SANDCAST: Part I of Travis Mewhirter’s volatile, uncertain, adversity-filled travels to Doha

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Adam Roberts and Travis Mewhirter at the Doha one-star. Photo/FIVB

Perhaps the strangest, wildest three weeks of my life are over now, the flights — 41 hours of them — finished, bubble life complete, quarantine over. I’m back in my house in Hermosa Beach, which I’ve been gone for longer than I’ve actually lived in it.

The first day home from any travel is always strange. The WHOOP recovery device I wear on my wrist still thinks it’s Friday, while I write this on a Saturday morning. I’ve only slept five hours in the past 60 or so, due mostly to a combination of adrenaline, caffeine, and an inability to sleep on planes. I’ve been on four different aircrafts of varying sizes in the past 26 hours alone, the first in a time zone 11 hours forward, the next 8, then 7, then, finally, home.

With all that has been, and still is, going on in the world, it would not have taken much of a genius to guess that traveling across the planet to play in the first FIVB event in almost exactly a year would have been quite a story to tell.

There is no precedent for much in life anymore, as we all try to navigate a strange new world of masks and vaccines and bubbles and quarantines, attempting to move forward in life with little clue as to how to do so in a somewhat normal fashion.

A motif emerged as we prepared for the Doha one-star, a line I heard daily: “Well this is going to make for one heck of a story.”

People were saying this before Adam Roberts and I were even close to leaving for Doha, the guinea pig test event put on by the FIVB, the barometer to determine if it would actually be feasible to pull off multiple four-star events prior to the Olympic Games.

This story, part one of three on a wild two weeks of traveling, then, will not begin in the Doha bubble, but well before it. It’ll begin on a wet and rainy Saturday, 10 days before the qualifier.

It’ll begin where this entire trip very nearly ended.

It is wet and rainy when Adam Roberts and his fiancé, Jade Race, and I pull up to the parking lot in Gulf Port, Florida.

“Standard Florida,” JD Hamilton, my good friend with whom I’m staying for the first three days of my Florida training week, tells me. “Beautiful all week, crap weather for the tournaments.”

Adam and I are registered for a Beach Bums event, a tune-up tournament to get a few competitive reps together. It’s been 13 months since we’ve played together, winning a bronze medal in the Cook Islands. Unbeknownst to us as the time, it was the penultimate event of the FIVB season.

The initial matches in Gulf Port aren’t so much volleyball as they are just a sloppy mess of attempting to keep the ball off the sand. The wind and rain whips around, doing whatever it wants with the ball. It’s ugly.

We win our first match, and play almost immediately after. Adam’s quiet, which isn’t unusual. He’s intense in tournaments, easily the most competitive person I know. He takes his first warm up swing of the match. He lands, looks at his feet, puts his hands on his hips, purses his lips. He’s doing a mental calculus. I look at him and wait. He crosses his arms.

“I’m done,” he says.

The abruptness of it is startling. Most guys will take a few more jumps, test whatever it is that’s bothering them, talk it out. Adam’s been doing this for a long time. He played in his first AVP in 1998. He knows his body. His calf tweaked out on that warm-up jump. The same thing happened not too long ago, and he pushed it, which kept him out for a few weeks. With our flight scheduled to leave for Doha in five days, he’s not going to make that same mistake again.

“We’re done,” he says. “Sorry.”

He walks away, into the rain.

At 45 years old, this might be the first sign that Adam David Roberts, who does not have a gray hair anywhere on his perfectly groomed head or face, whose mind and body is as sharp as a tack, ages like the rest of us.

I do the math in my head: We leave in five days. We still haven’t practiced. Our one rainy and windy and ugly match was exactly zero help in getting comfortable playing with one another again. We’d recently, with no real explanation, been moved back into the qualifier which, at the moment, is stacked.

I wonder, for the first time, if it’s really the best idea to play in a single-elimination qualifier halfway around the world, with little to no training and an undiagnosed injury. Throughout the rest of the day, virtually everyone will ask if we’re still going.

“I think so,” I tell them.

In truth, I don’t really know.

There’s a parable I love. About a man determined to prove that God is real, once and for all. A hurricane is coming to town, and the people are evacuating. He’s determined to stay.

“God will save me,” he says, as the people leave town, until it’s just him left, and one final man with a car. The man drives past, asking if he’d like a ride.

“No,” he replies. “God will save me.”

The man in the car shrugs, goes on his way.

The hurricane worsens, and our man runs up to the roof of his building, as the roads flood. A boat comes by, and the captain offers a ride.

“No,” our man replies once more. “God will save me.”

The captain shrugs, goes on his way.

