Editor’s note: Kent Steffes, this week’s guest, and Travis Mewhirter recently published a book, Kings of Summer: The Rise of Beach Volleyball. You can find it on Amazon.
Kent Steffes almost died two weekends ago. Honest to God. Made a surprise appearance at the Manhattan Six-Man and felt his heart rate double then triple and then his brain began dumping memories, so many memories, into the forefront of his mind that, had he actually gone down that day, a coroner may have proclaimed it death by nostalgia.
You have to hear him talk about it on our podcast, SANDCAST with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
“That’s why I can’t go,” Steffes said of beach volleyball tournaments. “I was so excited my heart was pounding, I was going to have a heart attack, which would have been really bad because I would have died. I was so excited, my heart was pounding, I was about to pass out. That’s how great it was.
“I loved playing beach volleyball. I loved playing tournaments as a kid. As a player, I couldn’t wait to get out there and it all floods back to me. That’s why I can’t get out there. It’s too exciting. It’s so fun. Beach volleyball’s an amazing sport. I still think about it, and I’m 54.”
Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times and you won’t find a quote like that anywhere between the years of 1988, Steffes’ first professional season on the AVP, and 1998, his last. On that matter, you can trust me. I’ve done it. Spent hours upon hours upon countless hours at the Newport Beach Public Library researching for Kings of Summer — much of the research was done when I still lived in Costa Mesa, California — reading through every Los Angeles Times story that mentioned the word beach volleyball.
For somewhere around a year now, I’ve either talked or met with Steffes multiple times a week as we hashed out the final details of Kings of Summer. The difference between the perception of Steffes as a player in the ’90s and the actual man is staggering. The man painted by the Los Angeles Times is one of a cold, calculating, win-at-all-costs player who was savage in his relationships, a man who cared about two things in life, and two things only: Winning, and money.
There are, of course, truths to these stereotypes, much of which is also Steffes’ own doing. He’s one of the sharpest, more brilliant men I’ve ever met. He knew what the media wanted in the ’90s, knew the characters and behaviors that drew fans and attention and, yes, money, into sport.
“If you weren’t controversial you didn’t get the article and they would only quote guys who said the most brash stuff,” he wrote in Kings of Summer. “But it was just hype, not really true. The articles led to publicity, publicity led to increased fan interest and more sponsorship opportunity. A simple formula for marketing and promotion.”
Controversial, then, he was, no different than the other dominant players from his era. Tim Hovland once sliced Sinjin Smith’s pinky with a windshield wiper. Karch Kiraly wondered to the media prior to the 1996 Olympics if Sinjin might have to be wheeled onto the court on a wheelchair, given his age (Sinjin was 39 at the time). Randy Stoklos once choked an unruly fan in Laguna Beach.
“We were young and cocky,” Mike Dodd said in the book.
Steffes was no different. When, at 21 years old, he met Kiraly for lunch in 1990, to discuss a potential partnership, Kiraly asked him how he thought they would fare as partners. Steffes figured on winning 17 of 21 tournaments, a stunning number given that Steffes had only won a single AVP at the time, and that no team — not Sinjin and Stoklos, not Hovland and Dodd — had ever won that many tournaments in a year.
That wasn’t a ploy for the media. That was genuine Steffes: Self-assured, confident, justifiably cocky. For more than a decade, however, as the game exploded and the torch was passed from Sinjin to Steffes as the face of beach volleyball, Steffes was mostly stereotyped as a man who didn’t care so much about the sport of beach volleyball and it’s growth — only for his personal records and bottom line.
He is anything but.
He is, as my wife Delaney jokingly called him one night at dinner, “beach volleyball’s man of mystery,” because so much about him has become impossible to separate between man and myth. When Steffes was forced to retire in 1998 — after winning nine of 17 events that season — because the AVP went bankrupt, he, for the most part, disappeared. An athlete in his prime at the age of 30, still at the top of his game, far and away the most dominant player in the sport, simply vanished.
“I didn’t realize how I ended at this point in my career,” Steffes said. “I wish I didn’t. I wish the tour went on. I would have played. But at the time the tour was transitioning to the FIVB tour, the events were spaced out, I would have to move to Europe, and I had other things to do. I would have loved to have played. I would have still played.”
You won’t find a quote like that in the Los Angeles Times or Sports Illustrated or any of the other newspapers and magazines that covered beach volleyball in the 1990s, simply because they don’t exist. One of the more fascinating elements of writing this book with Steffes was to see how inaccurate the portrait painted of him was. He loved winning, yes, and he loved the money that came with it. He was controversial, partly because this was sports in the 90s, and athletes — the best of them — were controversial. There was a need for it.
But more than the money and the winning and the notoriety was this: Kent Steffes loved — no, loves — beach volleyball. And, for the most part, he loved the men with whom — and against — he played it.
“I think the most exciting thing about [writing the book] was all the memories that came dredging up and remembering how exciting it was, how much fun I had, how great it was to win,” Steffes said. “You just don’t get that elsewhere in life: 40 great guys you know and you’re friends with and you’re all hanging out and competing and we’re winning and we’re traveling and we’re making money.
