16TH STREET, HERMOSA BEACH — On April 2, James Shaw lost a beach volleyball match he would have lost roughly 90 times out of 100, if not more. It was in a miniature, invitational tournament in Hermosa Beach, against Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, and while, yes, he and Seain Cook had just beaten Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk to get to the semifinals, they were still very much the underdogs.
After Bourne and Crabb, a top-15 ranked team in the word, won, 21-18, 21-16, Shaw was clearly, visibly, outwardly frustrated, disappointed.
“Brah,” Bourne said, “how long have you been playing?”
It’s a scary thing, what James Shaw is doing. Everything he has known for the first 27 years of his life he is leaving behind. His family, a bit of a legendary one in volleyball circles, remains in Northern California. He left a contract with his Italian club in the middle of the season. He took a good look at his stock as a setter on the United States National Team and realized what many do: That nobody is replacing Micah Christensen as long as Christensen wants to set volleyballs.
So he left. Packed up his car and moved to Hermosa Beach, to play a game he’s dabbled in but never really tried, leaving guaranteed money overseas for the life of the beach and guaranteed losses of money domestically.
All of that is quite frightening to Shaw.
That’s exactly the point.
“I told Molly (Turner) and a bunch of friends that I’m going to do a bunch of things that I’m afraid to do,” Shaw said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I’m going to be afraid to move down to Hermosa and devote my life to this, but what I’ve done in the past, avoiding fear has never served me. Feeling that in your chest, and pushing through that, on the other side of that is something really powerful, and that’s where all the joy is in life. You feel that twinge in your chest and you’re like ‘Oh, yes, that’s it. That’s what I need to do.’”
He’s doing it, all right. Six, sometimes seven days a week, Shaw is out there, on the sand. He’s doing it right, too, at least, whatever “right” means according to the professionals who play beach volleyball for a living. Shaw is one of the rare players who has made the move from indoor to beach and wasn’t immediately lost in a strange new world of no team, no coaches, no schedule.
He moved to Hermosa Beach and recreated every piece beach is missing from indoor. Some of this was intentional; some of this was fortuitous, the serendipity that often happens when you begin putting in work and good things simply begin happening to you. He hired a coach, Mark Fishman, and stumbled into a heck of a partner in Cook, whom few in the States have never heard of but who is a fine talent and a perfect fit for Shaw at the moment.
“It’s been surprisingly quick,” Shaw said of his transition thus far. “Going back to November, from Italy, I just cut that season short and decided — I’d been thinking about it for a while and thought ‘Now’s the time.’
“I told myself ‘Alright, I’m going to do it. I’m going to move down there and see what happens. I’m going to get right in the thick of things and it might take me a year just to not look like an idiot.’”
That, in fact, was Shaw’s only goal: “To not look stupid after a year.”
To anybody who knows Shaw, or his family, this probably sounds absurd. Here is a 6-foot-8 setter, who won virtually everything there was to win in high school; got a scholarship to Stanford, the only college he ever wanted to go to; nearly won a National Championship as a sophomore; picked up a contract overseas upon graduation; and was an alternate for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It’s a long way of saying that when James Shaw sets goals, most of which are of the loftiest variety, he hits them.
“The thing people think is sort of crazy, I’ve always set those goals for myself,” Shaw said. “The next audacious one I set for myself was to be an Olympian and that’s the one I’m currently working on.”
Ah, yes, that goal of simply not looking stupid? It has changed. It didn’t take much time. The first beach tournament he played was with Chase Frishman, the 2016 AVP Rookie of the Year. That weekend, Frishman sent me a text: “You’re going to have one heck of a story to write, amigo.”
How many times, though, has the beach volleyball community seen this before? The can’t-miss talent, the indoor star prepared to conquer the beach, only to fizzle out in a haze of ball control and injury problems and just the sheer logic of losing money to play a sport they could do better indoors and not lose money?
That’s why Shaw set his usually preposterously-high bar so low. The majority of recent players who have transitioned from indoor to beach have been older — David Lee, Reid Priddy, Paul Lotman — and at the end, or close to the end, of their careers.
“I’m right in my prime at 27,” Shaw said. “There isn’t really a blueprint for how to do it, so I’m sort of just listening to my body and almost trying to forget that I’m an indoor player.”
He’s a beach guy, now, through and through. In a culture where it can be tough to break into the elite training groups, it took Shaw just a matter of weeks before being called into practices with Taylor Crabb, Schalk and Brunner, Bourne and Crabb, Sean Rosenthal and Avery Drost, Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger.
“Surprisingly, pretty quick, I’m getting in some groups with folks who are down in Cancun right now and I don’t want to say I’m confident in those groups but I at least feel competent, that I can compete with pretty much anybody,” Shaw said. “It’s exciting. I’m fortunate to get the opportunity to play with Taylor and take advantage of those chances. It feels good, it feels good to jump in and say ‘Hey, I belong here.’
“There’s certain things, like every fourth ball I’m going to chuck it, but it’s getting there. It’ll be a process but physically, yeah, I feel pretty much at the level of the top players in the world hopefully. It’s just the rest of the game that needs to catch up.”
Shaw’s year-long goal has been met. He no longer looks stupid. One does not look stupid when playing with Taylor Crabb. So he’s adjusting, moving the goalposts, setting them higher. He’s looking at the international schedule and poking around for partners (Cook competed for Scotland and cannot play for the U.S.). The Olympics were once a goal he set as an indoor player.
Now it’s a genuine pursuit on the beach.
“I didn’t have international in my mind,” Shaw said. “2024 would have been a little early, let’s take it slow on the international stuff, get my feet wet on the AVP, build this year. But with the way everything has gone, I’ve started thinking about getting some international points, throwing my hat into the ring. Just to be good enough and well known enough to get my hat in the ring. So I’m just going to put my head down and keep working hard and see what opportunities come up.”