She went to the mountains.
That’s where she goes, Emily Stockman. The occasion or reason doesn’t necessarily matter — Stockman does not need an occasion or reason to go to the mountains — but in this case, it was a sanctuary she sought, and it was a sanctuary she found.
She couldn’t bring herself to watch the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Games she and Kelley Kolinske had traveled the world over to qualify for. The Games that would include teams with rankings of 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 22, 25, 31, and 41 in the world but not Stockman and Kolinske, who were No. 10.
So she left the beach and the sand and sought the peaceful solitude of a quiet cabin with no service or televisions or any semblance of a device that would be streaming the event she had devoted the previous half-decade of her life to play.
“Not making it was really hard for me. For the last five years, that’s what I was doing, and to fail at that was really hard for me to accept,” Stockman said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It was too hard to watch. I literally didn’t watch any of the Olympics.”
And when the quiet came, and the noise of the world receded, and the pressure of Olympic qualification began to melt into the vastness of the wilderness, the contemplating began. She recalled a passage from a book she read, W1NNING, by Tim Grover, one of Stockman’s favorite authors and the trainer who worked with serial winners Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“After you lose,” it read, “or when you get knocked down stay down there for a minute.”
It left Stockman with a question and no immediate answer: Was she going to get back up?
Of all the magical storylines that emerged from the Tokyo Olympic Games — April Ross alas winning the elusive gold; Alix Klineman becoming the Olympian she knew she could be; Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil capturing the hearts of youth players around the world; Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka, the Latvian Cinderellas; Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich bringing a long-awaited medal to Switzerland — one of the most remarkable is the blindingly fast rise of Stockman and Kolinske.
Maybe even more remarkable is the fact that it went borderline unnoticed.
When they entered their first international event, in April of 2018, in Xiamen, China, Stockman and Kolinske were nearly ranked in the triple digits. By August, they were top 20, with a bronze medal and a pair of fifth-place finishes in the Beach Major Series to their names. In another two months, they’d crack the top 10.
“It’s just crazy because nobody talks about that part of our journey, because to me, we came out of nowhere, and by the end of the season we were ranked ninth in the world and two or three in the U.S,” Stockman said. “At the end of that year was when we sat down and said ‘We can do this.’ Everyone has that pipe dream but to actually sit down and do that in such a short amount of time was where it really hit for me and I said ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’”
It was a markedly different mindset than when her Olympic aspirations initially took root, in 2014. That was the year Stockman alas gave up a circuitous indoor career that hit stops in the Maldives, France, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. She had dabbled in beach previously, but more for the lifestyle — “I spent a lot of time in the bars,” she joked — than any ambition to become one of the best defenders in the world. But she’s a competitor, Stockman, and competing for middling teams in foreign countries was no longer the path she wanted her life to take.
As she does so frequently on mountain bikes, she opted to blaze a new one.
“When I came to the beach in 2014 I was like ‘I want to go to the 2016 Olympics!’ And then I was like ‘Well, that’s definitely not going to happen,’” she said, laughing. The Olympics are the obvious goal for beach volleyball players to declare before fully understanding the arduous commitment required to actually qualify. The bright lights of the Games themselves cast enormous shadows over the brutal grind that is the two year qualification process. The 2014 and 2015 were eye-opening seasons, crucial learning experiences in which Stockman played four international events with Ali McColloch — in Argentina, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Long Beach — and made only a single main draw.
Those two years provided the introduction to just how difficult it would be to qualify for the Olympics. But she’s a competitor, Stockman. The immeasurable difficulty of a goal only serves as an additional log to her internal fire.
“During our Olympic run, we did backwards planning,” she said. “In 2018, our goal was to be top 15 in the world and we crushed that by quite a bit, then we’d be top five, then top three. That was my mindset through the whole thing, and also knowing I didn’t want it to come down to one tournament or one match, let’s get ahead of it.”
They flew up the rankings, as planned. Began winning medals, as planned. Won an AVP in Seattle, as planned. Stumped the best teams in the world, as planned. It was incendiary, their run.
It wasn’t enough.
“It came down to two tournaments,” she said. “Which is really pretty crazy.”
After competing in 36 international tournaments in three years, Stockman took two or three months off the sand completely. She trained occasionally with her trainer, Mykel Jenkins, but wasn’t consistent. She started therapy. She hit the mountains. Biked a bunch. Spent time with family. Thought a lot.
Did she still want to do this?
“I didn’t feel like myself. I needed time away,” she said. “I was contemplating just retiring and being done. So yeah, the biggest thing for me was mountain time, family time, therapy, and being away from the sand completely.
“I wasn’t really sure. There were a lot of things I had to work through and figure out along the way. Even in the beginning of December, I wasn’t really sure,” she said. Slowly, unsuspecting, the embers began to return. The mountains kindled the passion for the beach she wasn’t sure she’d feel again.
She called her coach, Scott Davenport, who encouraged her, told her she still had good matches left in her legs, more digs in her forearms. She made calls, searching for a suitable partner and found one in Lauren Fendrick, with whom she will, if the points work out as she expects, begin in the Elite 16 of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. And she found, perhaps to her own surprise, the excitement for beach volleyball, for the next chapter, begin to return.
“Normally I take three weeks for Christmas and family for the holidays, but I literally could not wait to get back on the sand,” she said. “I was so excited. Taking that time off just lit the fire again for sure. Every day, I love waking up and going to practice. I love going to Mykel’s. Everything I’m doing is just, yes — this is what I want to be doing.”
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