SANDCAST: Jason Lochhead’s globetrotting route to being two-time Olympic coach

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SANDCAST Jason Lochhead 6/30/2021-Jason Lochhead-Phil Dalhausser-Nick Lucena
Nick Lucena, Jason Lochhead, and Phil Dalhausser at an FIVB (Photo/FIVB)

Jason Lochhead was tied for second, sitting 8-under par at the 2013 Nevada Championship, when he suffered the worst — or, if you’d like to consider it existentially, best — hole of his burgeoning golf career. He took an eight, an ignominious quadruple bogey.

He’d scramble well from there, finishing his final round at 1-under par, good for 30th overall, high enough to make back his $750 entry fee. But that quadruple bogey, and subsequent slide down the leaderboard, nudged Lochhead to take a look at his finances. Here he was, playing one of the most expensive sports in the world, playing some of the best golf of his life — and he was barely breaking even.

“I gotta make some money,” he recalled thinking on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

His mom had always told him he’d make a good coach one day. It was a compliment that, as compliments from mothers are wont to do, only frustrated Lochhead.

“I’d be like ‘Nah, I’m not a coach, I’m a player! I’m not even thinking about coaching,’” Lochhead said.

Back then, when Lochhead was having those conversations with his mother, he wasn’t a golfer; he was a beach volleyball player. A rare sort, too. A native of New Zealand, Lochhead stood just 5-foot-10, aspiring to play a sport that prized height, representing a nation that had never competed in the Olympic Games. But while New Zealand had never made a dent on the World Tour, it boasted, and continues to boast, one of the best National Tours in the world.

“When I was coming up, the New Zealand Tour was probably at its best, so every year we would get two of the top five teams in the world,” Lochhhead said. “We had the Laciga brothers (Martin and Paul, of Switzerland, who competed in the 2008 Olympics) out there, we had Julius Brink (of Germany, who won the 2012 Olympic gold medal) out there, we had some really good teams. As a young kid, 15, 16, I could play against these guys and get a taste of it, which was amazing. And then I was getting close to these guys, or I took a set off of them, and I just thought maybe I could compete, maybe I could do this.”

When he was 19, he had a choice to make: Beach volleyball, a virtually unheard of career in New Zealand, or take a full-time job. He even had a job offer at an electrical company. Full pay. Benefits. Certifications. The works. Or he could put down all $8,000 of New Zealand cash he had saved up, and hit the World Tour with Kirk Pittman, then one of the best players in the country.

“That was my opportunity,” Lochhead said. “We said ‘Let’s just go out there and see what happens.’”

For seven months, they hit the road, competing all over the globe, qualifying for main draws in China, Puerto Rico, Poland, and Brazil. They made enough back to break even, a victory in and of itself for a teenager pursuing beach volleyball from a country not known for it. They narrowly missed qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics but finished the season on a high note: A fourth at the Klagenfurt Grand Slam, and a bronze in Norway one month later. It was enough to make another run at London, in 2012. Again, they fell just short, finishing ranked No. 30 in the world.

Lochhead didn’t intend to retire after that. He and Pittman decided a year off would be good, both for the mind and soul. Like many men might do during a year-long sabbatical off work, Lochhead turned to golf.

“I was super into golf. I was a scratch golfer, so I said ‘I’m going to give golf a go,’ ” he said. “I was living in Los Angeles, and I started training full time golf, started playing in all these tournaments. I was always finishing top five, won a couple.”

Which is when he entered the Nevada Championship, and everything came undone with that quadruple bogey, sending him careening down the leader board. To make a little money on the side and continue funding his golfing ambitions, Lochhead began coaching, just private lessons here and there.

But then the strangest, most intriguing of opportunities presented itself: Vanuatu needed a coach for its national team. Would Lochhead be interested?

“I figured I could go out there, coach them for a couple of months, make a little bit of coin, and then get back to golf,” Lochhead said. “That’s where it started. It was not planned. I took them on and had a blast and they did really good and got better and better.”

A number of teams on the World Tour noticed Vanuatu’s climb — and they also noticed the red-headed Kiwi leading them. Germany’s Markus Bockermann and Mischa Urbatzka needed a coach for the 2014 Gstaad Grand Slam and asked if Lochhead might want to take the job. The Vanuatan team was cool with it, and Lochhead helped the Germans to a ninth, their best finish of the year.

“And that’s when Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk asked if I was coaching guys,” Lochhead recalled, laughing. “And I said ‘Well, I’m here.’ So they wanted me to coach them in the next tournament and that grew from there. Then it went on from there. Pretty crazy. Then I ran out of time for golf and fell in love with coaching.”

Saxton and Schalk hired Lochhead full-time. Over the next two years, they would win five World Tour medals en route to qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games. When Lochhead took them on, they were ranked No. 24. At the end, they were in the top-10. Just as Germany had noticed Lochhead coaching Vanuatu, and Canada had noticed him with Germany, an American team could not ignore Lochhead’s repeated success.

“We were starting 2017, and it was maybe February, and we had done a few trainings with Phil [Dalhausser] and Nick [Lucena], and I was in San Francisco, and Nick calls me up and said ‘Hey, we’re thinking about getting a new coach and we think you’d be awesome. What do you think about this?’ I thought ‘Oh my God, this is insane. I’m going to need some time to think about this,’” Lochhead said. “Pretty much didn’t sleep the next couple nights. It was a really hard decision. Obviously you have Phil and Nick, Phil who’s going to go down as one of the best blockers ever, but then I have Ben and Chaim, and we’re really good friends as well.

“It was a tough decision, but you’re never going to get an opportunity like that again, to coach someone who’s already won a gold medal. It’s the equivalent of Michael Jordan asking you to coach. Have to say yes. I remember talking to them: If I do this, we’re going for the Olympics, right?”

Five years later — “none of us thought it would be five years,” Lochhead said. “Damn COVID.” — that is exactly where they are. In Ostrava, Lucena and Dalhausser qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. It will be Dalhausser’s fourth as an individual, and the second for both Lucena and Lochhead. On the way, they’ve won 10 AVPs, including the Manhattan Beach Open, and four gold medals on the FIVB.

Yet there is one more goal on the list: An Olympic gold in Tokyo.

“Eyes are on the gold medal. That’s what we want,” Lochhead said. “We can definitely do it, but it’s going to be super hard. You need some luck to go your way. But we’ve talked a lot about how do we want to feel after this Olympics?

“Having that good feeling after: We did everything we could, we enjoyed the moment of putting everything out there. We’re going to make sure it’s not a bitter finish. Obviously for Phil, this is it, this is the last one. Nick wants to play more. It’s kind of like the Last Dance: This is it.”

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