SANDCAST: Jordan Cheng, making a career out of “once in a lifetime” opportunities

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SANDCAST 10/7/2020-Jordan Cheng-Sarah Sponcil-Kelly Claes
Kelly Claes, Jordan Cheng, and Sarah Sponcil after winning a p1440 event. (Jim Wolf Photography)

Jordan Cheng had plans. Loose plans, but plans nonetheless. He was going to compete for the Chapman club volleyball team, which he had helped found, then he was going to play professionally overseas.

Then came the first “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Marv Dunphy, the man who had led the United States national team to 197 wins and just 31 losses, one of the most respected coaches in all of volleyball, asked Cheng to come on staff and work with him at Pepperdine.

“I said ‘OK, I’ll play after that,’” Cheng recalled on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I get to learn from one of the best coaches who has ever coached.”

From 2013-14, he learned under Dunphy, though he would never would get around to playing again.

Because soon, the second once in a lifetime opportunity called. This one from the University of California, Irvine. The Anteaters had won four National Championships in the previous eight years — 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013 — and head coach Dave Kniffin wanted him, Cheng, to be an assistant coach?

“This was another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cheng said. “I could play beach afterwards.”

This was the path his parents had wanted for him. Respectable position, safe finances. A career.

“I was the Asian kid who was supposed to get good grades,” he said. “But I played sports and was pretty good at it.”

Good enough to compete in college and get his AAA on the beach, winning CBVAs fairly regularly with former UCLA outside Dane Worley. He could still play.

But he couldn’t. Not if he listened to his gut. Not if he saw the writing that, in his mind, God was putting in big, bold lettering on his proverbial wall: You, Jordan Cheng, are meant to be a coach.

Because within just a few years at UCI, Cheng had a third — or maybe it was his fourth or fifth — once in a lifetime opportunity.

Reid Priddy called. He wanted Cheng to be his coach as he made the transition from indoor to the beach. He wanted to go for the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to do it with Cheng.

“Once Reid wanted to work with me, I said ‘Alright God, I get your point. I think you want me to coach here,’” Cheng said.

Getting a call from Priddy — four-time Olympian, two-time Olympic medalist Reid Priddy — is not exactly getting a call to become a Director of Operations or an assistant coach on a staff full of them. With Priddy, Cheng was a staff of one, in a sport he had never coached, leading an athlete who, well, what did Priddy really have left to learn in volleyball, anyway?

“It’s hard,” Cheng said of coaching the best in the world, who also happens to be 14 years his senior. “I was 28 at the time, my first time at the beach, and it was: ‘How do I coach Reid? How do I tell him about passing? He’s one of the best passers in the world.’

“As soon as I got out of the mindset that I need to tell him things, it was ‘Let’s learn things together, let’s try new things.’”

Cheng, an avid writer in his journal, delved into his own strengths. What can I bring to the table that no other coach can?

“I couldn’t try to compete with the best coaches, like Jose Loiola. He’s got 20 years of beach experience over me,” Cheng said. “I don’t want to be a JV version of Jose. I want to be a varsity version of myself. So what do I bring to the table? What separates me? I think the relational side and ability to learn.”

He also had what few others do: An absolute need to learn. Sink or swim.

Few things beget creativity and drive like a pressing need to improve. For a few months, “I didn’t go outside much,” Cheng said, laughing. He pored over film, breaking down every single winner from the 2018-2019 FIVB seasons, digging into their stats, discovering, from an objective standpoint, the ingredients that produced championship-caliber beach volleyball teams.

“This is what we can figure out: What are the best teams in the world doing?” Cheng said. Rather than tell Priddy, then, what he should be doing, Cheng simply showed him the numbers: This is the percentage winning teams hit; this is their shot-to-swing ratio; this is how and where they serve.

“It brings objective feedback,” Cheng said. “But to be honest, that’s the least of what I feel like I bring to the table.”

***

It’s a year later, after Cheng has worked with Priddy and Jeremy Casebeer, and then Priddy and Theo Brunner. He’s sitting at a table in the USA Volleyball offices, across from Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. Then-director of coaching for USA Volleyball, Tyler Hildebrand, had suggested to Claes and Sponcil, who were at the top of the pack in the race to Tokyo, that they should consider hiring Cheng as their head coach.

Claes and Sponcil run through the gamut of questions, detailing goals, plans, visions. They all seem aligned.

The floor is open for Cheng to ask questions of his own. He has one.

“I know this might sound like a dumb question,” he says, “but why do you want to go to the Olympics? The reason I ask is because if you don’t know why, it’s going to be easy to get burned out, it’s going to be easy to lose direction, it’s going to be tough to enjoy the process.”

Claes is quick to answer. She’s been playing her whole life. She’s always wanted to be a professional athlete, an Olympian. Cheng knows, deep down, that’s not Claes’ why, but he lets it slide for the time being.

Because suddenly Sponcil — gritty, tough, absolute killer Sarah Sponcil — is crying.

“I’m like ‘Whoa, all I did was ask why!’” Cheng recalled of that first meeting. “Me, Tyler and Kelly were like, whoa. Sarah was overwhelmed. She said ‘I don’t know why. I’ve never asked myself that. Everything’s just happening so fast, I graduate college, went on the World Tour, teams are figuring me out, and I need to be better.’

“She had this moment of realization that there’s more to this than volleyball. Both the girls were just so burned out. They had two more tournaments and they were done. And that was a cue to me to invest in them as people, and I think I can do that better than anyone else.”

Many coaches, across the entire spectrum of sport, are just that: They’re coaches. Good at the Xs and Os, strategizing, preparing for everything on the court or field. For Cheng, coach is just a title.

His aspirations are as big and dreamy as any — he wants to be the youngest coach to win a gold medal, and he wants to win four of them — but the volleyball stuff, that’s not what’s most important to him. When he talks about Claes and Sponcil, he points first to their growth as people. Claes is tapping into her faith. Both are journaling. Sponcil is reading, digging into her own psyche, finding her why.

“We’re pretty united, on the same page with the direction we want to go,” he said. “I want nothing more than to go to the Olympics, and I’m going to work my butt off to get there, and all three of us will. But that’s not the end goal. You hear a lot of stories about Olympians, gold medalists, they spend their lives pursuing this end goal, their life’s purpose is winning a gold medal, and then once they achieve it, it’s like ‘Shoot, what now?’ It’s almost like they lose a sense of purpose. It might sound weird but we’re pursuing something more than a gold medal at the Olympics.”

They are well in line to qualify for the Olympics. Ranked No. 10 in the world, Claes and Sponcil are third in the American Olympic race, just 320 points behind Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. Getting to Tokyo, having a bona fide shot at that gold medal, is far from unrealistic.

But again, that’s not the goal, not the big one, anyway.

“I want to be the John Wooden of beach volleyball coaches,” Cheng said. “I want other coaches from other sports around the country if not the world to fly in to watch our practices because they hear about our team’s culture.”

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