SANDCAST: Angie Akers, beach volleyball’s running, kickboxing Olympic coach

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SANDCAST Angie Akers 12/2/2020-Angie Akers
Angie Akers

Angie Akers tried. She tried virtually every way possible to get out of this game.

Fate had a good chuckle at that one.

Retiring from professional indoor volleyball, after three months in Switzerland, to pursue running? It was a worthy shot. A friend who was on track to compete in the 800 meters for Great Britain in the 2004 Olympics dragged her into a few training runs, and Akers so loved that feeling of lung-searing exhaustion — “I would be dying but I kind of like that stuff,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter — that she competed in road races and ran a blistering 3 hour, 23-minute Boston Marathon. She was undeniably good. Then again, how often do you see 6-foot women competing as professional runners?

“I loved it,” she said, “but my body didn’t.”

It didn’t love what she tried next, either: Sitting at a desk. While her husband, Jeremy, an NFL player whom she met while becoming the all-time kills and aces leader at Notre Dame, competed for the Oakland Raiders, she took a job with the Lehman Brothers. It’s a heck of a starting gig, a high floor for entry level.

And it was there, in Oakland, that fate would intervene for the first time.

Akers received a call out of the blue from her old college roommate. Would Akers want to try playing beach volleyball?

It didn’t matter to Akers that she had retired, had never entertained plans of getting back into the game. She just wanted out of that desk job.

“I immediately said ‘Yes! Yes! I want to try it,’” Akers said, even if that wasn’t entirely true. Sure, she wanted to play a beach volleyball, but she was also getting into kickboxing.

“I thought ‘Hmm, we’ll move to Long Beach, I’ll secretly become a stunt woman, learn all this fighting stuff, and I’ll try beach volleyball but I probably won’t like it,’’ Akers recalled, laughing. So the road-runner-turned-Lehman Brothers worker-turned-aspiring kickboxing stuntwoman tried the sand.

It took two days for her to forget about becoming a stuntwoman.

“I said ‘This is incredible. I love it,’” Akers said, though there was still one minor issue: She had no idea what she was doing. Twenty-six at the time, Akers had never played beach volleyball. A native of Fort Wayne, Ind., she didn’t know anybody in Southern California, nor did she really have any idea how, exactly, to train.

Fate would provide another nudge.

On September 11, 2001, Akers’ college roommate, the one who inspired the spontaneous move to Long Beach to become a beach volleyball player moonlighting as a stuntwoman, was stuck in the Paris airport with the UCLA volleyball team. With all flights to the U.S. grounded, it provided time to build a rapport with the coaches and players.

When she returned home, “she called up UCLA, and John Speraw answered the phone,” Akers recalled. “She asked if any of the players wanted to come out to the beach and help my friend and I, we want to play beach volleyball. He said ‘I’ll come and I’ll bring my roommate.’ His roommate was Jeff Nygaard. So my very first day on the beach was with John Speraw and Jeff Nygaard.”

Nygaard would coach Akers three days a week over the next six months. In a matter of a few weeks, another up-and-comer would move to town to join the training group: John Hyden.

“So my first training partners were John Hyden, John Speraw, and Jeff Nygaard,” Akers said, laughing at how absurd that sounds, 19 years later, three bona fide Hall of Famers comprising her initial group.

Fate wasn’t — and likely isn’t — done yet. Another nudge. Akers’ phone rang one day. Holly McPeak was on the other line, calling for Akers’ college roommate, inviting her to a rookie training camp.

“I called her back and said ‘Jamie doesn’t live here, but I really want to come. Can I come?’” Akers said. “She said ‘Yeah, let’s sign you up!’ I did that with Holly for a week, and she became my mentor as well. I got so incredibly lucky with the people who were guiding me with my decision making and training. I look back now and I’m like ‘Wow I can’t believe all those things happened.’ It was one blessing after another really.”

She’d win Rookie of the Year her first year on the beach, in 2002, an award she’d win again, on the FIVB, in 2009, when she began making a push for the 2012 London Olympics.

“That was the big dream goal,” she said. But the Olympics weren’t meant to be. Not as a player, anyway.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” she said, though Akers and her partner, Tyra Turner didn’t fare too poorly, considering their lack of knowing what they were doing. They finished the 2009 season ranked No. 5 in the world, and 2010 ranked No. 7. With Turner getting pregnant following the 2010 season, Akers made a final push with Nicole Branagh in 2011, and another with Brittany Hochevar in 2012. It wasn’t enough to supplant either Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings or April Ross and Jen Kessy.

Olympics, as a player, wasn’t in the pages.

Fate had other plans.

Working for the World Series of Beach Volleyball, Akers connected with an old acquaintance — “you know how small of a world the beach volleyball traveling circus is,” she said — who told her about an opening in the Netherlands for an assistant coaching job with the national team. Would she want to take it?

Well, sure.

What began with a 10-month contract with the Dutch turned to almost six years. In 2016, Akers was able to travel to the Rio Olympics as a coach. A dream realized, in a way, yet one that still didn’t feel whole.

“It was a really cool experience,” she said of coaching in the Rio Games. “What made it a little strange was wearing orange and not for USA.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, both those six years in the Netherlands, an experience she cherished, in a country she adores and loves, were the exact preparation she needed for fate’s next nudge.

When COVID moved the Tokyo Games back from 2020 to 2021, Akers, similar to another high-level coach in the United States, had a decision to weigh. She had made a commitment to her husband that she wouldn’t renew her contract in the Netherlands when it was up in August.

Akers was coming home.

“We were sad, because to not complete a journey you start with the people you spend so much time building trust — it’s not an easy decision,” Akers said. “Once we made that call, I was in contact with Sean Scott, saying ‘We’re moving back. I have no plans, but I’m coming back.’”

She was moving back to the South Bay just as Kessy, April Ross and Alix Klineman’s coach, was leaving. Kessy, too, had made a commitment to her family: She was moving to Maine after the initially scheduled Tokyo Games were finished.

Ross and Klineman, winners of all three AVP Champions Cups, arguably the best team on the planet, needed a coach.

Akers was home for the job.

“This whole COVID situation just changed plans for everybody so it just kind of worked out and everything fell into place,” Akers said.

She’s built up a fast rapport with Ross and Klineman, organizing miniature tournaments in Hermosa Beach, traveling for a training camp in Rio de Janeiro, getting to know them personally and professionally. In nine months, barring any more strange or extraordinary events, Akers will again be at the Olympics, representing the United States, at the helm of a medal favorite.

A long way from road running, desk jobs, and kickboxing. A circuitous route only the strange twistings of fate can provide.

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