Deahna Kraft may just be 23, and she may, like many in their early 20s who have recently graduated from college and begun wading into what is know as the — shudder — real world, suffer from the occasional bout of existential angst. She might not know the exact next steps she will take in life, or what the future may hold, and sometimes that’s a bit worrisome. But she does know this:

“I’ve always been a woman of: I know what I want, and I’m going to go get it. I’m all in or nothing at all. If I’m not all in, I’m not a happy camper. I’m going to have issues. It will affect my whole psyche. I knew whatever I did I would have to be all in.”

There is no idling in second gear for Kraft. She guns it, from first to fifth, in a matter of seconds, no matter the task. So invested was she, so convinced that she’d make it to Hollywood one day, that she took a trip one summer from Seattle to Malibu to enroll in a singing and acting camp at Pepperdine University. She still has photos from that trip, and bursts into a fit of laughter when she recalls the hilarious irony of it: There she is, standing in front of the dorm she would one day stay in as a freshman Wave, not as a budding actress, but as a beach volleyball player.

At the time, however, developing into a Hollywood star wasn’t all that more farfetched than blossoming into a bona fide All-American on the sand. She played, sure, having been raised in temperate climates with solid beach volleyball communities in Hawai’i and Seattle. But youth beach volleyball then wasn’t what it is now. She’d play in the occasional tournament, but training? With coaches? Year round? That was still years away from developing outside of Southern California and Florida. She only realized just how far behind she was when she attended a Pepperdine camp — this time not for singing and acting — when she was in high school, matched up against a host of peers hailing, mostly, from Southern California.

“I sucked,” Kraft said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Nina [Matthies, the head coach at the time] goes ‘If you can’t set, nobody is going to want to be your partner.’ The last day, I magically got on the recruitment court. I don’t know how, but I was there.”

It wasn’t anything tangible that Matthies saw in Kraft that weekend, but there was something about the kid she couldn’t help but love.

“I just remember telling Marcio [Sicoli, then the assistant, now the head coach] ‘Hey, I really like this girl. I’m not sure exactly why,’” Matthies said of Kraft in 2019. “I did a lot of my recruiting based on someone who would be a coachable kid who wants to learn and she was 6-foot, athletic and quick. We can teach her volleyball. I don’t know if I could teach her some of the other things she already has.

“She didn’t have a whole lot of experience volleyball wise, I don’t know the kind of coaching she really had, but she was really competitive and she was really chatty. She’s a gregarious person to begin with. She’s just very self-confident, very sure of herself, so here she was, having never played beach at all, and I was like ‘Wow this kid listens, she goes, she’s not afraid to make mistakes and not afraid to learn.’ A lot of times at that age, you know, 14, 15 they can withdraw when it’s hard for them. A lot of indoor players come out and it’s hard for them, not knowing how to do things, not being good at it. That didn’t affect her, it didn’t phase her.”

On the surface, it didn’t. Kraft was her usual ebullient self — chatty, smiling, ruthlessly competitive. Yet when she decided to play beach at Pepperdine rather than compete indoors at Wisconsin, all wasn’t so calm and assured under the surface.

“I had a panic attack: What am I doing? Nobody is going to like me. I’m going to suck. I made a mistake. It’s a small school, I’ve never played beach,’” Kraft recalled thinking on her first day at Pepperdine. Her parents, Tom and Mary, didn’t bother with reassurances. They knew, beyond all doubt, she’d be fine.

“The next day, it was fine,” Kraft said. “It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Both for Kraft and for Matthies. Kraft would blossom from a walk-on with little to no beach experience into a four-year starter and eventual court one blocker. She’d leave Pepperdine with 67 wins, despite her 2020 senior season being cut short. Twice, she’d be named All-WCC. In 2017, she helped the Waves to an NCAA Championship final.

“She’s just fun to have at practice every day,” Matthies said when she was still coaching Kraft at Pepperdine. “There’s a lot of young people who can’t step back and make fun of themselves and make the other people around them at ease, and she’s very self-effacing. She’s cocky, in a good way. Self-assured, not ‘I’m better than you.’ She’s just sure of who she is as a person. Having that young person on your team as a freshman and being able to help them continue to grow in the sport but let them be themselves is really fun. She makes fun of you and herself and everyone but you can dish it back at her. She dishes and she can take it and that’s what makes her so fun.

