Good luck in your search.
You can travel to every tournament, watch every match, pour over film for hours. Good luck finding a single moment on a beach volleyball court in which Delaney Knudsen is not smiling.
She’ll pop up smiling after losing a point, because how fun was that rally? She’ll smile after making an error, because sometimes errors can be funny, you know? She’ll smile after her partner makes an error, because, gosh, what a good idea it was to hit that shot.
It’s a constant, that smile. But don’t allow that joyful demeanor to bely the competitor underneath the 1,000-watt smile and ubiquitous laugh. She’s a winner, Knudsen. Always has been, from the days she practiced with the boys team at Valencia High School to her All-American years at Pepperdine to the career year she’s currently having on the AVP Tour. She’s just on the court for a lot more than wins.
“I think that if you don’t have fun playing this game, then why are you playing this game?” Knudsen said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I don’t really see any other viable reason to be playing professional beach volleyball unless you have fun playing beach volleyball. There’s not enough money in it, there’s not the fame that you’re going to be recognized on the street for playing it. So if you can’t have fun, then why are you doing it? It’s been awesome to play with Katie [Spieler] because she gets that: If it’s not fun, then why are we doing it?”
She has a blast with Spieler, truly. And we’ll get to her in a minute, and the friendship that has blossomed out of their shared love for this game. But Knudsen finds the fun in everything. She’ll laugh wildly at Jess Sykora’s jump-bump kills, and the memory of playing behind Sykora in New York City last season, when they stunned Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan in the qualifier. She’ll beam when recalling the grit and work ethic of Emily Hartong, with whom she qualified in Seattle a few months ago.
But there is something — or dozens and dozens of things — about Spieler that Knudsen loves to her core. It makes sense, too. They grew up playing in the U.S.A. High Performance system together, every other year. They made their first main draw together, in Manhattan Beach of 2014, when they were both teenagers. They’ve got the same mindset, both on the court and off: Let this game, and life, be fun.
“Just being able to laugh and have fun and work hard, which are all my favorite parts of the game, she loves those too, so it feels super comfortable to be out there with someone who has the exact same goals as I do,” Knudsen said.
“I think that just the ability to push my body and to work really hard is my favorite part. I love getting to the end of a rally where you’re sandy and you’ve grinded out a bunch of one-handed scramble plays, and win or lose, I can’t come out of a rally like that not smiling, because just working and leaving it all on the court even in just one rally is my favorite part. We come out on top of most of those because we love that pressure and love that work that kind of gets on people’s nerves.”
Spieler feels the same, too. After finishing 17th in Hermosa Beach earlier this season – a deceptively low finish, as they were the ones who sent Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, eventual semifinalists, into the contender’s bracket with a 21-14, 21-10 win – they met with their coach, who had made an interesting observation. Last year, Spieler had taken a fifth; this year, 12 spots lower.
Yet she was unquestionably happier after this one.
“It was interesting to see what someone else could weigh in on our partnership and just the chemistry we had and just the way we played together and that I could kind of help foster that enjoyment of the game for her just as she was doing for me,” Knudsen said. “I would not have expected that we would have finished the season together but couldn’t be any happier that we are.”
No, it was not the initial plan to finish as a left-side blocker. For the majority of her professional and college career, Knudsen has been a defender. While she’s always been adept at switching sides, she played on the right for most of 2018 with Sykora. Then came Spieler’s call to play Hermosa, and suddenly Knudsen was taking on a new position, a new side, and a style of play that can only be described as grind the other team into the ground.
And then laugh about it.
“If you would have told me I would have ended this season as a blocker I probably would have laughed and been really embarrassed because I don’t really consider myself to be a strong blocker,” said Knudsen, who finished AVP Chicago ranked second among all blockers in blocks per set. “I wouldn’t do it any other way, getting the opportunity to play with Katie and grow my game in such a unique way has been an incredible experience.”
As much as she’s enjoyed the physical learning curve as a blocker, competing with a new but old partner, Knudsen is particularly enamored with the mental strides she’s made, and is making.
“We can be down three points at the end of a set and I’m not worried, because [Katie] wins,” Knudsen said. “She makes those plays at the end and it’s been really cool to learn from her and adapt that into my own game, to know have that internal confidence. People say it all the time: ‘You’re never out of the game, lotta game left, that’s why we play’ but it’s all just words until you feel it. And playing with Katie I’ve been able to feel what that feels like and it’s been incredible.”