HERMOSA BEACH, California — Of all of the emotions Aleksandrs Samoilovs could have been feeling on August 9 of 2008 — elated, thrilled, veins pulsing with more adrenaline that had ever run through his 23-year-old veins — he was, well, he was mighty confused.
Here he was, the biggest underdog in the Beijing Olympic Games, a split-blocker out of Latvia — Latvia! — the first from his country to ever qualify for an Olympic Games in beach volleyball. He and Martins Plavins had been the last to qualify for the games, the 23 seed in a tournament featuring only 24 teams. At 23 and 24 years old, they were the youngest team in Olympic beach volleyball history, laden with the misfortune of drawing the giants of the sport: Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, the heavy favorites to win gold. In their only previous matchup, a year prior, in Fortaleza, Brazil, they were thoroughly pasted, 8-21, 14-21.
“The atmosphere, the Olympic opening ceremony and everything, emotions were so high, and when we entered the stadium, my first experience was like it’s Gladiator,’” Samoilovs recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “They opened the door, you entered the stadium, there’s 12,000 people, the music is playing, warm-up, first ball we toss the ball and hit the ball and 12,000 people go ‘ohh!’”
And when the warmups were finished, and the crowd had been stirred into a frenzy, Chris ‘Geeter’ McGee turned on the mic for the introductions. He’s a creative savant, Geeter. Often makes things up as he goes. Whatever entertains the crowd, he’ll go with it. So when he turned to this then-unknown team from Latvia, he took a quick inventory of what he saw: a young 23-year-old with flowing blond hair kept in place by a Rambo-style headband. He had an idea.
“Now!” Geeter roared into the mic. “The team from Latvia! Number one, the Lion King, Aleksandrs Samoilovs!”
“I was like ‘Lion King? What?’” Samoilovs said, laughing.
But he embraced that name, all right. Roared after every point, and boy did the freshly-dubbed Lion King roar after stunning Dalhausser and Rogers, 21-19, 21-18, a result that is still regarded as the biggest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history. The Latvian media ate it up.
“All of the media in Latvia was writing ‘Lion King, Lion King, Lion King roaring in Beijing!’” Samoilovs said. “Our biggest sports magazine in Latvia put me on the first page because it was the opening match of the Beijing Olympics and it was also the opening sport for Latvia so everybody was watching. They put ‘Lion King Roaring in Beijing’ on the first page.”
It’s nothing short of absurd, of course, that Aleksandrs Samoilovs is one of the most recognizable faces in the sport of beach volleyball, that few bother to call him the name given to him by his parents but instead the one bestowed upon him by Geeter at the Beijing Games. He hails from a country of less than two million people, roughly the same as Idaho, in a climate where you can play beach volleyball for no more than three months out of the year.
All of his peers, perhaps rightfully, treated it as absurd when Samoilovs and Plavins declared, in 2003, that they were going to qualify for the Beijing Olympic Games.
“Qualify for the Olympic Games?” they said then. “Latvia cannot even qualify for a main draw!”
They weren’t wrong. But Samoilovs’ father, Genadijs, who pioneered beach volleyball as a professional endeavor, was a believer. He knew what Aleksandrs and Plavins were capable of, regardless whether the remainder of Latvia thought him crazy. Even his own son and Plavins, then a libero on Latvia’s top indoor team, thought the concept a bit farfetched.
“We said the Olympics sounds like something from a different world, like Elon Musk talking about Mars,” Samoilovs said, laughing, which is something he does often, a ubiquitous smile on his tanned face.
Given the climate of Latvia — the average temperature is 42 degrees Fahrenheit — they temporarily relocated to Egypt, where they could train year-round, even picking up a little sponsor money to fund the novel operation. But for all the enthusiasm of Genadijs, and for all the talent flowing through those genes, Samoilovs’ mother wasn’t sold. She wanted her son to study medicine. Get an education. A real job. As any good son would do, Samoilovs complied, studying four hours a day, passing all of his exams. He was 20 years old and prepared to enter the real world.
But there’s a system in Latvia: “If you win an underage tournament,” Samoilovs explained, “you become an Olympic team candidate. You get funding from the Olympic team, funds for traveling and training.”
In July of 2004, Slovenia was hosting the Under 20 European Championships. If Samoilovs and Plavins were to win, they’d earn a year’s worth of training. But who were they kidding? Win? C’mon. This is Latvia, after all. In the middle of the tournament, Samoilovs’ mother called, ecstatic, letting him know that he had earned a scholarship to college.