“The first time we talked I went back into ’90s mode and just started dropping F bombs and saying things you can’t say anymore. And then I think a couple things were: When you experience it as a young athlete, you can’t necessarily articulate what’s going on, what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling. You need some time to digest what’s happening so you can communicate it effectively.
“Working with you on this book, I’ve realized things that happened that I didn’t care to contemplate, and now I’m thinking ‘Wow, that’s why this happened. That’s why this went this way.’ What I see now is not what we did.
“It was thinking about this stuff and remembering it and getting excited and talking to the guys. I interviewed The Hov and we I met him at a bar of course because he’s The Hov, and we couldn’t even talk because people kept coming up to us so that was fun.”
One of my favorite chapters to write in the book is the 12th, which is essentially a 5,000-word feature on Steffes. It became so not because of the topic, but because of how much we had to rework it. It was paramount for Steffes that we get it right. In one of the original drafts, I had written that Steffes’ view the world was that in life, there are winners and losers, and that’s decided by the scoreboard. Steffes told me that wasn’t quite right. And so we reworked it, getting his ethos, his philosophy, correct, for the first time.
“There are winners and there are those who do not win,” he requested we write instead, “and they are clearly defined by an objective scoreboard. Steffes’ goal — his calling, his personal philosophy — was to win.
From the book:
It should be the goal of any competitor in any sport to win. He didn’t much care for joining the ole boys club in the players tent between matches. The goal of many others in the sport wasn’t necessarily to win but to carve out a lifestyle, a community, a tribe. When Steffes was criticized by players who couldn’t beat him, players who were in it for the Californian lifestyle the promoters so loved to market, he would almost take it as a compliment, a badge of honor.
Many who couldn’t beat Steffes, rather than putting in extra hours on the beach or in the weight room to rectify the situation, simply took to criticizing him. It was those who were not winning who still had the audacity to criticize who ticked off Steffes the most. It’s not that he would become incensed by them; he just couldn’t understand, couldn’t empathize, couldn’t relate. Nor did he particularly care to. Beach volleyball was — and still is — divided by those who viewed it as a job, a business, a calling, and those who viewed it as a lifestyle, just another day at the beach. It was the lifestylers, the ones who were satisfied taking fifths, ninths, thirteenths — just enough to keep beach volleyball as their job, but who didn’t care to raise their game to the next level, to break through that threshold — who were the most vocal.
Where Steffes saw criticism, he saw losers. Plain and simple. The others? The elites? The fellow alphas who viewed Steffes as the ultimate competitor, a man who might have beat them, but who forced them to raise their game, and therefore raise the level of the sport? The Sinjins and Karchs of the world? They respected him. Respected his work ethic, the furnace of a competitive fire he had within him. Respected his approach to the sport they loved and what he was doing for it. And Steffes enjoyed genuine friendships with many. Still, to this day, Steffes gets dinner with Sinjin, chops it up with Hovland. He loves them all, and loved them then, too. They were excellent competitors. And wasn’t that what they were doing? Competing? Iron sharpening iron?
Steffes, you see, was as much about the process of winning as he was the winning itself. When he saw his peers putting in the work, as he did, he respected them, and they him. He loved the grit required, the mental toughness, the physicality. That combination proved to be the alchemy to becoming the most dominant player in the history of beach volleyball.
“Best winner I ever played with,” said Jose Loiola, who played the 1997 season with Steffes and won 13 tournaments.
“The reason why I focused on winning was because I was really bad at all the other elements of beach volleyball,” Steffes said. “I could hit, I could serve OK, but I wasn’t the best hitter on tour, I wasn’t the best server on tour, blocking I wasn’t even close to the top, my defense was horrible, my setting was hit or miss at the time.
“If you look at the individual skills, I wasn’t any good at them, so I looked at winning and said I’m going to focus on that. Surprisingly enough, not everyone is focused on winning, and when you focus on winning and you set yourself what I call the winning mindset, and you set that as your goal — my goal is to win, period — you, amazingly, get really good at it. I think it’s a skill you can learn, it’s a skill you can train like passing, setting, hitting, and it’s a skill you can get better at. It’s called winning.”
Winning, outside of the confines of an objective victor and loser, such as beach volleyball, is in the eyes of the beholder. The goal is simple in beach volleyball: Score 21 points faster than the other. At a dinner a few months ago, at Steffes’ house with Sinjin and Patty Smith, Steffes wondered what my goal was with this book.
“To get the truth of what the ’90s era looked like,” I said.
Steffes challenged that notion.
“What do you mean, the truth?”
He mentioned this several times, and I didn’t really know what I meant by it. In time, what I found was that it wasn’t the truth I was after, but the myriad perceptions and stories, both imagined and real, of the players and influential individuals at the time. There wasn’t a single player I found in years of research who had been as strangely misperceived and and misrepresented Steffes had been. Not that he’s too bothered by it. He wrote the book. He came on the podcast. He dove back into this world he loves so much, and it nearly killed him to do so.
And now, sitting on Tri Bourne’s couch, a microphone in front of his face, he laughs and jokes that “it’s good you got me on before I disappear for another 20 years.”