They’re down 6-1 in the third set, and Adrian Carambula is silent.
It’s odd, for him, to be so quiet in timeouts. He’s typically chatty, strategizing, figuring out the chess that will get him to 15 points before the other team which, in this case, is Germany’s Lars Fluggen and Markus Bockermann.
He’s silent because no words need to be said. He knows, as does his partner, Alex Ranghieri, that if they don’t get to 15 first, it’s all over. He’ll be out of the Italian federation, and Marco Caminati will be in. The life he had built since he was 16 and began slapping around a volleyball on the shores of South Beach will disappear, quicker than a cut shot.
“If we don’t win this game,” he recalled thinking on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “that’s it for me.”
And then the film of his memory goes blank. He doesn’t know how he and Ranghieri did it: coming back from that 6-1 deficit in the third set of the Moscow qualifier in May of 2015 to win, 17-15. But they did. And then they won again, beating Argentina’s Julian Azaad and Pablo Bianchi to qualify for their first event as an Italian team.
If you hadn’t known Carambula — and few, if any, on the world tour did at the time — then it’s likely that this would have surprised you. But if you had been introduced to him prior to that fateful match with the Germans, you’d have smiled and knowingly shaken your head.
This is simply what Carambula does, and has always done. He’s a long shot and he knows it — and he also knows that most people think it, too.
Which is why he’s going to win anyway.
The winning didn’t come easy, or often, at first. When Carambula moved from Uruguay to the United States as a 14- or 15-year-old, he had never touched a volleyball. Raised in a soccer dominant culture, he had once been teammates with Luis Suarez, who is now one of the most formidable strikers on the planet.
“That’s when the shopping began,” Carambula said. “Looking back, 15, 20 years ago, soccer in the States was no big deal. You had nowhere to go.”
It could have been any sport.
“It could have been bowling or tennis — anything could have grabbed my attention at that point,” Carambula said. “I lived close to the beach, saw some courts, and I’d never touched a volleyball before then. I started slapping the ball around, four against four, and that was it. There was no cool story. I just needed to do something sports related, otherwise I’m going to die.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t ‘Oh my God, I love this sport.’ It was ‘I just got my ass kicked and tomorrow I’m going to try again to beat you.’ That’s what it was all about for me: The competition. That’s what drove me. I wanted to get good fast.”
With no backup plan, and no home to return to — he was kicked out of his house at 16, a topic on which he chose not to elaborate — beach volleyball was, by choice, his only option. Getting good, and doing it fast, was mandatory.
“It was more like surviving for me,” he said. “I knew I had to get good fast to have some sort of income so that’s when I started putting in the hours, without really knowing where I was going. At that age, you don’t really have a plan, it’s more a dream or a vision, or you see stuff on TV and that’s where you want to get to. I took it one day at a time and I tried to play as much as I could.”
His friends advised him against it. Carambula was 6-feet tall and out of shape in a sport where even the fittest men four and five inches taller than him registered as undersized. Didn’t matter. If he wasn’t built like them, he saw no reason to play like them, either.
In South Beach, on the windier days, he’d hit a towering, dancing, spinning, tumbling serve coined the skyball that has since become his signature touch, one that continues to give the best in the world fits. The first time he qualified on the AVP Tour, in 2010, he did so with another 6-foot-tall Floridian named Matt Henderson. They ran a fast, shooting, crafty, pin-to-pin offense that some of the best teams in the world are only beginning to adopt now, a decade later.
“I had nobody telling me what to do until I was 26 years old and moved to Italy, so you put all that time, and the gift that was given to me which is to manipulate that ball, I was able to create my identity,” Carambula said. “It was out of necessity. I knew I had to be different, I knew I had to hit my shots. I understood real quick that there’s a couple ways to hit a line shot. I need to hit it a couple ways that it doesn’t get touched by the blocker, and it doesn’t get touched by the defender.”
For the next four years, as Carambula dominated in South Florida and took high finishes on the AVP Tour, blockers and defenders would find it increasingly difficult to touch anything Carambula hit. Three individuals of no small influence were impressed: Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena, and Sean Rosenthal.