“She was so happy because she wanted me to become a surgeon, and my father wanted me to become a professional athlete,” Samoilovs said. “So we went to Under 20, and I said ‘If we win, I will try to play professionally. If not, I will still play and practice but I will go study medicine and in my free time we will practice.’”
And then they did the darnedest thing: They won.
Then they won again, in Rio de Janeiro, the following year.
Then they did it again, in Poland.
“So it was one year, another, another,” Samoilovs said. “Then we qualified for Beijing. Then we got really good sponsors and started earning money on the World Tour. It feels like destiny.”
There is no denying that his path seems celestially crafted: born into the only family in Latvia who could have possibly dreamed of beach volleyball becoming a professional endeavor, Samoilovs is now one of the most respected players in the world. He’s a three-time Olympian, with 15 gold medals, six silver and seven bronze on the World Tour. In 2013, in Durban, South Africa, he and Janis Smedins reached the pinnacle, becoming the No. 1 ranked team in the world.
Even that single event seems to have had no small amount of divine intervention.
“We come into Durban and Nelson Mandela died, so they canceled all events on Sunday and moved all of the matches to Saturday. Usually on the World Tour we play two matches a day, and sometimes in the loser’s bracket, you play three. But on Saturday we played four,” Samoilovs said. “And it was so hot. We played the quarterfinals against the Ingrosso brothers [of Italy], and it was so hot. After the second match, we had to play the semifinals against Brazil. And if we lose, and they win the tournament, they will pass us.
“So I’m sitting in the ice bath, I stood up, took two steps and I start cramping so hard. At first the legs, then full body, and I fell down. The medical staff took me to the room, and for two hours everything was dark. I was freezing because there was no blood flow. There were four physios holding my muscles, and I figured I’d probably withdraw. We waited two hours, and they boiled water, put it on a towel, and the muscles started to release and relax a little bit. After two hours I started to move my legs a little bit, and I stood, and they said ‘If you move, you won’t cramp, but if you stop, you will cramp for sure.’ I had one hour until the game, and so I just started walking around the venue. We started to warm up, but when I went to jump, my muscles were so tired from cramping that my jump was so small. So I said ‘Janis, all balls on two.’
“Brazil saw I could barely move, and I couldn’t attack without taping. The problem for them was that they tried to serve every ball on me, and it was easy on two. Janis played unbelievable. Killing it with his serve. He was on fire. He just destroyed them. He killed them. We won that match, and in the second match we played against Plavins. And Plavins and Smedins had a conflict since London [in 2012, in which Plavins and Smedins won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games], and Janis said ‘We cannot lose this match.’ I couldn’t move, couldn’t jump, and their blocker died earlier than me. We won, and we became first in the world ranking.
“These two games, I was in a deep meditation. I was not thinking about the game. I was thinking about every muscle in my body. Somehow, because I was so focused, I was so tired. For two days, I was a vegetable. I spent 36 hours in bed. I was dead. Janis was bringing food to me. I couldn’t move. But this tournament, I will never forget.”
This career, this life, few in the sport of beach volleyball will ever forget. Samoilovs is regarded by Latvian beach volleyball players as one of a sort of holy beach volleyball trinity, alongside Smedins and Plavins. It was Samoilovs who inspired a young Tina Graudina to pick up a ball. She has since become one of the most talented blockers of her generation, a National Champion at USC who finished fourth in the Tokyo Olympic Games, alongside Anastasija Kravcenoka, who is engaged to Samoilovs’ younger brother, Mihails.
All of this — the Olympic Games, the three youth championships, the No. 1 ranking in the world — is so improbable it is easy to see why so many thought it impossible. Which is why Samoilovs, at age 36, has no plans on stopping now. He got a taste of what life might be like without beach volleyball once, working for two months in a bank during January and February in his early 20s. That was enough for him to know: If there’s an opportunity to play beach volleyball, he’s going to take it.
“For me, with my personality, it was the worst two months of my life. It was unbelievable,” Samoilovs said about that experience working in the bank, laughing, as always. “After one week, I said ‘This is the most boring time of my life.’ Then I said ‘Wow, I need to play so good.’ It was the best motivation to play as good as I can so I never work in an office, please.
“I love beach volleyball. Really, I am a big fan of beach volleyball. I’ve played 16 seasons and I always play all the tournaments. If I have the chance, I never skip a tournament.”
For the foreseeable future, then, the Lion King will continue roaring on the beach.
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