“She totally has that personality. I think she has longevity in the sport if that’s what she wants to do. She’s not too tall, not too small, she has that body. She can stay with this for a long time.”

Matthies was, as she uncannily tended to be, prophetic in her choice of words. So good is Kraft at volleyball that, seven years after being initially recruited by Wisconsin, she called up head coach Kelly Sheffield. Did he still remember the kid from Garfield High School he recruited? And would he be interested in taking her on as a graduate transfer?

Of course and of course.

Deahna Kraft-Pepperdine beach volleyball
Pepperdine’s Deahna Kraft celebrates a point at the USA beach volleyball pairs championship/Matt Brown, USA volleyball

The notion of returning to indoor had been tickling the back of Kraft’s mind since her junior year in Malibu. At the nudging of her good friend and teammate, Brittany Howard, who would go on to have a short but successful career as a professional on the beach, Kraft pursued it. On her first and only official visit, she committed on the spot.

Because that’s how she rolls: All in, or nothing at all.

Soon, Kraft was gone from the 70-and-sunny days of Malibu and chipping icicles off her eyebrows. Soon, she was passing upwards of 3,000 balls a day against a wall, completely relearning how to pass in a gym as opposed to a beach.

Soon, in a blink, it seemed, it was over. She appeared in 16 matches as a defensive specialist at Wisconsin, totaled 55 digs and dished 70 assists. The icicles melted off her eyebrows. It was time, again, for something new.

The beach, again, was calling. Literally. Sicoli called Kraft. He needed a volunteer assistant coach. Was she interested?

She wasn’t just interested. She was all in.

“I had to relearn stuff and just get my muscle memory back to beach volleyball. I was playing all the time, working at Pepperdine, and I switched to split-blocking, and now I’m learning a whole other thing,” Kraft said. “It was just like: ‘Deahna, you are crazy. Just pick something and stick to it! Stop learning all these new things.’ I felt behind because everyone’s been training and doing this. It was a combination of being overwhelmed and being in a transition period of my life and then that had my self-talk not being great. That was new for me: Why am I beating myself up?”

This is both the blessing and curse of the all-in types, a paradox of choice, in a way: Here Kraft had three options she wanted to pursue, with the mental bandwidth to realistically choose only one, two at the most. She decided to go all in on all three: Learning a new skill set as a coach, relearning her former skill set as a beach player, learning a new skill set as a split-blocker with Allie Wheeler. The result was an exploration into a new realm of burnout.

“The weeks up to Muskegon were really tough on me mentally,” Kraft said. “I was calling my mom every day, just not in a great headspace. I’ve always been a really confident player but for the first time I was talking really negatively to myself. I have nothing to be sad about or mad about or whatever, but I was in such a rut as a player. I was losing a lot. Even in practice I was losing a lot, and that would make me nervous: If I’m losing to teams all the time in practice, how am I going to win in a game? Yeah, things change in a game and then it’s all these negative thoughts. I’m learning how to split block, I’ve never played defense, it was all these thoughts going into Muskegon and I was just like ‘It’s do or die, baby.’”

She reauthored her self-talk. Forced herself to be positive, even if it felt fake or inauthentic or silly. The result speaks for itself: In Muskegon, an AVP Tour Series, just her second tournament as a split-blocker, the first AVP main draw of her career, she finished a career-high third, guaranteeing her a spot in the main draw of the AVP Hermosa Pro Series next weekend.

“When we went to Muskegon, I told myself: You are not allowed to talk bad about yourself. It was just repeating in my head, again and again and again, to have no doubts. It changed my mentality 100 percent. It pushed me out of my negative self-talk era,” Kraft said. “I felt like I made a breakthrough as a player, that even if I’m playing bad, just sounding like a broken record player: ‘You got this. Let’s win.’

“We ended up pulling out some crazy wins and it was such a nice moment: You can do it. Think positively, and good things will happen. It’s going to be up and down all year but I just needed a little light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it’s just a flicker and the rest of the year I suck, just knowing you can is enough to push me for the rest of the year. Even if I’m doing terribly for the rest of the year, I can look back and say ‘But I did that!’”

She can look back and know, as she has done her entire life, that she did it by going all in.

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