It would be Dalhausser who provided Carambula with the nudge that would begin the next chapter of his life. He contacted a Brazilian coach named Paulao Moreira, who was then working with the Italian Federation.
“There’s this kid in the United States with an Italian passport you should check out,” the best blocker in the world told the coach. Dalhausser put him in touch with Carambula, whose grandmother was Italian, giving Carambula citizenship and the ability to compete for Italy. In 2014, a tryout was arranged in Long Beach.
What happens at a beach volleyball tryout, Carambula didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed a good setter. He called in Rafu Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican and longtime friend from South Florida.
“I was [crapping] my pants,” Carambula said. “I knew about it for a month, I’d never played with a Mikasa, I was staying at Stafford [Slick’s] for the summer. He gave me a date and time. He said 10 a.m.”
They got there at 10 — and then Moreira rescheduled, to 6 p.m. For eight hours, in the hot and dusty Long Beach sand, the pressure mounted. Carambula knew this was his one shot. Moreira was only in town for an FIVB tournament that weekend.
“It’s not like if it goes bad he’ll say ‘We’ll talk about it later,’” Carambula said. “You leave your impression there or just forget about it.”
It took 25 minutes for Carambula to make his impression. He was in.
The problem was convincing the rest of the Italian Federation to think the same.
The first time he checked into the Italian Olympic facility, Carambula had to do so under the alias of his physical therapist. Though it was arranged that he’d be competing with Ranghieri, a young blocker with incredible athletic and physical ability, he wasn’t yet technically an Italian player.
By the time he was cleared to compete for Italy, it appeared he might never actually do so.
The week prior to Carambula’s first event, in Moscow, Ranghieri had played an open in Lucerne, Switzerland, with Caminati. They won the event. Suddenly the Italian Federation had new plans: the unproven Carambula was out; Caminati, an excellent player in his own right, was in.
Moreira went to bat for Carambula. If he was out of the program, so, too, was the coach.
The Federation agreed to give Carambula one shot: Moscow the following week. If he didn’t qualify, he was out, and Caminati was back in.
“That’s the most pressure I’ve felt for sure,” Carambula said. “But that’s when pressure comes into play. If you focus on that pressure, you’re done. If you focus on feeling secure and prepared and ‘I gotta score 21 points two times before the other team, and that’s it.’ I trained for that. I did that since I was a kid. For me, it was always about winning. Every sport I played, it was always about winning. When you focus on competition you block out all that other stuff that most people feel.”
Even with the 1-6 third set comeback over the Germans, and qualifying for the main draw, it wasn’t over. Carambula had suffered a nagging Charlie Horse in Moscow, and with the Italian Federation looking for any reason not to send him to the Porec Grand Slam the following week, they offered, again, to sub in Caminati.
“I said ‘Bro you better book this fight, otherwise I’m going to take the bus,’” Carambula said.
They flew Carambula and Ranghieri to Porec, and it was there, in that idyllic town in Croatia, that Carambula put to rest any lingering doubts any federation or player may have had of the swaggering, skyballing, Uruguayan-Italian who cut his beach teeth in the United States.
They qualified and proceeded to stun a list of the best players in the world: Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos, Sean Rosenthal and Slick, Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Konstantin Semenov, Evandro Goncalves and Pedro Solberg, and, finally, for the bronze medal, Reinder Nummerdor and Chrstiaan Varenhorst.
“I knew I was ready,” Carambula said. “I don’t know if I was born to play volleyball, but I was born to play sports. I was given a gift and I had to use it. At that time in my life I was into purpose and why am I here and how can I contribute and I had a feeling that if I make that move and it’s going to go the way I thought it was going to go. I thought there would be a before and after in this sport during my passage through it.”
He is still very much in it. He and Ranghieri would qualify for the 2016 Olympics, losing only to the gold medalists, Alison and Bruno, and the silver medalists, countrymen Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo.
Now partnered with Enrico Rossi, Carambula is, again, in line to qualify, firmly in the Tokyo Olympic race. There will always be the pressure to perform, to prove that his creative playing style isn’t just some gimmick, that this is the sport that chose him.
Which is exactly why Carambula is just going to keep on winning.