It’s always been the people.

Pri Lima knew that volleyball was the game for her — not handball, in which she competed on her high school team — when she played for the first time in gym class one day. That was it, the “aha!” moment. But there needs to be more than a love of playing to stick around this sport long enough that, even when you’re 41 years old, as Lima is, your passion for it hasn’t waned a bit, but has even gone the opposite direction.

To see Lima now — coaching constantly, smiling even more than she coaches, continually innovating in the game she hasn’t taken a breath from in nearly three decades — is to see a woman who knows she is exactly where she needs to be, doing what she knows she is born to do.

The glue, throughout it all, the impetus that pushed her at the start and continues to keep her in it, is the people.

It was the people, in Lafayette, Louisiana, who assured a teenager from Rio de Janeiro in just six months in the States that she didn’t want to go back to the beaches of Brazil. The countryside of southern Louisiana, competing for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, would do just fine.

“After one semester, I said ‘I’m never leaving here again,’” Lima said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It was the people. The people made it happen. I can’t love them enough. They made such a huge difference in my life.”

Of course, it was people before she went to the U.S. who made it happen in the first place. When her coach in Brazil got a call, forwarding the message to Lima’s team that a school in the United States was looking for a few players, Lima would not have been able to attend without a little scrambling from, as she puts it, “a friend of a friend of a cousin of a friend.”

Something like that, anyway.

That friend of a friend of a cousin of a friend lent Lima and a teammate their gigantic camcorder — remember, this was 1998, before iPhones could produce cinematic-level videos and fit in the pocket of your board shorts — and they put together a marvelous highlight tape that included hitting lines against no block, digging, passing, serving. Somewhat satisfied with their work, they wondered what else a coach might like to see.

“We tossed the ball and did a shoulder roll,” Lima said, laughing. “That right there — that’s my recruiting tape. Somehow they thought we were good enough for DI over here.”

So yes: The people made it happen. And continued to do so.

Lima was only able to afford her plane tickets to her first few AVP qualifiers because of the Cajuns she had become so enamored with. Her first trip was covered from the parents of a player she coached; her second from what she calls her family at a local facility called VolleyBeach.

“My pro career wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said. “They’re just goodhearted people. I love them to death.”

Lima is now one of those people.

Just as her early supporters paved the way to a career that had her competing at the highest levels of the AVP — she once beat Misty May-Treanor when nobody beat Misty May-Treanor — the Brazilian tour and the NVL, where she won five out of six events in 2015, losing only a single match.

She scoffs at the notion that she’s still a player, despite taking a seventh on the AVP as recently as Hermosa Beach a year ago. She’s a coach now. A dispenser of lessons and wisdom.

She’s one of those people this sport needs most: The ones who show others that a future can be had in this game.

“As a coach, I love this challenge of how can I get to each one of them, as a group?” Lima said. “They speak my language, but we can speak specific languages to get to them.”

She coaches all over the telegenic St. Petersburg area of Florida, ranging from 7-year-old kids to college athletes. Her club, Optimum Beach, now has franchises in New York and Tennessee. She preps them for both the mental and physical side of the game, tearing down any sense of entitlement, reinforcing the mindset she witnessed up close from the greats in Kerri Walsh Jennings, May-Treanor, and Holly McPeak that nothing beats good, focused, gritty work.

“Learning doesn’t stop,” Lima frequently tells her athletes. “Change is good. Either you want to win uncomfortable or you change to win uncomfortable. Or you can stay comfortable and you lose, because nobody wins being comfortable.

“You are verbally committing. Because you worked hard, you have an opportunity to be on her team or his team, and you’re also promising that you’ll do your best for that coach’s program. It has nothing to do about you, but you can make an impact. Now that you committed, now you look at the roster and see who you can beat up if you want to play.”

Lima might be finished playing, for the most part. But she is now entering a role that she may have been meant to fill all this time: She’s one of those people she cherishes so much.

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