the Dutch.

Georgia? In the semifinals of the Olympics?

“Literally the best thing we could have had,” Dalhausser said.

By the time Dalhausser and Rogers worked their way to the gold-medal match, winning their semifinal 21-11, 21-13, the highest-seeded team they had to play was No. 8 Germany in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Fabio Luiz Magalhaes and Marcio Araujo battled with their fellow Brazilians, stunning Rego and Santos in straight sets in the semifinals.

Another blessing from the higher ups.

“Ricardo and Emanuel — those were the guys we were doing battles with,” Dalhausser says. “Fabio and Marcio were kind of limping into the tournament.”

So yes, the stars had aligned. The cosmos in perfect rotation. A late night at the Opening Ceremony had engendered a serendipitous loss to a team they should have never lost to, which resulted in an easy draw, which begat a Swiss meltdown in the third set, which led to an upset in the second round, and another in the third, and another in the fourth, and now, here were Dalhausser and Rogers, playing a struggling Brazilian team that was chronologically the last team to qualify for the Olympics.

It was a thrilling match, going to three, where Dalhausser and Rogers dominated every imaginable way: 15-4 Americans. Gold medal, Americans.

Phil Dalhausser 3/9/2020-Beijing Olympics 2008-Gold Medal
Phil Dalhausser celebrate after winning the 2008 gold medal in Beijing/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Delirium. Rogers and Dalhausser collapsed into one another and crashed onto the sand. Dalhausser found a flag, raised it above his head and ran victory laps around the court. Rogers sprinted for his wife and planted a kiss on her lips.

“You really don’t realize how cool it is until years and years later,” Rogers said. “Your head is a whirl.”

Months later, in a quiet moment in a room in South Carolina, Dalhausser would be sitting with his old roommate, Adam Roberts. Roberts wanted to pick the big man’s brain on the most momentous moment of his career.

He cued up the film of the third set. Dalhausser didn’t really want to watch. There were plenty of other things they could do. Roberts insisted. Dalhausser relented.

Fine, he’d take a look at the film.

“We’re watching it, and Phil runs out of his booth, and he runs out and he’s looking up at the sky, looking around, I pause it, saying ‘What’s going through your mind?’” Roberts recalled. “And he says I remember thinking ‘It sure is nice out. They said it wasn’t going to be nice out. But it’s really nice outside.’

“This is what he’s thinking as he’s about to start game three of the gold-medal match.”

***

Is this all sounding too cuckoo for you? Or are you with Dalhausser, examining this endless list of coincidences, wondering if there might just be something bigger at work here? Whatever side of the fence you may be on, it is quite possible you’d be wondering about 2012. London Olympics.

If the universe was so inclined to help out its Thin Beast, then what happened four years after Dalhausser and Rogers won gold in Beijing?

How, with all of this juju in Dalhausser’s favor, could he have possibly finished ninth?

Maybe there is no universe playing favorites. Or perhaps there was a longer game at play here. Dalhausser was almost ruled out of the London Olympics. A chance meeting with doctors had led to the discovery of a blood clot in his arm, which had been bothering him a bit. Went numb sometimes. His forearm and bicep had been unusually tight, particularly during an NVL tournament in Baltimore in 2012, where he and Rogers lost in the final to an up-and-comer named Casey Patterson and his 7-foot partner, Ryan Doherty. Massages hadn’t loosened it up. Neither did stretching or holding his arm above his head. You should have seen the size of his arm after they had flown back from Prague.

“Almost double the size of my real arm,” Dalhausser said. “I should have taken a picture of it. It was freaky looking.”

The doctor had seen this before. He told Dalhausser he likely had a blood clot, handed him a packet of information, sent him to an imaging center.

“Sure enough,” Dalhausser says, “they found two clots. It was the worst timing possible.”

Career-wise, yes. Being sidelined for the entire month of June, with the Olympics being held at the end of July, was awful. Health-wise, it’s possible the doctor may have found it just in time.

“It could have killed him,” Rogers said. “It literally could have killed him.”

So for one month, Dalhausser sat on the couch, unable to perform any semblance of physical activity. The blood thinner he was on could have proven just as deadly as the clot.

“Let’s say I was chasing after a ball and I hit my head on the pole or something,” Dalhausser said. “I could break a blood vessel in my brain and it could be fatal.”

After a month and a clearance from the doctor, Dalhausser had regained his health enough to play in three tournaments before the Olympics, in Switzerland, Germany and Australia, with mixed results: fourth, ninth, fourth. They showed bursts, here and there, of the gold medal team they were in 2008. They just struggled to sustain it.

“We were playing well, we just ran out of gas,” Rogers says. “We weren’t as crisp. We weren’t in as good of shape as we needed to be. If we turned it on, yeah, we could still beat anyone in the world and we knew that, but it’s tough when you have a month break. So we just went in and said ‘Let’s see how it goes. We’re here, let’s see how it rolls.’ You see how it went down.”

It went down to the very Italians Dalhausser recently hosted in Orlando. Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai were a pair of extraordinary but inexperienced Italians when they delivered the stunning, 21-17, 21-19 first-round upset over Dalhausser and Rogers in 2012. That loss spelled the end of one of the greatest partnerships in American beach volleyball history. There is no telling what would have happened had Dalhausser and Rogers won gold, but the ninth led to what felt like an obvious conclusion: The Professor and the Thin Beast were splitting up.