The flood is bad now, and our man is going under. A helicopter comes into sight and hovers overhead. It drops a rope, a final lifeline for the man to grab hold.

“No,” he replies again. “God will save me.”

The helicopter flies on, and our man dies shortly after.

When he gets to heaven, he asks God why he didn’t save him. God, exasperated, says to the man: “I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”

The point of the story, of course, is that God — or the universe, or fate, or whatever you want to call it — will send us signs to help guide our decisions. It’s up to us to make the right decisions, to interpret the signs and read them correctly.

I will think about that parable a lot over the next several days. Athletes are constantly straddling the line between perseverance and grit, when to push through an ache or pain and when to rest, when to take a gamble and when to wait for more opportune timing.

I will take a good, hard look at the mounting signs that will be presented before me, and I’ll wonder, almost constantly: Am I really supposed to go on this trip to Doha?

Or is this, in the words of a good friend of mine, just a healthy dose of good adversity?

FIVB Cook Islands 1/81/2020-Travis Mewhirter
The last time Adam Roberts and Travis Mewhirter played together, at the Cook Islands one-star FIVB photo

Sunday, February 14, 9 days before the qualifier

In St. Petersburg, Fla., I am thousands of miles from my home and my wife, Delaney. But if there is one other place in the world that feels like home, it is in an olive green house in St. Petersburg.

I’m staying, as many beach volleyball players regularly do, at JD Hamilton’s house, with Summer, his lovely wife, and 2-year-old son, Maverick. His is a revolving door of beach bums like myself: Jeff Samuels, John Schwengel, Pete Connole, Evan Cory, and Ian Bicko, among others, all stayed there for extended periods of time last summer. Christian Honer just crashed for a few days. Will Rodriguez, a lovable kid and up-and-coming talent, just moved in. Last fall, I practically did, too, staying there for three weeks, playing tournaments with JD from Nashville to Clearwater.

He’ll never ask for a thing in return, JD. So long as Maverick, is ok with you, and you respect Summer — and she respects you back — all he wants is your genuine friendship.

There will be a day when I tell JD’s story, which is one of the most remarkable I know. Today is not that day. But a little bit of context will do: I played my first AVP qualifier with JD. New Orleans of 2015. We were terrible, but God, did we love this game. We were obsessed. We road-tripped up and down Florida, trading stories about our dichotomous lives, one from a suburban farm town in Maryland, the other in the drug- and alcohol-filled deep south of Mobile, Ala. College was more expectation than accomplishment for me. JD recently became the first Hamilton to earn a degree.

I am simply following the line of my family before me.

JD is carving a new world for his.

We’re as different as two people can be, yet JD and Summer are unquestionably family to me.

When he gets home from taking Summer out for an afternoon celebrating Valentine’s Day, leaving Maverick with Will and I, he declares that he has to show me something, a game he made up, to help Will with his ball control.

It’s called Swingset Volleyball, and it is exactly what it sounds like: Volleyball played over the swingset in JD’s backyard. The rules are archaic, childlike. Boundaries have been set by Maverick’s toys. If the ball hits the back of the house, you can play it. If it goes over the fence, you have to retrieve it, through the dog poop and all.

If Maverick is ever on the court, you must protect the kiddo.

JD explains all of this as we — Summer, Will, JD and I — play a few practice games. Then it starts to drizzle, and the yard is quickly turning into a muddy, slippery swamp. We don’t care. We’re running, jumping, swatting, laughing. Maverick’s riding his miniature bike through the middle of the court. We’re out there for 45 minutes or so, covered in mud and sweat and rain.

Enormous children, all of us. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing volleyball in a long time, the purest form of it, too: Just picking up a ball, making up a few rules, and playing a game.

 

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Monday, 8 days before the qualifier

We’re going out to dinner.

Adam, Jade, and his mom and uncle Greg, who are in town between dance showcases in Jacksonville and Phoenix with their company, Showstopper. Adam’s family has built an impressive empire of a business, the biggest dance showcase company in the United States, expanding from throwing a few speakers in the back of a van to renting out convention centers for weeks at a time.

Before we leave to pick them up, Adam walks into my room, wants to talk for a minute.

“An update,” he says. “The calf isn’t feeling as good as I thought it would.”

I cannot remember the specifics of what he says, but the overall point was this: He won’t be able to practice, at the earliest, until Saturday, when we’re in Doha. We’ll essentially be flying around the world totally blind, without a single rep together since January of 2020, unsure how his calf will respond to playing a full match.

“You don’t have to decide right now,” he says. “Take some time. Think it over.”

