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SANDCAST: Once an underdog, Olympian Holly McPeak is always putting in the work

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There is no rattling Holly McPeak, though you’re welcome to try.

Tim Hovland sure did.

“Hey, Holly,” he’d crow from his court at Marine Street, when McPeak would show up around 10:30 or 11 a.m., late for her on a summer day back then. “Go grab me a Mountain Dew and a Snickers.” Then his attention would return to the victims on his own court, and his mouth would begin assaulting someone else. Not that McPeak would be bothered by in the least.

Go get your own Mountain Dew and Snickers, Hov.

McPeak was there to play, although play isn’t quite the right word. Dominate. Improve. Learn at a rate that equaled, even surpassed, those of the soon-to-be-legends by which she was surrounded. There weren’t many women role models in the sport then. She loved watching Jim Menges, loved how his eyes would bulge with intensity. Loved seeing the competitive furnaces that burned in Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos and Hovland and Menges and Ron Von Hagen and all of the men who would provide the foundation for the sport.

It’s no wonder that she became a part of that foundation herself.

She’s 53 now, McPeak. A woman who values, above all else, her role as a mother. Her 72 wins still rank fourth all-time for women. Her Olympic bronze in 2004, in Athens, isn’t even the accomplishment of which she’s most proud. No, that belongs to the act of simply qualifying with Misty May-Treanor for the 2000 Games in Sydney.

They were underdogs to qualify in those Games. You’ll find that’s a consistent narrative throughout McPeak’s life, that of the underdog.

“It always felt like I was being pushed out,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

There were times — well, maybe only one time — where McPeak actually was pushed out. In 1987, setting for the University of California, McPeak set her way to being named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, leading the Bears to their first winning record in four years. But Dave DeGroot replaced Marlene Piper as the head coach, and the setter and coach didn’t see eye to eye on much.

“They bumped heads because Holly is definitely a competitor. She’s not one to lose,” Lisa Arce, a teammate of McPeak’s who would be named to the All-Decade team, told the Los Angeles Times. “She always plays to win, whether it’s a drill, a scrimmage or a game.”

And if McPeak wasn’t going to win at Cal, she’d simply win elsewhere. In an era well before the transfer portal, when athletes were required to sit out a year after moving schools, McPeak took a shot on herself. She received an exemption and walked on at UCLA where, given the freedom to let that powder keg of competitive fire explode, all she did was, oh, set the school’s single-season assist record (2,192), the single-match assist record (97), lead the Bruins to a program-best 36-1 record, their fifth national championship, and finish All-Pac-10.

You can push Holly McPeak out if you’d like. Ask her to run and get you a Mountain Dew and Snickers if you’d like. Just know that you’re doing so at your own peril.

“In my journey there’s a lot of pain, and some dips in the road, challenges, obstacles, a lot of them, but to this day I wouldn’t change anything,” McPeak said. “I learned so much. I feel like I can survive anything. You talk about grit and perseverance. Those are skills you’re not taught. You earn it. You earn it by being in tough situations.”

She’s earned it, all right. Earned it in 1993, when the AVP was alas attempting to integrate women onto its tour by selecting eight women — McPeak, Angela Rock, Linda Chisholm, Lisa Strand, Nancy Reno, Jackie Silva, Cammy Ciarelli, Linday Hanley — to travel and rotate partners and build it up. By 1995, they had their own tour, the WPVA, with a $1 million sponsorship from Evian.

Earned it in 1996, too, when McPeak and Reno, winners of six FIVB events and eight WPVA in 1995, came dragging into the Atlanta Olympics, Reno’s shoulder a torn mess of ligaments. McPeak wouldn’t abandon her partner. Hell no. They earned that berth together, and they’d play together, even if that meant a fifth-place finish — excellent at an Olympics, by normal standards — and no podium.

