ITAPEMA, Brazil — It was happening again. It couldn’t be happening again.
It was mid-July, and England’s No. 1-ranked beach volleyball team, a pair of fraternal twins named Javier Bello and Joaquin Bello, were locked in yet another third set.
Tiebreaks hadn’t been kind to the Bellos of late. Eight straight matches they had lost when they went three.
In back-to-back-to-back matches in Cancun, they fell in the third set in the first round of the qualifier: 14-16 to Estonia’s Kusti Nolvak and Mart Tiisaar, 14-16 to Austria’s Martin Ermacora and Moritz Pristauz-Telsnigg, 12-15 to Italy’s Andrea Abbiati and Tiziano Andreatta. The last time the two had prevailed in the third stretched as far back as 2019, and here they were again, in the first round of a qualifier on the Spanish National Tour, locked in a third set with a team they’d never heard of.
But then the strangest thing happened, something they hadn’t experienced in nearly two full years: They won.
And then, for the remainder of the 2021 season, Javier and Joaquin Bello did little else but win.
They won that event in Spain, trumping a field thick with young European talents as well as Spain’s No. 2 team. Then they won gold at a one-star in Portugal, and a bronze in the Netherlands. A season that began with four consecutive losses in the first round of the qualifier was flipped on its head, finishing with four top-10 finishes in five events, with two gold medals and that bronze in Nijmegen.
“We always play better towards the end of the season when we have that competition experience,” Javier said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “In Cancun, we weren’t prepared to deliver the good results. We were playing pretty well but I think we needed Cancun to then play well later in the season. Every week, we can feel the difference. Statistically as well, we’re making less errors, we’re scoring more, that’s giving us confidence.”
They know they peak later in the year, the Bellos. They thrive off competition, yet in England, where they have lived since they were 10 years old, there isn’t much competition to be had. They’re just 21 years old, yet are the two-time defending national champions in the United Kingdom, which says just as much about their talent as it does the overall dearth of it in the UK.
Since they were 11, the natives of Madrid, Spain, have been playing in adult tournaments, by the simple virtue that there weren’t enough youth to play against.
“It was always really, really fun, when we were little, we were playing against grown men,” said Joaquin Bello, who is technically the younger of the two, and the blocker, though both stand 6-foot-1.
They’ve always loved the fact that they’ve played leagues above their age. When they were young and still living in Spain, their father, a former professional player himself, gifted them a translated copy of Karch Kiraly’s book, The Sandman. In its early pages, Kiraly writes about not only how much he loved playing against the older men — he was intent on breaking Larry Rundle’s record of youngest player to compete in an adult tournament in California, at age 11 — but in it as well.
“The beauty of it is, of course, no grown man ever wants to go back to his friends and say he lost to an 11-year-old kid or a 12-year-old kid,” Kiraly said when he appeared on SANDCAST. “That is just not going to happen if he can avoid it. They were relentless and merciless upon me. They served me every ball. I wasn’t tall enough or jumped high enough to hit hard or hit down. I had to figure out different answers. It was the best thing that could have happened to me because nobody wants to lose to some punky little kid. It helped me get better, a lot faster.”
If it worked for Karch, it could work for them.
“When we were 13, 14, we were playing senior tournaments,” Javier Bello said. “From the beginning, we were at the highest. It kind of helped that beach volleyball isn’t big in England. We had the opportunity to practice against grown men when we were younger.”
But as they began advancing in age and talent, and the opportunity to compete on the World Tour became a very real possibility, they knew that even the grown men in England wouldn’t be, as the Bellos call it, the best “sparring partners.”
No, they’d have to get outside of the UK.
They’d have to go to Tenerife.
For years now, Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, has been home to Europe’s most popular pre-season training camp. Peruse the World Tour rankings, and you’ll find that most every team in the top-10 spends their preseason there.
And so it was that, this past winter, the Bellos found themselves amongst Germany’s Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, Spain’s Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera, Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner, Latvia’s Janis Smedins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs.
“There was no one below the top 50 in the world training there,” Javier Bello said. “We got the 12-2 p.m. slot because that was the only one available every day. It was really inspiring going there because you go train and then after you see Perusic and Schweiner, see what they’re doing, and being around those players is motivating. Sometimes you get an opportunity. Just being with other great players makes you try your best and ups your level.”
They noted the attention to detail the Czechs put in every rep, how Schweiner would sprint to cover every ball, even in a warm-up setting drill. They saw the quality in every passing rep, the focus. The top teams in the world never dropped their level, even in the most banal of drills.
“There are some teams that work harder than others, and we got to see that: If we work hard, we can be one of those better teams,” Javier Bello said. “That motivated us: We just need to work hard.”
The hard work has already paid off, and certainly will continue to do so, as the Bellos are only just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. It’s why they don’t put much weight into how much they’ve already accomplished, at just 21 years old: Their goals go far higher than anything they’ve done thus far.
“We don’t think about our ages as ‘Oh we’re only 21.’ This could be taken away at any moment,” Javier Bello said. “We could get injured, [Joaquin] is studying medicine so he could pursue that. We don’t take anything for granted, so we’re never thinking ‘we’re only 21, we have 10 years, 15 years.’ Stuff we achieved when we were young, we just take it and move onto the next one.
“We’re still 21, we’re still building our own career. I think that moment will come where we will need to look back and help others. But that moment is not here.”