My gut reaction is an immediate no. Currently, we’re in the same bracket as Russian Igor Velichko, Oleg Stoyanovskiy’s first partner and the 2018 FIVB Rookie of the Year, who has won four-stars and logged wins over virtually every top player in the world.

Flying blind into that storm does not seem like a great idea.

But I do what Adam asks: I think on it. I text my personal beach volleyball executive board: Tri Bourne, John Mayer, Delaney, and Jordan Cheng.

What would they do?

Compete or stay home?

We return from dinner to where Adam’s currently living in downtown St. Petersburg, in a hilariously eclectic volley house. There’s John Sutton, a brilliant businessman and beach volleyball enthusiast, the guy who rented out the epic house on 19th street in Hermosa Beach this summer and offered up rooms for Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser. If there was a party this summer that included beach volleyball players, Sutton almost certainly hosted it. His girlfriend, Violet Slabakova, lives there, as does her partner, Aleksandra Wachowicz, who plays for Poland and has qualified for a handful of four-stars and nearly made main draw at the Vienna Major in 2019. They won Saturday’s tournament in Gulf Port.

Rounding out our bunch is Jade, Adam’s fiancé and a decent player in her own right. She took third in Saturday’s tournament, with Bri Civiero, a former Tampa beach player who went 62-0 in her final two seasons at Bishop Moore High School.

So, yeah, we like beach volleyball in this house.

I take a walk to Publix and call Cheng, who coaches Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. What would he do?

“Well,” he says, “why wouldn’t you go?”

I can’t lose points playing in this event.

There is no opportunity cost for me going; I’m not missing anything back home, or a big tournament I could otherwise play. It’s literally my job to immerse myself in this game. To get a look at Doha before the four-star, to see what the players will have to experience, will be invaluable when I cover the four-star.

“What,” he asks, “do you really have to lose?”

Travis Mewhirter China 11/3/2019
From left, at dinner in China, Angela Lobato, Amaranta Navarro, Kelly Claes, Jordan Cheng, Sarah Sponcil, Travis Mewhirter, Majo Orellana

Tuesday, 7 days before the qualifier

With the decision not yet made if we’re going or not, we take all the necessary precautions required to travel, one of which is a COVID test no more than three days prior to our arrival in Doha. Timing this is a bit tricky, since the travel from the U.S. to Doha includes about 15 hours of flying, another few — at least — in layovers, and an 8-hour time jump. Basically, we have to get tested the day before we leave. But it can’t just be any test; it must be a PCR test.

So we need a rapid PCR test on Tuesday. Nothing else will work.

Months ago, this would have been an issue, as testing was still relatively new, and scheduling one on the exact day you needed it was difficult. But testing’s a normal aspect of life now, and there’s an Urgent Care up the street that does rapid PCR tests for free if you have health insurance.

Easy enough.

This Urgent Care, however, does not take walk-ins. We need an appointment, which is fine. We schedule one for 2:55, after I train and lift. Training is great. Lifting is great. We head over to Urgent Care at 2:50, walk in and…the power goes out. The office is dark, the ladies kind of confused. The rapid tests require electricity to process the results.

We have to go somewhere else.

Our first COVID circus has begun.

In my head, I wonder if the calf was the man offering a ride in the parable, and the upcoming COVID circus is the boat.

They point us to another Urgent Care 15 minutes down the road that also does rapid tests. When we arrive, they’re ready for us. Only there’s one problem: Their rapid tests are not PCR tests. We need a PCR test.

This Urgent Care then points us to another, 15 minutes down the road from there.

They don’t have any rapid PCR kits left. But they know a place that might. BayCare, half an hour down the road, is usually fully supplied. At this point, it’s BayCare or bust, our last lifeline.

They’re out.

But the lady at the desk is an angel. She makes a few calls. There’s another BayCare half an hour down the road from there, and they have two left. She reserves them for us. The timing, of course, is tricky, because why wouldn’t it be? We didn’t budget on a rapid test taking all afternoon, and we have PT appointments to work out the bodily kinks before we sit on a plane and in airports for more than 24 hours.

Adam drives half an hour back, drops me off, then drives back to BayCare to take his test. He Ubers home, leaves the car, and when my PT appointment is finished, I Uber to BayCare. I take my test.

We’re both negative.

We’re cleared to go.

In about 12 hours, we won’t be.

Wednesday, 6 days before the qualifier

Sixteenth Street in Hermosa Beach has become somewhat famous in the last year or so, becoming the unofficial, yet now sort of official, training grounds for the top teams in the United States. On any given morning, you’ll find April Ross and Alix Klineman training with Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, Sean Rosenthal and Avery Drost practicing against Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb going repping it out with Miles Evans and Bill Kolinske, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske scrimmaging Sara Hughes and Emily Day.

