Traci Callahan was a quitter. She’ll be the first to admit it, too, openly and without prodding.
“I quit. I’m a quitter,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “That’s what I do. I’m not kidding. In 2015, I quit. I let the circumstances of life take away from this inner dream. I feel like I was born to play beach volleyball. This is a part of my life’s path. I stopped that in 2015.”
It’s strange that it was 2015 that did it. Callahan — then Traci Weamer — was on the heels of a successful 2014 season in which she and Emily Stockman made all five main draws in which they competed, with a career-high fifth in Salt Lake City. One match was all it took. At a rainy, soggy AVP New Orleans, Callahan and Tealle Hunkus matched up with April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings. An indomitable team at the time, but one that Callahan had hung with before.
Not in 2015.
“We get our asses handed to us,” Callahan said of the 11-21, 10-21 loss in New Orleans. “I was like, ‘These two women are going to go back to their coaches, they’re going to keep getting better. I’m going to go back to the South Bay and I’m going to call two girls to play with me, and we’re going to have to figure out a schedule.’ There’s no direction, I don’t even know how to get better.”
So she didn’t. She quit, abandoning the life path she knew she was meant to pursue, in favor of, well, she had no idea what she was going to do next. A friend had told her about this hike in Northern Spain, called the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage leading to the shrine of the apostle of Saint James the Great. Callahan had a few thousand bucks and an idea of what her next phase of life would look like. Raised in a Christian household in Upland, Calif., she was going to dedicate her life to service. The Camino, then, would be her opportunity to find herself spiritually, while also abandoning Western ideals of consumerism and commercialism, all of which would precede a life of service in West Africa.
“You just take yourself, a backpack, and your passport,” she said. “You stop at these little hostels for pilgrims called Albergues, and you go from town to town, walking.
“So I got on the Camino and I said ‘Ok, I’m not going to stay at the Albergues, that’s for people who need electricity and hot water. I’m going to camp and I’m going to do it the right way.’
“After the first day, all I wanted was a glass of wine and a hot shower. I realized that, that’s not me. I thought it was me, I wanted it to be me, but that’s not me. It was a journey of self-discovery.”
That journey didn’t end on the Camino, either. She thought coaching might have been for her, studying under Brooke Niles at Florida State. But that wasn’t quite right. She became certified to teach yoga. Not it. She worked on a bee farm and an organic farm. Nope, nope.
“I had all different types of experiences,” she said. “Then I met a man (Matt Callahan) who would become my husband, and we were talking about bucket-list stuff, and what we’d like to do, and I was teaching yoga and coaching. I was kind of directionless. I told him I always wanted to be a defender on the world tour, but I never would have said it out loud. I thought it was embarrassing. If I were looking at myself from an outside perspective I would have been like ‘This average blocker who doesn’t move that fast wants to be a defender on the world tour? This poor girl.’ I was super embarrassed to say it.”
Matt knew enough about athletics. A former quarterback for Arkansas who did a brief stint with the Miami Dolphins, he knew the small window in which the human body has to perform athletically at the highest level. If being a defender on the world tour is what Traci wanted to do, then that’s what she should do. But she couldn’t go halfway. If she was going to do it, it had to be all in. No more sipping on 40-ounce beers after tournaments. No more being out of shape for AVPs. No more half-in, half-out.
“When I came back this time, I just put forth the effort,” Traci said. “This jar right here is full of the tears I’ve cried in the last two years. That’s how difficult this has been. But I just said ‘I’m going to keep going. This is stupid, but I’m going to keep going.’ It was the persistency and the belief, and people just come into your life.”
At first, nobody, save for Matt, came into her life. Nobody was willing to take a shot on the 31-year-old — Traci is now 33 — who had disappeared from volleyball, only to return at a different position she had never played.
“I couldn’t find a partner,” she said. “Literally, I couldn’t even get someone to play with me in a CBVA.”
Slowly, however, individuals began trickling in. She met her coach, Evie Matthews, through Bobby Jacobs, a beach player down in Newport with whom Traci had been longtime friends. Through Matthews, she was introduced to her trainer, Mykel Jenkins, who also works with John Hyden, Tri Bourne, Stockman and Kelley Kolinske.
Carly Wopat was the first to give Callahan the green light to defend full-time. Together, they made the final four main draws of the 2019 AVP season, building momentum into what was appearing to be a promising 2020. Then it all came undone again. Wopat sought a new partner. Covid ensured nothing would be normal.
“I constantly had these conversations — I don’t know if it’s with God, or life, or the Devil — but it’s this conversation where I feel like I keep getting these things thrown at me, whether it’s injuries, or personal stuff, or partnership stuff, or sponsorship stuff, just these things: ‘Are you sure you still want it? This is going to be hard,’” Callahan said. “And I’m like ‘F*** you!’ I’m going to keep going through no matter what you throw at me. Oh, Covid? I’m going to keep going. You can throw whatever you want at me.’ Because I was a quitter, I have to go above and beyond now to not quit when life wants me to quit.”
Where 2015 Traci Weamer may have quit, the 2020 Traci Callahan doubled down. She partnered with Crissy Jones, a precocious blocker out of Cal Poly who had finished third in AVP Hermosa Beach in 2019. She didn’t rest, waiting for the AVP to announce its schedule before training. She did double-days, practicing in the morning, driving to Jenkins’ garage gym immediately after, not knowing if there would be anything to train for anyway.
It didn’t matter. Because she knew, with a certainty begat from that weeks-long pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago, that this is what she is meant to do.
“I took myself out of the sport,” she said. “I did that to myself. I didn’t have the strength to be able to handle just how hard it is. In order to get the strength to come back in, knowing how much harder it was going to be, I had to have gone on a journey like that.”
It paid off. All of it — the journey, the double-days, the insufferable hours in Jenkins’ sweltering gym. Her and Jones were the only team during the AVP Champions Cup to begin in the qualifier and make all three main draws. She matched a career-high fifth-place finish, six years after making the quarterfinals for the first time. The only teams they lost to made at least one finals appearance in the three-week series.
“I want to squeeze the most out of every opportunity and every single moment and I can overdo it sometimes and not give myself enough time to recover,” she said. “For me, you only get so much time. We’re so limited. You have to go full reckless abandon. Otherwise, what are you doing?”
For Callahan, that answer is easy. She’s still training, even if there might not be another event to play in 2020. She’s still hitting the gym. Still putting in sessions with Matthews and Jenkins. Whatever comes next, she’ll be ready.
Traci Callahan has “quit quitting.”