TEL AVIV, Israel — Tim Brewster was thousands of miles from his classrooms at UCLA. His seat in his 300-plus-student lectures was empty again, as it had been for the previous two weeks while he was in the Dominican Republic and the Middle East. And yet, while his classmates and peers were in their seats like good students, listening to the professors, taking their notes, studying, Brewster was getting an education of his own, the same unofficial independent study he’d been getting for the previous three years.
It is one thing to learn about the religions of the world, a class he took with that very name. It is entirely another to stroll the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem, to walk the Via Dolorosa, to see the 14 stations of the cross, to touch the Western Wall, to hear the calls for prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque, where Muhammed claimed to have ascended and descended from heaven.
It is one thing to learn of the poverty of countries like Cuba, and to listen to professors discuss the dangers of men like Fidel Castro. It is another to arrive on your first international beach volleyball trip as a 17-year-old in Havana, and to run out of running water one night, lose power for two, be bereft of functional wifi and any means of communication to the outside world, all the while being subjected to misleading government propaganda.
No, Tm Brewster may not be in the classroom as much as his professors may like.
But rest assured, he’s getting an education of his own.
“Definitely more valuable than college,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. And he said this, of course, not from a classroom or anywhere close to it. He said it at the kitchen table in an AirBNB in Tel Aviv, where he played in his fifth one-star FIVB of the year, finishing with a career-high fifth. He said it after eating in Old Town Jaffa, after strolling through the Garden of Gethsemane, after hearing gunshots ring out from war-torn Jordan as he floated in the Dead Sea.
“I’m going to these places that I’ve learned about in school before, which is awesome. I’m getting the real-world experience of it,” he said. “I’m getting to see these cultures and learn a bunch, especially from the people I’m traveling with, because a lot of people I travel with are older. I wouldn’t miss this stuff for the world.
“I took a religion class last quarter and it was all about Christianity, Judaism and Islam and it’s what we saw today, all day. I’ve never really experienced that. It was crazy.”
Talk with Brewster and, aside from the boyish face and the body that hasn’t quite filled out yet, you would be hard-pressed to peg him as a teenager. This season alone, which coincided with his current sophomore year at UCLA, he competed in seven international tournaments. He’s competed against Olympians and AVP champions. He’s been coached by some of the all-time greats. He is 19 yet surrounded by some of the most elite players and voices in the sport.
“It’s weird because these are guys I’ve looked up to for the last five or six years since I was 14 and playing,” he said. “It’s weird that I’m playing against them now. I’m still not there yet but I can see the progress from where I’ve come from and where I’m heading and it’s pretty exciting. It’s really cool, though, getting to play guys at that high of a level and you get to see the things they do well that you don’t.”
At 19, Brewster is considered precocious by U.S. standards in beach volleyball. Nearly every Olympic Games is a testament to the States’ slow-starting developmental system. In 2016, the four United States players – Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson – were surpassed in age only by one. Of the six players on the top three U.S. teams with a legitimate shot at making the Tokyo Games, five are older than 30, and the other, Taylor Crabb, is 26.
And yet there is Brewster, alongside his equally young and aspirational peers in John Schwengel, Miles and Marcus Partain, and Kacey Losik, the few youngsters in the U.S. breaking in before their mid-20s.
This year was a watershed one for all: Brewster made his first FIVB main draw, Schwengel cracked into AVP Hawai’i for his first main draw, Marcus Partain made it in Manhattan Beach, Miles won the AVP Rookie of the Year.
To the United States, they’re young, the babies on tour. To the rest of the world’s 19- and 20- year olds, they’re quite normal.
“There’s not a lot of guys my age who are committed only to beach,” Brewster said. “There’s John Schwengel and I, who are basically the only two who are only playing beach without playing indoor.
“A lot of these (international) kids specialize early, and a lot of these countries have academies. We don’t really have anything like that. I think the high performance does a good job but it’s hard to compete with a country like Brazil who has their kids living in a facility, training year-round.”
And so he has created his own developmental system, both on the court and off. On the court, he trains with USA Volleyball’s high performance program when it’s in session and with Jose Loiola when it’s not. Off the court, he is still figuring out his major at UCLA while seeing a great many of his lectures play out in real life while he competes internationally.
“Cuba was my first international trip and it was just wild,” he said. “There’s no way to describe it but just wild and crazy. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and everything we expected wasn’t there.
“It definitely taught me how to travel in a different way. I’m trashing Cuba but it was one of the most fun trips of my life. There’s something about adversity that bonds you to the people around you. There’s something about traveling. Nothing else matters but can you talk to each other, can you have fun, can you get through these crazy experiences together. It’s the little things like that that make traveling internationally to play volleyball so cool. The friends you make, the things you get to see, doing what you love, nothing beats it. It’s amazing.”
He’s back in school now, Brewster. Cramming for tests. Finishing papers he’s put off. Getting the education most Americans his age are accustomed to. Soon enough, though, he’ll be back on the road, on planes, figuring out how to get from one airport to the next, how to find edible food in China, bottled water in Cuba, seeing with his own eyes the religions of the world.
“Almost,” he said, “like college on the road.”