SANDCAST: Taylor Crabb and the arrival of beach volleyball’s next generation

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Taylor Crabb
Taylor Crabb digs a ball in Cancun/FIVB photo

Jake Gibb had to get up. Couldn’t watch from the restaurant in Ostrava as Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena battled deep into the third set with the Netherlands’ Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot.

He rarely watches other matches, Gibb. Never pulls them up on his phone or laptop. Hell, he never even wants to know what team he’s playing until the morning of his own match. Yet the implications of this otherwise routine pool play bout were too high for even Gibb to ignore.

This was the match that could potentially put him into his fourth Olympic Games, Taylor Crabb’s first. So they sat, all three of them, watching on Crabb’s phone as the Dutch scrambled to tie the score at 13-13 in the third. The tension built during a timeout and only compounded on the first play after, when Boermans was called for a double, giving Dalhausser and Lucena their first match point, leading 14-13.

Which was when Gibb rose and left. Had to grab a coffee. Walk around. Something. Anything to distract himself. So he didn’t see the Dutch narrowly side out twice in a row, slivering a pair of angles around Dalhausser’s block. He didn’t see the mad dash at 15-15, a wild scramble play that put the Dutch up, 16-15. He didn’t see the block that would seal the match and punch his ticket to Tokyo.

Crabb put his phone down and waited, allowing no emotional tells of what had just happened. When Gibb returned, seeing no celebration from Crabb or their coach, Rich Lambourne, he assumed the race was still on.

“Phil won?” he asked.

Then Crabb let it out. Dalhausser and Lucena had lost.

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb were going to the Olympic Games.

That is but a tiny anecdote, a small peek into the perfect alchemy that has made this team, one that features one of the greatest of one generation and the unquestioned best of the next, such a tremendous success.

Here is Taylor Crabb, in the immediate moments after achieving what is considered by many the highest honor in the sport of beach volleyball, and he is not jumping around that restaurant in Ostrava, whooping and hollering for joy. He is not running to Gibb and slapping hands with Lambourne. Instead, he is making a joke, pranking the veteran who, at 45 years old, might just be playing his best volleyball yet.

“It was a pretty cool moment to see his excitement and his emotion in it,” Crabb said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

He could have taken that moment for himself, Crabb. He did, after all, just become the youngest American male to qualify since 2008, when Sean Rosenthal, the player to which Crabb is most frequently compared, made the Beijing Games with a then-32-year-old Gibb. But he didn’t. Instead, he made it a bigger moment for Gibb, and a funny moment for Lambourne.

As he almost inevitably does, Taylor Crabb made the moment about someone else.

Backtrack and listen to any interview, watch any clip, troll all of social media and what you will find is that Crabb invariably shines the spotlight of any of his biggest moments on those around him.

First AVP win? Praise for Gibb.

First FIVB win? Praise for Gibb.

First Olympic qualification? Praise for anyone who has helped him on his rapid rise in this sport.

He’s quiet, Crabb, not drawn to media attention or the trappings of fame. Yet ask him about Gibb or Lambourne and he will go on for minutes at a time. Ask him about his upbringing — or don’t, he’ll likely bring it up on his own — in Hawai’i, and he will point to the Olympians and professionals before him who showed him that becoming a professional player was a very real possibility. Then he’ll transition, unprompted, to laud childhood friends Riley and Maddison McKibbin for what they are doing for the sport.

Ask him about his unusual proclivity for competing in any tournament, anywhere, against any type of competition, and he’ll find a way to offer the highest of compliments: He can learn from everyone he plays, BB or Olympian.

He isn’t too good for anyone.

“Every player is so different, and I just love getting to go out and play with a new person or against someone,” Crabb said. “That just teaches you different things rather than going against the same person, whether it’s Anders Mol or an AVP Next guy. They’re going to be doing something different that you’re maybe not used to. Even though it’s not a team practice, I’m still getting the reps of having to read all these different people, whether it’s grass or four-man or whatever.”

This, in part, is what makes Crabb so perfect for the role many have long assumed he would fill: The face of this next generation of American beach volleyball players. There are, as he will readily point out, a near endless stream of talented players around the globe. Yet there are few who will play in a grass tournament in South Carolina, an AVP Next in Florida, a fours tournament on a Sunday in Hermosa Beach, playing with and against players of all backgrounds and aspirations and levels — and use it all to continue the ascent as one of the best defenders in the world. There are few who would realize their Olympic dreams, yet immediately find a way to use that to build up the AVP.

“For beach volleyball specifically, everybody talks about the Olympics,” Crabb said. “That’s the overall goal. But they look past that we have a season. We have a tour. The NBA is more important than the Olympics. To win that championship, and then becoming an Olympian is a bonus.

“Our season gets looked over. Everything is just focused on the Olympics, just get there. That’s what I hope to see change, is that we have our season, our change, and it’s just as important, winning our season, then on top of that, becoming an Olympian. Our season should be just as important.”

Before that season, which begins on August 13, in Atlanta, Georgia, will be the Olympic Games. It will be a different Games than usual, with no Oakley or LuLu House, no rollicking Olympic village. It is, simply, volleyball. Just the way Crabb likes it.

“There’s none of this extra stuff, which, for me, sounds great,” Crabb said. “All there is to do is volleyball.”

In three weeks, Crabb, Gibb and Lambourne will be in Tokyo. They’re skipping the upcoming Gstaad four-star to focus on their Olympic prep, finetuning here, perfecting there. Throughout the leadup to the Games, each day thus far has been at once the same and completely different. It is still just volleyball, yes, but he is now prepping for a stage he has only seen, never felt.

“It’s been wild. Crazy,” Crabb said. “Every day is different for me. Some days, completely nervous. Some days, completely scared, thinking about it. Some days, just already want to be out on the sand playing in that environment. I don’t know how to take it all in yet, but we’ll get there.”

And he’ll likely get there again, and again.

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