It’s a late Tuesday morning, and Falyn Fonoimoana has brought the goods again. She’s even brought some freshly baked banana bread, for her coaches, Arthur Carvahlo and Pompilio Mercadante, who smiles and says that happiness is bread and sugar.
Happiness is a great many things for the 27-year-old Fonoimoana. It’s getting a big kill and celebrating it loudly, with a beat of the chest. It’s putting powdered-sugar boot prints on the ground for her 7-year-old son, Tavoi, on Christmas morning, showing physical evidence that Santa came. It’s ensuring that Nicolette Martin, all blonde hair and blue eyes, makes it through a throng of fans in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It’s talking a little trash, discovering the spunky side of her new partner, Corinne Quiggle.
Mostly, though, happiness for Fonoimoana comes from being, simply, Mama Falyn.
“Everyone calls me mama for a reason,” Fonoimoana said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I teach recovery, I bring magnesium, they used to make fun of me because I bring a huge suitcase where it’s all the remedies for A, B, C, D that could happen while you’re traveling. I try to be, ‘Hey, I have all this stuff here, if you need it.’ It all comes from things that I’ve experienced and it comes out of love. I love all of my partners that I’ve experienced. I’m invested.”
Most on the beach scene have only seen this side of Fonoimoana, the loving, caring, doting partner who has a track record of bringing out the best in everyone she plays with. She is quick to admit this wasn’t always the case. The niece of both an Olympic butterfly swimmer and an Olympic gold medalist on the beach, Fonoimoana was, not surprisingly, one of the best on every team she ever played. She won a state and national championship at Mira Costa as a freshman, burying balls alongside Alix Klineman. Over the next three years, she established herself as the No. 1 ranked high school player in the country.
As a freshman at USC, she started in 31 of 34 matches, finishing second on the team in kills. This 19-year-old Fonoimoana, however, was not the one who brings magnesium and electrolytes and gluten-free banana bread to practice. This Falyn Fonoimoana was, by her own admission, “a crappy teammate when I was young.”
And then, unexpectedly, wonderfully, life happened. Fonoimoana became pregnant with the boy that would change her life in all of the best ways motherhood can change an athlete of prodigious talent and a limitless future and, somehow, almost unbelievably, none of the worst. It wouldn’t be her body that would undergo the most lasting of changes — she was working out within five days of giving birth — but her mindset.
“I think that was a huge part of not just growing up but finding who I am as a person and who I wanted to be,” she said. “Being young and volleyball just being everything for me, I didn’t know what life outside volleyball was. It helped me learn what kind of parent, what kind of woman I wanted to be, what kind of spouse, like these are all things that came to fruition once it happened because I have to show him who he wants to be through my actions, and I wanted it to always be positive and I wanted him to see those organic.
“I’m still young, I’m only 27, but I’m really happy with where I am. I love my life, I get to help people, and I get to learn and be open minded about people. Thank God he gave me my son because mentally, he made me ten times stronger, to make me more empathetic, to make me more personable, to be able to slow down and not just think ‘go, go, go’ and really appreciate daily life. I owe my son the world because he makes me be better.”
She extended her indoor career another five years, competing in Puerto Rico, Poland, and on the 2015 U.S. Pan American Games team, until she had to return home full-time to retain custody of Tavoi. The career move was not an unwelcome one. Fonoimoana had always known that beach was the long game. Being a full-time mom in the United States simply expedited her path.
As it has gone throughout her athletic life, it didn’t take long for Fonoimoana to adjust. She qualified in six of seven AVPs in 2018 with Alexa Strange and Pri Piantadosi-Lima, won a NORCECA in Punta Cana with Molly Turner, with whom she also took third in p1440 Huntington Beach. In the second tournament of 2019, she made her first Sunday, finishing third in Austin with Martin. She piled up five more NORCECA medals, the final two of which were gold, with Quiggle, putting her on the international route she has set her goals on this upcoming year.
“I knew that I wanted to play FIVB, but I was new to the beach game, I needed to figure it out,” she said. “My first year it was ‘Ok, get your feet wet with the AVP. Figure that out. Figure out the travel, how to get it paid for. If you can get to FIVBs, great, if not, get to as many internationals as you can.’ This year I want to get into three- and four-stars.
“I’ve watched my uncle [Eric Fonoimoana] and several other family members go through this exact same thing and I feel like I have enough experience on my back that I know I can get my feet wet and see where I am.
“If I need to, I’ll choose an FIVB over an AVP right now because I need to push myself and see different kinds of volleyball. You need to see every level, you need to see Olympians, you need to get your butt kicked.”
How much Fonoimoana will get her butt kicked remains to be seen. It’s not something that has happened much over the course of her 27 years, but she’s open to the possibility. She knows that it’s the right path, not necessarily the easiest one and that, above all, that is the example she wants to set for her 7-year-old boy who has already taken quite a bit after mom.
“I want him to be better than me,” she said. “I want him to have more opportunity than me. I have to build that path and if I show that discipline, everything I do in that aspect is for him. My why is Tavoi. I teach him all the time it’s free to be kind.”