It’s amazing to be around.

It’s what LT Treumann is attempting to replicate in St. Petersburg.

Treumann made his mark in Southern California in 2019, putting together elite training groups before 16th Street became the hub. During COVID, he moved back to Florida, buying an ownership stake in a training center called BeVolley. It isn’t located on any of the gorgeous South Florida beaches, yet it is undoubtedly the best place to play in the area. The sand is deep, nets firm, and you don’t have to negotiate court time with passerby wanting to play pickup.

Already, he’s attracted a high-level men’s group. If 16th Street is the varsity training center, this is the JV squad, comprised of lower main draw and upper-tier qualifier talent: Andy Benesh, Logan Webber, Jeff Samuels, Caleb Kwekel, JD Hamilton, Will Rodriguez, Joe Osmani, Christian Honer, Brad Connors. Pretty much everyone, with the exception of Rafu Rodriguez and Piotr Marciniak, who is winning tournaments in Florida on the men’s side is training at BeVolley with Treumann.

This is where I’ve trained the previous two days, and it’s where I’m training today, my final day in Florida, before Adam and I hop on a 14-hour flight to Doha. Typically, during practice, I’ll keep my phone on airplane mode, so there’s no distractions. But this isn’t exactly a typical practice, and this trip, thus far, has been anything but typical.

I check my phone at a water break, and I have a missed call, voicemail, and two text messages from the FIVB.

“Your visas are delayed,” he tells me when I call him back. “You cannot leave for Doha tonight. The earliest you can leave is Friday, to arrive on Saturday.”

Is this the helicopter offering the last ride out from the hurricane?

I call Adam, tell him the news. He begins working on changing our flights. While he’s changing the flights, I’m doing the math in my head: The qualifier is supposed to be Monday; we’re now arriving on Saturday night; we can’t leave the hotel until we get a negative test upon arrival in Qatar, which could take until Sunday evening.

We may not get a single practice in before we play a single-elimination qualifier, jet-lagged from an 8-hour jump, on legs that would have been jammed on an airplane and sitting lethargic in a hotel room for more than a day.

I finish practice, much of it with an absent mind. Instead, I’m reviewing everything that’s happened thus far: Adam’s calf, getting bumped back into the qualifier, the delayed visas, the lack of practice.

I have nothing to lose, sure, but still: Is this the best idea?

I ask Andy, who has become a close friend in the past few months, what he would do. He played with Adam for a full season. If Adam thinks he’s going to be at least 85 percent, he says, we should go. Adam knows Adam’s body better than anyone, and if he’s confident, he’ll be fine. And besides, we don’t do all this training to compete in little weekend smoker tournaments in Florida, do we?

No.

No we don’t.

We train for AVPs and FIVBs.

We train for tournaments like Doha.

Adam Roberts-LT Treumann-Travis Mewhirter
Adam Roberts, LT Treumann and Travis Mewhirter at BeVolley in Florida

Thursday, 5 days before the qualifier

We’re on our way to the final practice at BeVolley before we — hopefully, maybe — depart. Adam’s going to test out the calf today. See how it feels. Get a few touches that may actually be our last touches before we compete in the qualifier.

“No matter what,” I tell him in the car, “We’re going to Doha.”

He smiles, big and wide, lets the wheel go for a second, clapping his hands fast and quiet like a child would. It is this small moment that explains almost everything you need to know about Adam.

He’s 45 years old and been competing on the AVP and FIVB tours for longer than some of the current players have been alive. He’s been to 49 countries and played a volleyball tournament in 41 of them. It’s difficult to say when his peak was, though 2011 might not be a bad guess; that’s the year he won an NVL with Braidy Halverson, when the NVL had a full field, as it was the only pro tour in town.

Why, so many people ask, is Adam Roberts still playing beach volleyball?

Most who ask this simply haven’t seen Adam in moments like this in the car, when his childlike zeal for the game and competition is felt and seen with his entire body. He loves competing more than anyone I’ve ever met. There’s a scene in The Last Dance docuseries on Michael Jordan, when Jordan is with his security guards before a game. To pass the time, they make up a game tossing quarters from one end of the room to the other, competing on who can get theirs closest to the wall, gambling, talking trash, betting double or nothing when Jordan loses.

That’s Adam Roberts.

If there’s a way to compete, he’ll compete. He loves weekly trivia nights, and knows more obscure facts and dates, about virtually any topic, than anyone I know. When we were in the Cook Islands last January, he gave me 10-1 odds that I couldn’t correctly name all the flags the FIVB had put up on stadium court. After AVP Hawai’i in 2019, before I left for a NORCECA in Bonaire and he for an invitational in the Maldives, we trained at the University. He and Andy Benesh whipped Chris Vaughan and I for 110 minutes straight, before Vaughan and I won a set at the very end.

