SANDCAST: Derek Olson, Morocco’s ‘Disney story’ into the Tokyo Olympics

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SANDCAST Derek Olson 7/14/2021-Derek Olson
Derek Olson celebrates Morocco winning the African Continental Cup with Mohamed Abicha (Photo/Derek Olson)

It is a precarious move, to bring your phone on any hike in any National Park. Cellular impediments abound, be it water, precipitous drops, rocks, or miles and miles devoid of service. The Narrows in Zion National Park is even more-so, a 16-mile stretch of river in which hikers wade up the lightly flowing Colorado River, sometimes waist-deep, with towering canyons on either side.

Derek Olson really had no business bringing his cell-phone on such a trek.

It couldn’t have worked out any better that he did.

Just as he was about to step foot in the river, Olson’s phone lit up with a call from Stein Metzger, the head coach at UCLA whose web of connections in the world of beach volleyball is more extensive than most. An opportunity had come across his desk. Olson was the first one to come to Metzger’s mind.

“The Moroccan National Team is looking for a coach,” Metzger said. “Would you be interested?”

“That was about all he gave me,” Olson recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “And I was like ‘Ok, I’m interested, because I’m always up for an adventure.’”

And an adventure he’d get.

That phone call was at once the beginning and end of the information Olson would receive prior to accepting the job. When he finally got on the phone with the president of the Moroccan Federation, he laid out two conditions that had to be met: His wife, Steph, had to come; and it had to be clean.

Other than that?

Bring on the adventure.

“From there we were off and running,” Olson, a 37-year-old native of Eugene, Oregon, said. “It was really crazy, it was really last minute.”

It may be easy to view this trip as a wonky vacation for the newlyweds, who will have their first anniversary this fall. A random, all expenses paid five-week trip to Morocco? Why not?

A delayed honeymoon, this was not.

“I was working overtime while I was out there,” Olson said. He’d spend the first eight hours of the day coaching the Moroccan teams, which consisted of six men’s players and six women’s players as well as Americans Iya Lindahl and Jessica Gaffney and a pair of Qatari men’s teams. He’d go 90 minutes with the women, 90 minutes with the men, take a lunch break, then repeat: 90 minutes with the women, 90 minutes with the men. All in the baking African sun.

Then he’d go to work.

Yes, Olson, then the interim head coach at the University of California-Berkeley, was still working full-time for the Bears, “spending the next eight hours of the day, which would have been our 9-5, recruiting on Zoom calls, doing the whole college job the second eight hours of the day,” Olson said. “It was literally work all day, every day. It was a lot. But I signed up for it.”

Before he could coach anyone, however, Olson first had to figure out what, exactly, his role was. Already, Morocco had an employed coach who had led the federation for the previous six years. Why they felt the need to bring Olson is, he still isn’t sure. What, his role is with the team, even after returning to the United States, he isn’t entirely positive.

“I was scouring YouTube trying to figure out if I could get any film on them,” Olson said. “One thing I figured out quick was that there was not a lot of planning, communication happening. I was trying to get as much intel as possible: What is the setup like? Am I the head coach? Am I the assistant coach? What’s the format of this tournament? What’s the training schedule? Am I coming up with all that? I knew basically nothing when I stepped foot on the ground. I didn’t know who was going to pick me up from the airport. It was a scramble, day one.

“I still don’t know. They have a coach. They just felt like they needed to bring somebody else in. I’m going in assuming that I am running practices. They even at one point asked if my wife coaches. There’s a lot of staff. Everybody’s a president, everybody’s a director, it’s very confusing.”

It was made somewhat clear that Olson would be acting as the head coach. He’d come up with practice plans. He’d be providing feedback. He was the guy. When he had the official go-ahead that the program was his, Morocco was off and running.

It will not likely be a surprise to you that Morocco has a certain dearth of beach volleyball players. In fact, there is exactly one player in the country who plays beach volleyball full-time. His name is Mohamed Abicha, and he is known as God.

After that? It’s a mix of wildly athletic indoor players, bundles of raw talent and explosive energy who simply need to finetune the craft of the more deftly-skilled beach game. Olson saw the potential in Morocco’s second team, 23-year-old Soufiane El Gharouti and 22-year-old Oussama El Azhari. He knew that Abicha, alongside Zouheir Elgraoui, was almost a sure bet to win every match in the African Continental Cup. He just needed El Gharouti and El Azhari to win a few here and there.

Every match in the Continental Cup, El Gharouti and El Azhari got closer and closer. Olson could see them slowly beginning to grasp the concepts he was teaching. It was coming, it was coming, it was coming — until the in the finals of the Continental Cup, against Mozambique, everything clicked.

“It was like a Disney movie,” Olson said. “Our second team did everything we were working on, they kept their cool, it was the culmination of everything. They were down by one or two the entire first set and rattled off two points at the end of the set. Game two they’re neck and neck and they pull away. You could just see it happening for them. They played out of their minds and they ended up clinching it. I blacked out when they won. I rushed the court, was so happy for them. Just seeing it on their faces, for the first time, they don’t have any beach experience. They’d never done anything like that, and then to win it for their country. The top team’s going to the Olympics but they won it for them. It was a really cool moment to be a part of.”

Because Morocco qualified for the Olympics via the Continental Cup, it can only send one team, and Abicha and Elgraoui were the obvious choice. But, because of a technical snafu, Olson cannot join the Moroccans, who are playing in their first Olympic Games ever. It’s a matter as simple as Olson being left off the list the Moroccan Federation submitted to the Olympic organizers.

So the adventure, for now, is over.

A new one is about to begin.

Olson was not hired as the official head coach for Cal, a job that went back to Megan Owusu, who took her maternity leave after having triplets. After four years with the Bears, Olson is seeking a new gig. What that gig is, who knows. Whether or not he’ll continue coaching Morocco in the future, there’s no knowing that, either.

But one thing is certain: Derek Olson is always up for an adventure.

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