SOFIA, Bulgaria — It was only supposed to be a month. Just a few weeks for DJ Klasnic to see some old friends in Florida, to spend some time in his favorite place on Earth, to play a little beach volleyball. Then he’d return home, to Novi Sad, Serbia.
But no. He couldn’t do that. Not with tournaments suddenly popping up all over the state. Not with somewhere to compete every single weekend.
“This was a good level and if I go back, I don’t have anybody to play with, so let me have some experience here,” Klasnic said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So I decided to stay more, and so I moved my stay from one month, then I decided to stay for three months, to six months, and things just started to work out for me.”
Soon, Klasnic was established as one of the top defenders in the state of Florida, behind only Nick Lucena and Rafu Rodriguez. He won tournaments with Ricardo. He won tournaments with Marciniak. He made the finals of a tournament with Logan Webber, and won a big money New Year’s tournament with Andy Benesh.
Soon, he was being called into practice with Phil Dalhausser and Lucena.
Klasnic? A Serbian? Playing with Ricardo, one of the greatest blockers who’s ever lived, and sparring with Dalhausser, another all-time great in this game?
“I call it beach volleyball heaven,” Klasnic said. “People say California, but Florida has the most tournaments, and the passion there for volleyball is what brings me there every year. I see average players from the beach being motivated to get to the AVP, from AAA to open, being motivated to jump serve. That passion is something that doesn’t exist in my country. In Serbia, beach volleyball is a joke. There’s no passion, there’s no motivation there. Beach volleyball is something small. In Florida, beach volleyball is a lifestyle. When I was in Florida, there was maybe 10 days I didn’t play. That passion is something I want to take home to people here.”
Taking that passion to Serbia is, as you may be able to guess, no easy task.
In Serbia, indoor volleyball rules; beach is, at best, a hobby, at worst, a joke that doesn’t land.
Yet there may be no individual better suited to improve the level of the game in Serbia than Klasnic.
He’s just 25 years old, yet he’s the owner of the first and only international medal in Serbia history, when he and Lazar Kolaric emerged from the qualifier in Mersin, Turkey to claim bronze. Along the way, they beat Swiss top defender Mirco Gerson; France’s No. 1 team, Quincy Aye and Youssef Krou; Russia’s No. 2 defender Ilya Leshukov; Germany’s No. 3 team, Philipp Bergmann and Yannick Harms; and Estonia’s top pair, Kusti Nolvak and Mart Tissar.
“That was crazy for us, we didn’t expect it,” Klasnic said. “We tried something new, Kolaric was a libero, and he was blocking. We ended up fourth in two one-stars, one in France and one in Cypress, and after that we played a few more tournaments, and in China we beat (Czech Republic’s Ondrej) Perusic and (David) Schweiner, and now they’re going to the Olympics. That’s a big difference for our teams: We’re at one-stars and they’re at the Olympics.”
Which begs the question: How does Serbia, how does Klasnic, make the same rise as Perusic and Schweiner?
A little bit of that Florida passion.
Klasnic almost gave up, not too long ago. He’s studying software engineering. Hedging against beach volleyball with a legitimate skillset that can make legitimate money. Yet there he was, sitting next to Phil Dalhausser after practice one day, and “he says to me ‘You should get a green card.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah? Why?’ And he says ‘To play AVP, it’s going to be really good,’” Klasnic recalled. “And I said ‘Yeah? Are you sure? You think I’m good enough?’ And then when he told me that he believes, it just clicked in me.
“If somebody that experienced, with that much success as Phil, if he believes, in that moment, I was like ‘He’s right. I can compete with these guys.’ After that, I competed with Andy (Benesh) and we had some good runs. That was the trigger for me to come back more motivated. It’s still hard. Every day I’m trying to figure out my plans, how to continue and where to go to continue improving, but it’s just important to have that goal that keeps you on the right track.”
Now his goal — and it is a legitimate one — is the Olympics. Klasnic and Serbia have qualified for the final round of the Continental Cup, where 16 federations will compete for one Olympic spot to represent Europe. It is a tall task, and an unlikely victory. Yet it provides everything Klasnic and a federation needs to take the next step: A lofty goal, and hope.
“Once you see that you can have some success, that those teams you watch on TV aren’t that much better, that motivates you even more,” Klasnic said. “I always thought ‘Wow those players are so amazing!’ I grew up watching Phil and Ricardo and Emanuel (Rego) and Todd Rogers, I remember those legendary fights between them, and then this year I got to practice with Phil and Nick and Ricardo, and seeing you can compete with them — they’re still the best, of course — but competing with them, knowing you can give them a good game, that’s something that gives you so much motivation.
“They’re not aliens, they’re humans who just work hard to be where they are, and I think we can keep working and growing.”