It’s May 16, 2018, the eve of Camryn Irwin’s debut as an Amazon Prime broadcaster calling AVP tournaments. She gets a call from the AVP. They inform her that she’ll be doing play-by-play, which is not exactly what she thought she’d be doing.
“OK!” Irwin says. “That’s new!”
“We don’t know what the format is going to look like, we’re just going to figure it out as we go.”
“Ok,” Irwin replies again.
“Don’t screw up. This is our brand.”
Now it’s Amazon on the horn, and it is their turn to tell Irwin that “This is our Amazon brand. Don’t screw up.”
“Ok,” Irwin says one more time. “Here we go. I’m calling play-by-play tomorrow!”
A year and a half later, she’ll recall this experience on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. And she’ll say “talk about fear,” because she’s human, and any human being would be more than a bit intimidated when put into those circumstances. But she did it all the same, and she did it well. She’s still doing it, in fact, and she’s still doing a magnificent job of it, establishing herself as a popular and lovable personality on the AVP and Amazon, because this is Camryn Irwin, and she’s done all of this before.
Fear? No, fear isn’t the AVP and Amazon asking you to do something you know you’re talented at, that you know you’ll figure out, because you’re the queen of figuring things out on the fly.
Fear is when you’re competing in Sweden. You load up on a block. You jump, and, just as you’re about to peak, you feel your back “just release,” Irwin described. “There is nothing supporting me and there was nothing I could do. I landed and my whole spine went thwack. I went back to go serve the next point and I remember tossing it, I went to jump, and I couldn’t breathe.”
This was just two years into Irwin’s professional indoor career after a successful indoor stint at Washington State. It would take a month, informed by mail, for Irwin to find out that she had ruptured her back, that she had absolutely no business playing volleyball after that jump but she did so anyways because volleyball was what Irwin knew and volleyball was where her teammates and friends were. So she finished her season on her broken back, and when she returned home, she figured she’d recover and move onto the next phase of her life: A professional beach volleyball player on the AVP Tour.
Until she began training, and doing so resulted in her losing feeling in her legs.
Irwin is one of those people with enough indefatigable positivity that she labels her injury a “total God thing,” even if, to this day, she cannot sneeze without excruciating pain. Without that injury, she explains, she wouldn’t be spending her summers in the booth with her good friends Kevin Barnett and Dain Blanton. She wouldn’t be spending exponentially more hours in beach volleyball than the players she’s calling, the players she once aspired to be. She wouldn’t have a job she hesitates calling a job because it’s just so much dang fun that it feels wrong to view it anything but a dream.
“It’s literally a dream job, because it’s not just about volleyball, it’s not just about athletes,” Irwin said. “I get to work with two of my best friends and their amazing families on a regular basis. My job is to share your story, so you can impact someone else’s life. That’s the stuff that gets my engine going.”
Irwin was one of the rare collegiate athletes who saw past her career in her respective sport. Even as a successful setter at Washington State with professional prospects down the line, she kindled her passion for storytelling, sacrificing sleep and nights out with her teammates to shoot, edit and produce videos only a handful of people would watch.
“I knew I had this gameplan: I want to tell stories, I want to shape lives,” Irwin said. “I was so driven. But even with that drive in my brain, I was like ‘How in the world do I do this? Where do I even start?’ I’m out from the sticks in Washington State. I grew up on a farm, there’s no network television. It’s not like there’s some guy saying ‘Get an agent, get a head shot.’ I just said ‘Grind it out. Connect with people. Talk to people, and fail 100 times a day and figure it out.’ Still to this day people will ask me how I got to where I am and I say a lot of hard work without knowing the outcome.”
When she returned from Sweden to finish her degree at Washington State, she was able to call football games, learning under coach Mike Leach, one of the finest minds in the sport. So when she’s calling games for ESPN or the Pac-12 Network, she’s doing so with a football education from men like Leach, who is 139-90 in his career with two Pac-12 division titles to his name, and Graham Harrell, the current offensive coordinator at USC who was then the quarterbacks coach at Washington State. The jobs she was working paid $15 apiece; the education she gained continues to pay dividends, mapping out a rapidly ascending career as a broadcaster.
“It was all about building relationships and writing stories on these guys and I was just hoping the Pac-12 would give me a chance and they did,” Irwin said. “There’s no training for this. You just have to be super ballsy, and you have to be OK sounding like an idiot and not knowing what you’re doing and just listen to yourself, critique yourself, be super hard on yourself, and trying to find out what your voice is.”
Her voice as a broadcaster, she knows, will be an ongoing project for the remainder of her career. It’ll evolve, improve, change. But it is her passion for what she does and the people with whom she does it, be it the athletes she’s calling or her colleagues calling with her, is what makes Irwin so good at her job. It’s what allows her to run off four hours of sleep during AVP weekends, nerding out on volleyball by studying her self-made binders. It’s why she can take calls from the AVP and Amazon the night before her long-awaited debut in beach volleyball and know that it’s going to work out fine.
“I was a volleyball player since I was 5-years-old,” she said. “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where beach volleyball wasn’t a thing. I love the indoor game and I love the beach game, but my biggest thing is to be able to help build and represent a brand and a sport that is so cherished to me, especially something that I got to participate on the indoor side in college and overseas for a few years, I feel like it got ripped from me. To be so involved in a sport that is still so dear to my heart and to have that shown, I can’t work hard enough for this sport because I love it that much. The four hours of sleep at night, the stupid binders I make, the relationships — it’s all so genuine to me because I love this game so much and I love all the people in it.
“To get the call from Amazon and the AVP was way more meaningful to me than anybody really realizes.”