So how could that have been the universe working in Dalhausser’s favor? That split led to the formation of one of the best on-paper partnerships the world could have put together: Dalhausser, the best blocker in the world, was teaming up with Sean Rosenthal, the best defender in the world.

It is with rueful amusement that they both speak of that partnership now. Disappointment mixed with incredulity. It was brilliant at times, it was “choppy,” Dalhausser says, at times. “There’d be tournaments where we would be unstoppable and other tournaments where we’d get a 17th.”

Last March, Rosenthal wondered, hardly believing the words that were coming out of his mouth, if dropping Gibb after 2012, when they finished as the top ranked team in the world, and turning to Dalhausser was the worst partnership move he’s made in his career. Yet he’d do it again, he admitted, because one does not simply turn down a partnership offer from Phil Dalhausser. But two years of inconsistent finishes and injuries and just flat out bad timing led to the finishing act of Dalhausser’s career that he had in mind since he first began playing tournaments in Florida with a quicksilver fast kid named Nick.

“Nick asked at the perfect time,” Dalhausser says of their reuniting in 2015. “It was like a life saver, and I felt like I was a sinking ship. Perfect time.”

It didn’t matter that Dalhausser’s and Lucena’s chances to make the Rio Olympics were long at best. He was never going to go out with anybody but Lucena. What better time to start than now? Back to the qualifiers they went, jumping up the Olympic ranks with a fifth in Poland in August of 2015, second in Russia, gold in China, and a silver in front of a rollicking Fort Lauderdale crowd. They’d qualify, jumping John Hyden and Tri Bourne, and carry that momentum into Rio, where they entered as a toss-up as the world’s best team. It was either them, or Brazil’s Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt.

But in Brazil, there would be no Beijing magic. The bracket would not be the perfectly paved road it was in 2008. It was quite the opposite. In 2008, Dalhausser and Rogers didn’t see a seed higher than No. 8. In 2016, in what many beach fans considered a de facto gold-medal match, they’d meet top-ranked Alison and Bruno. In the quarterfinals.

That day, August 15, 2016, is still marked in Dalhausser’s brain not only by the significance of it being an Olympic quarterfinal, but also by its outright bizarreness. Dalhausser had been playing beach volleyball for nearly two decades by then. He had never seen wind act quite like it did that day.

“It was like someone flipped on a switch. It was really strange. I remember my last two serves, I was the only person on the court, and all of a sudden it got super windy,” he said. “We went under (the stadium) when they were doing introductions, and the thing was shaking it was so windy. Whoever won the toss won the set. They won the first toss, won the first set. We won the second, and third set they won the toss, and I walk back to the box and say ‘Well, we got some work cut out for us.’ I think we switched 4-1 and never could get back to it. It was just whipping around.”

They lost, 15-9, in the third set. For the second straight Olympics, Dalhausser’s journey hadn’t manifested in a medal.

***

“Damn, bro,” Lucena says. “I’ve never seen you so white and trimmed up.”

It’s the penultimate day of their training camp with the Italians. Dalhausser’s shirt is off early in the practice. Lucena, as always, is ready to chirp in with something or other. They’re like brothers, those two. They argue and bicker like siblings, but the love they share for one another is as deep as a family. There is nobody else on the planet that Dalhausser was ever going to end his career with.

2018 MBO champions Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhaussser need two more events to complete their Olympic qualification, shown here at Manhattan Beach/Jim Wolf photography

He isn’t sure what would have happened had he and Lucena won gold in Rio, as Alison and Bruno went on to do. They would have played through 2017 for sure. But after that? Dalhausser doesn’t know, nor, he admits, does it do much good to dwell on it.

He would have retired if UCF added a beach volleyball program and asked him to coach. It hasn’t.

“Maybe,” Dalhausser said, “that’s a sign.”

Not the only one, either. When Phil and Jen closed on their house in Orlando in December of 2017, Dalhausser didn’t know that the community down the road, Tavistock, is owned by a man named Joe Lewis, a British businessman worth more than $4 billion. He didn’t know that Lewis had planned on building a community centered on health, wellness, and sport, that he’d be constructing the biggest pool in the world, with designs on adding 10 to 15 beach volleyball courts.

Now they’re planning on putting Dalhausser’s name — after all, he’s won 58 AVP and 38 FIVB tourney titles — on the beach complex, which he wants to turn into the “East Coast headquarters of volleyball.” Putting his name on it just figures.

Dalhausser didn’t envision any of this when he moved to Orlando. He just saw a state he knew, with no income tax, where the housing was one fifth of the price in the South Bay of Southern California.

“It was a good thing to do, but I think mentally, and maybe subconsciously, I took my foot off the gas pedal a little bit,” he said. “This past off-season I realized that, so the gas pedal is back down.”

And so one last Olympic run begins. Dalhausser and Lucena, as they were in 2016, are behind, trailing Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb and Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

“The goal is obviously to win gold, but in my opinion it’s the hardest it’s ever been,” he said. “Before anything, we gotta qualify. We’re in a dog fight.”

Phil Dalhausser 3/9/2020-Beijing Olympics 2008-Gold Medal
Phil Dalhausser blocks Brazil’s Marcio Araujo to secure the Gold Medal in 2008/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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