“Well at least we won the one that mattered,” I joked to Vaughan.

Almost before I could finish the sentence, Adam, incensed, bet me $100 I wouldn’t beat them again.

We lost, and he loves to remind Vaughan about that story.

Yet unlike many of the ruthless competitors in the world, Adam is unfailingly gracious. It was Adam who offered Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser a free place to stay for a few years in Myrtle Beach, as they began cutting their teeth in the beach volleyball world. It was Adam who took Dalhausser to his first FIVB, in Rio de Janeiro in 2004.

Adam’s the reason so many young talents in this country have been able to travel, to pick up points, to begin establishing themselves as bona fide world tour contenders. Trevor Crabb’s first two FIVBs came with Roberts, in Argentina and Doha in 2014. That same year, Adam took Bill Kolinske to his first NORCECA.

Every player mentioned is now a member of one of the top six teams in the country.

Half of Eric Zaun’s FIVB finishes came with Adam; Troy Field hasn’t played an international event since they split, in 2018. Andy Benesh is now being scooped by one of the best defenders in the country, though he wouldn’t have been able to play a full AVP season if it weren’t for Adam. My first FIVB medal came with Adam in the Cook Islands.

When Tri Bourne and I recorded a podcast with him, we titled it “Beach volleyball’s talent finder.”

It’s strange to me that USA Volleyball doesn’t work with him in a more official capacity. Unofficially, he’s one of our federation’s most valuable assets, the launching pad for so many of the players currently at the top or those on their way there. He loves seeing their success, all of them. He’ll rave about Phil and Nick and Andy as long as you let him. He’ll regale Zaun’s hilarious stories all day and night.

His excitement about my definitive decision to go to Doha, injuries and delayed visas and COVID circus notwithstanding, is infectious. It’s the first time all trip that I do not have a modicum of doubt about this tournament.

Injured or not, there is only one player in the United States with whom I could make this trip, and that’s Adam David Roberts.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Friday, four days before the qualifier

On Friday early afternoon, our flight from Tampa to Philadelphia is perhaps the first step of this trip that goes as planned, without a hitch. We even get exit row seats. We land in Philly at 5, which gives us four hours before our 14-hour flight to Doha takes off.

Around 7, we hand the Qatar Airlines representatives our information, which is quite a bit of information: visas, passports, exceptional entry permits, negative COVID tests, hotel reservations, details of how we’re quarantining and where. They take our information and tell us they’ll be with us in a few; they just need to confirm our information.

Normally, I wouldn’t be too concerned, but given how this trip has gone thus far, I know, with almost dead certainty, that something will go not quite right. The man in front of me, after all, was sent home because of an issue with his visa.

We aren’t sent home immediately, but the amount of time it’s taking for them to review our paperwork is troubling. Half an hour passes when a lady named Marion approaches, our bundle of papers in hand.

“Your quarantine,” she says, “is supposed to be private, yes?”

Well, she explains, on February 15, Qatar changed the rules about foreigners quarantining. You cannot quarantine in a private home — or, in our case, a hotel overseen by a private organization such as the FIVB — unsupervised. When you arrive in Qatar, it must be a supervised quarantine. That’s my understanding, anyway. To be sure you’re behaving, your movements are tracked with an app you must download, which logs your every move and with whom you come into contact.

Adam and I exchange glances. We don’t really know what to say; we didn’t set the quarantine specifics. We just applied for the visas and got our permits and gave them to Marion.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” continues Marion, who is, I must note, an absolute sweetheart, as is every single employee of Qatar Airways, “this is no problem. We just have to email the ministry to get approval.”

“But there is that one percent … ” she continues, trailing off.

It’s now in the wee hours of the morning in Doha. I have no idea what government official could possibly be awake to respond to an email about a pair of American beach volleyball players competing in an event he’s likely never heard of.

“I always knew,” Adam says, “there was a chance we’d get stopped here.”

But we don’t.

Marion returns a short while later, smiling through her mask. We’re good to go, she says. She hands us our boarding passes, even upgrades us to exit row seating. After two weeks of everything going about as wrong as it could possibly go, Adam Roberts and I are cleared for takeoff.

We’re going to Doha.

2 COMMENTS

  1. WOW!! Incredible story telling as usual. Can’t get enough of these types of volleyball chronicles. I always like the name dropping; especially when they’re my hometown boys (Vaughan & Zaun). CANNOT WAIT to hear the rest of the story!!

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