HERMOSA BEACH, California — For 30 seconds, Katie Spieler allowed herself to wallow. She’d heard the unmistakable sounds of injury. Pop pop pop. Three of them, all in a row, loud enough for her to hear. The sounds of her 2021 beach volleyball season, and potentially more, being put to rest.

Others who had seen her go down at the Pottstown Rumble last June attempted to console her. Maybe she just twisted her knee. Fell funny. That’s all. But even the daughter of a man so optimistic his kids call him Positive Paul knew that something was definitively wrong. So for 30 seconds, Spieler allowed the inevitable flood of the worst imaginable possibilities enter her mind.

My season is done.

I’m going to be a club director for the rest of my life.

Who am I, what am I, without volleyball?

But when the 30 seconds were up, “it was a pretty quick switch,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Once I got over that initial thing, and getting the news that I tore the ACL, I said ‘Ok, this is my route. This is what I’m going to do.’”

And then Katie Spieler, the AVP’s resident Honeybee, began her expedited route back to “the good life.”

At 27 years old, Katie Spieler is a marvel. Both physical and mental. She stands just 5-foot-5 yet won 102 matches at the University of Hawai’i, more than anyone in history at the time of her graduation, which she did in four years with both a bachelor’s and master’s in hand. She has won volleyball tournaments on the beach, snow, grass, and dirt. She is currently, alongside her teammates Karissa Cook, Emily Hartong, Allie Wheeler, Geena Urango, and Kelly Reeves, the defending World Champion in fours beach volleyball. She has made AVP Sundays. When she was 9 years old, she and a partner set the unofficial record for most passes back and forth. That number is 2,004, and the two were forced to stop because “they were concerned for our health.” She once dressed as Karch Kiraly for Halloween.

All of this made it awfully fair for Spieler to wonder, in the immediate moments following her ACL tear last June, what her life would be without volleyball, who she would be in the roughly nine months of rehab, during much of which she would be limited by a straight leg knee brace. But as quickly as that existential angst appeared came this objective reality: Katie Spieler cannot, will not, be limited or held down by anything.

Can’t move her legs? Fine. She’ll call up Todd Rogers, the Professor, and ask for drills she could do while sitting or lying down.

“He gave me a progression of eye work and that’s been something,” Spieler said. “He said ‘You need to work on it, people are beating you because of this.’ And I said ‘Yes, yes, you’re right.’ That was cool. Because for months I was in a straight leg brace, that was the only thing I could do other than visualization and meditation and those things.”

Can’t practice normally? She’ll find a wall, sit in front of it, and pepper by herself.

Can’t hit the gym? Her sister, Cara, a former outside and opposite hitter for Tufts University, would physically carry Katie through the break at East Beach in Santa Barbara, and together they’d go on open water swims. No wetsuit, either, mind you. Just two girls, sweet as the honey their bees make and tough as nails, swimming in the same outfits in which they’d play beach volleyball. For three months, Cara would do this, until Katie could propel herself through the break on her own again.

Can’t coach her club, East Beach Volleyball Academy, in Santa Barbara? She’d keep herself busy, getting her real estate license, flipping a property with her siblings they have since rented out — Katie served both as general contractor and hired help — helping her mom with her real estate business.

“I feel like the luckiest person in the world with the people who helped me,” Spieler said. “I feel like I’m in this position where I need to work as hard as I can because I have no many people helping me. It’s a good whirlwind of things that came out of an unfortunate event but the stars just keep aligning and I’m like ‘Oh, cool, I’ll just keep going with it here.’

“It’s been a combination of a few things but perspective: I tore my ACL. There are so many worse things that can happen to people and I’m able to come back and play a sport and the recovery chances for ACL are very high, it’s a common injury. I always knew I was going to get back to playing, which was great, just having that light at the end of the tunnel. And also just realizing that there are a lot of things other than volleyball, and that’s so hard for a lot of us. But it forced me — I got my real estate license, was doing ocean swims every day, I was in a different community. Found ways to get excited about what that change of direction was going to bring to me and also, in the long term, I felt like it was going to benefit me.”

Katie Spieler
Katie Spieler celebrates a point/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

She wants to take this perspective. Bottle it up and take a swig when she loses a tough match or falls short in a tournament. She’s still a voracious competitor, Spieler. One does not accidentally become the winningest player at a perennial power, after all.

“I never wanted to take for granted the ability to take a jog or do anything active. I’m so stoked on playing right now,” she said. “All I need to do is compete. No more drills. All I want to do is compete. I want to channel that as much as I can.”

It is hardly shy of amazing how well she is competing again. Her first tournament back, partnered with Kim Hildreth in one of the tiniest teams in beach volleyball memory — they are a combined 11 feet, 1 inch tall; a full two-and-a-half feet shorter than Andy Benesh and Phil Dalhausser, the giants who would win AVP Austin — was, by the scoreboard’s objective measurement, subpar. They lost all three matches in a tune-up CBVA.

It’s also worth noting that Spieler shouldn’t have been able to play in the first place. The minimum recovery time for an ACL tear is nine months. She competed in a CBVA — including one game in which she didn’t even wear her brace, for goodness sakes — before that. The following week, in Austin, marked the nine-month mark from her tear.

They didn’t win a match, but twice they would go to three sets, with Delaney Mewhirter and Maria Clara Salgado, and Geena Urango and Carly Skjodt. Had you not known that Spieler took six months off of volleyball, and could only fully train for six weeks prior to Austin, you’d have thought she’d been training through the off-season.

“I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to have the perspective of just appreciating playing because we’re all super competitive, but I have to put it in perspective: I’m literally coming off a knee surgery, nine months. I really wanted to just be happy to be there,” Spieler said. “I was just so happy to be there and I’m so stoked on playing. That has been different from when I went down. I loved volleyball, but there was something that was not as fun for me and I think that nine months and that knee surgery, that changed it for me. I’m so happy to be out there and whatever happens on the court is what it is; it’s just about being out there for me.”

After Austin, she returned to Santa Barbara, where she and Dana Kabashima run East Beach Academy. Their spring session is huge, filling 10 courts with junior players, a staggering number when considering they had a single kid when they founded the club.

“It was the coolest thing,” she said. “I’m like ‘We did this.’ I just had this thought that this, I’m so proud of that, and I’m so happy that we did that and what a thing that we created. I’m so much more than what I’ll finish in Austin. There’s so much more to life. That was a cool moment for me because before, playing really defined me and it was my whole thing, and now, from this and life, there’s all these other things.

“If playing’s great, great. If not, there’s all these other cool things in life and I’m really happy and stoked on them. That’s been really cool for me to shut off: Bad practice? Ok. I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try to be way better next time. But also, there’s a lot else that’s going on.”


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