SOFIA, Bulgaria — Jake MacNeil leaned back in his chair and laughed a laugh that came straight from the belly. And how could he not chuckle at least a little at this year of his?
It’s been a year that has sent him on the road more than any other season of his nascent beach volleyball career, one in which, after a few weeks on the road, he finally intended to return across the Atlantic, but wound up stuck in the Frankfurt Airport. It’s been a year in which he went to the Olympic Games, glimpsing up and close the meticulous attention to detail that proves to be the threshold between world class athletes and those striving to become one.
It’s been a year with enormous moments such as those, helping prepare Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, and Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson to claim a pair of fifths on the game’s biggest stage. And it’s been a year with hilarious moments such as the one in the basement of a hotel in Bulgaria, on the set of a movie — a movie, for crying out loud, one in which MacNeil has a role as the trash-talking villain, a beach volleyball White Goodman.
“The things we get into man, the things we get into,” MacNeil said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It was a strange one altogether. Anytime you’re trying to plan a beach volleyball season it’s a strange one. The people that you meet and the stories that you make and the lifelong friends I have all over the world is insane to me. Everywhere I go I meet someone and it’s just ‘Wow, you have the most amazing story and you’re the sweetest dude I’ve ever met.’ Those things alone are just worth it for me, it makes the journey worth it.”
It’s a journey that is only just beginning for MacNeil. At 25 years old, he’s just a pup, in his third year on the World Tour, rising through the Canadian ranks. This season, he and Will Hoey played in eight FIVBs, finishing with a career-high five top-10s. It was their goal to medal, of course, and medal a lot, but MacNeil understands that results are what they are. It’s how he’s playing that matters.
And Jake MacNeil is playing the best beach volleyball of his burgeoning career.
“I would consider it a success but of course I’m still hungry for more,” MacNeil said. “It was an interesting year but I think you have to look at it objectively not against other years that you’ve had. I think that’s the best way to do it. You just look at it around the other teams you competed against and are in the same realm with. It’s more interesting to look at where we’re ranked in the world. We’re ranked higher even though I lost points. I tried not to focus on ‘Do I have more points?’ I tried to focus on ‘Are we playing better than we were last season?’ And I think yes.
“Our big goal was to break through a fifth. Unfortunately we were stopped short. We got three fifths. That was our main goal. We didn’t necessarily achieve that but we had a lot of growth along the way. Three fifths is still a pretty solid season, especially with the difficulty of the one-stars. Some of these one-stars were really three-and-a-halves. There’s no excuses; we set a goal, we want to hit it. Looking back at it now, we wanted to reach our goal but we’re still proud of our season.”
A strange season it was for all, one that will precede what is likely to be a wild off-season of partner shuffles all over the globe. Canada will be no exception. The top team of Sam Schachter and Sam Pedlow are splitting; nobody is sure yet what the No. 2, Ben Saxton and Grant O’Gorman, are going to do. Where Dan Dearing, another Canadian blocker, stands in the mix is yet to be seen. Wherever the chips may fall, MacNeil has established himself as a chip to be considered as partnerships for Paris get formed.
“I’m excited to put a full off-season in the weight room,” MacNeil said. “Not getting jacked but getting functional, getting in the best shape of my life. And that consistency piece. And that starts with every day, coming into practice with a really solid focus, not getting too bogged down on that one crazy play that’s more out of athleticism but really getting down on the pass is here, every time, no matter what kind of serve, my set is here, every time.”