This Cancun Bubble appears to be the personification of all things luxury: The clear, teal water. Hot sun overhead. Peacocks and iguanas and all other manner of wildlife trolling around the campus. Half the time, while watching the livestream, you expect to catch a player or two sipping a margarita, or a beverage out of a coconut. Heck, even the hotel’s name, The Grand Oasis, suggests these past three weeks have been an extended beach vacation, a summer camp for the FIVB’s best.

It is, as you might expect, quite the facade.

What’s inside is much different. What’s inside is the pressure of two years of an Olympic race, mounting with each event, each loss, each opportunity to pass the team in front of you. Practices are taut. Matches can become joyless, the thoughts of the Olympics slipping away with a single error dominating their minds.

“It’s intense out here,” Tri Bourne said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “There’s a lot of teams, you’re walking around and we’re around all these other teams all day long and you can see the highs and lows people are going through out here as they realize their Olympic dreams — they’re either making steps towards qualifying or not. It’s crazy.”

He should know. Bourne is in one of the tightest Olympic races possible, going blow for blow with fellow Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. Despite back-to-back ninth-place finishes, the same results as Dalhausser and Lucena, Bourne’s deficit has only grown, from 40 points to 160, with one event remaining in the bubble and two more after.

Yet Bourne is arguably as calm as he has been in the previous year or two. The extended, COVID-induced off-season was a rough one, at times. He readily admits that he and Trevor Crabb weren’t playing well, losing some puzzling matches in miniature tournaments in Hermosa Beach, dropping a country quota prior to Doha.

In the bubble, though, Bourne and Crabb are coming alive. They’ve knocked off almost every top team in the world: Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, Evandro and Bruno, Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai, Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. They played Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, winners of both Cancun events, as close as any, losing 19-21, 19-21 in the second event.

“We just need to tighten up the screws on those things,” said Bourne, who will begin the third event in the main draw. “We just need to make adjustments at the right time, when to go for your serve, when not to, when to stop chasing and run plays and let them come to you and make them make perfect shots.

“I don’t think we could learn as much in a year back home as we are out here. It’s been a good experience but it’s a grind. It’s embracing the fact that you asked for this pain, you asked for this grind, because it’s what you love to do and that’s how I think of this bubble. It’s a grind.”

Here he is reminded by his former coach, Evie Matthews, to remain grateful for grinds like this. Matthews has been here before. He’s felt this tension. He was at the helm when Bourne and John Hyden barely missed out on qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. Now he’s in a similar position as the coach for Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman, who are ranked in the top 10 in the world yet need to pass two American teams — Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes — to qualify for the Olympics.

“Coming here, you gotta deal with the elements,” Matthews said. “It’s not like you need to switch everything up but we’re in it for three weeks and you have two more tournaments left and you can feel the anxiety from other teams. It’s almost like you got robots out there practicing and working out but you just gotta take it one play at a time and it’s easier said than done for sure but I like the way we’re playing. I like our mentality. We may need to make a few adjustments heading into this third one for sure.

“We were practicing certain things coming into this but then you come in here and you have this swirly wind and it’s ‘Wow, ok, all bets are off. We can’t necessarily do that.’ It’s just making those adjustments and you do the best you possibly can. The most important part is the next point, the next play. Our job is going to continue after the Olympics, too. You try not to make that moment bigger than it is.”

The final tournament begins with Wednesday’s qualifier. Neither Bourne nor Matthews will need to compete, though Americans Claes and Sponcil and Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner will each need to win one match to make main draw. The final main draw starts on Thursday. One last tournament in the bubble.

“We’re so lucky and gifted to be in this bubble, to play in the wind and the heat and to play tournaments before the Olympics,” Matthews said. “Obviously it’s hard. You’ll learn the most about yourself in these critical moments. We’re in a bubble, there’s critical moments every second.”

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