Holly McPeak
Holly McPeak broadcasting a match with Anne Marie Anderson

“I was just so blessed to have that opportunity to travel the world, I had never traveled the world, and to play beach volleyball for a living,” McPeak said. “There was nobody supporting you. You just showed up to practice and played the tournament. My value proposition was I’m going to outwork anybody. I’m not as physically blessed and talented as them but I’ll outwork anybody, and I did. That’s how I got to where I got. I wanted it more and I worked harder.”

She worked harder because of the simple calculus that she needed to in order to remain relevant. It was a constant fight for her volleyball survival. When the rules changed, shortening the court to its current dimensions, that, it was said, was the death of the smaller player. McPeak, at 5-foot-7, is no giant. But her career would suffer nothing. Not if it were up to her — and it was always up to her. Even when Reno, with whom McPeak had dominated on the WPVA, AVP, and FIVB, dumped her for Linda Hanley, with little time left to qualify for Sydney, McPeak was undeterred. She called up a young prospect out of Long Beach State, another diminutive dynamo by the name of Misty May.

Would she want to give it a go?


Misty May-Treanor-President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition- PCSFN
Misty May-Treanor passes a ball.

They made the podium in six of their first nine events, qualifying in their final tournament, when May was so hobbled by an ab injury that she was serving underhand and running up to block. Count McPeak out? Never. Again, however, McPeak would finish fifth in the Olympics, losing a belter to Brazilians Sandra Pires and Adriana Samuel, 14-16, in the quarterfinals.

“Eight years of my life,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. Lot of starting over again. Lot of getting knocked down and getting back up. We had no funding. We were doing it all ourselves. I wasn’t necessarily going for the quad, going for the Olympics, but I wanted to be the best I could be so in my mind that meant winning tournaments which in turn meant being one of the best teams in the U.S. to get me to the Olympic Games again.”

Again, she started over, forming what would become an iconic partnership with Elaine Youngs in 2002. If winning tournaments was their goal, and the rest would take care of itself, win they did: Four straight AVPs they won to begin their partnership, adding another to finish the 2002 season on top. On the FIVB, they won in Norway and France and Greece and Brazil.

Too small to win on the shrunk court? Ha!

Go get your own Mountain Dew.

“When I first started playing beach volleyball, nobody — nobody — thought I could win a beach volleyball tournament at that level,” McPeak said. “Not a soul on the planet. Except for me. That’s all that matters.”

A useful chip, that. McPeak and Youngs continued winning, all the way to Athens, where, finally, McPeak earned her Olympic medal, a bronze that was 12 years in the making.

“We were both able to stay healthy, we were the second best team in the world, maybe third, and to this day on the beach I would say aside from Misty and I qualifying that one year, being on the podium in 2004 was incredible because of all that heartbreak,” she said. “To finally get there, I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? I need to get up there!’ Although it seems 30 seconds long. Great memories though. It took 12 years to get on the podium. I’m still super proud. I never gave up, even when my partners were injured I just hoped I could help my teammate regardless of whether they were injured. That was all I could do.”

What else can you do? That, above all else, is the message she tries to preach and instill in those around her, especially to the youth she coaches at Elite Beach Volleyball in Manhattan Beach. As a parent, she knows how difficult it is to allow her children to struggle. As a lifelong overachiever, she understands, as well as anyone, the value of those struggles, the lessons that can be mined from them, the mental fortitude they develop.

“I love the sport. I still do and I love to make an impact and help people. Right now it’s just paying it forward, helping young athletes, lessons,” McPeak said. “I don’t let my ego get in the way. I’ve already done everything I wanted to do. I think that’s a nice place to come from as a coach, because some coaches have a chip on their shoulder, maybe they didn’t do anything, and they have something to prove. I don’t. I just want to help people.”

And so she is, in a variety of realms. Whether it’s coaching or playing fours at 33rd Street in Hermosa Beach on Thursday mornings or broadcasting indoors and on the beach, Holly McPeak, just as she did then, is always doing the work.