HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Taryn Kloth is insistent that her and Kristen Nuss are not friends. Not anymore.
“We’re sisters,” Kloth said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “That’s the way it is.”
That comment may cue an eye roll from readers. It can be cliché in the beach world to call your partner a sister or brother, or label your team as family. But there is something that is undeniably different about Kloth and Nuss. They are, in a literal sense, more than partners.
They live together, for one. Their unique location, in Louisiana, puts them in a position where they are virtually tethered together for all things volleyball, and life, for that matter. They once spent a week apart, figuring they’d appreciate the break from one another. They both hated it.
“This is kind of embarrassing to say, but Kristen is the longest relationship that’s not just a normal friendship and not a family member I’ve ever had,” Kloth, the 25-year-old blocker, said. “I was just looking at our relationship and I said ‘I want to have Kristen as a friend, Kristen as a business partner, Kristen as a partner.’ Those three things are different.
“This last week we had a non-volleyball dinner. Putting those into our schedule is super helpful, sometimes having breaks. We spent a week apart and it was the longest we had gone apart in three years.”
Throughout that week, the 5-foot-6 Nuss was constantly texting the 6-4 Kloth, and vice versa. Unbelievable as it may sound, the two women who spent nearly every single day together since Kloth was promoted to court one at LSU in 2021 actually missed each other.
Maybe that sounds a bit much. A little separation of church and state can be a useful thing in relationships as loaded with competitive tension as theirs, where much of your personal, financial, and Olympic aspirations are heaped onto your partner’s shoulders. But it’s possible that Kloth and Nuss needed — and still need — one another more than any other partnership in the United States.
It was less than a year ago that they competed in their first international tournament, a Futures in Coolangatta, Australia. They began buried on the reserve list, and Kloth had even initially signed up with Aurora Davis, hoping to use her points to pull her into the event. Eventually, Davis was swapped for Nuss, the reserve list was whittled down, the two made it into the qualifier and wound up winning gold. That event was a microcosm for the mad dash that would become the 2022 season, one in which they knew virtually nothing about competing on the Beach Pro Tour, and all of the other intricacies that come with it: booking flights, finding gyms (they hardly lifted on the road last year), understanding restaurant hours, hailing Ubers.
“Each tournament I felt like we learned 15 things that everybody just knows,” Kloth said. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know if we had to play the next day or if we could go home. Couldn’t find food sometimes, didn’t know if the restaurant was open. Everybody else just had it down to a T.”
There was that time, in Itapema, Brazil, for their first Challenge event where they figured they were finished playing for the day after upsetting Switzerland’s Esmee Bobner and Zoe Verge Depre in the second round of pool. If it weren’t for Lisa Reed, a physiotherapist for USA Volleyball, they might not have shown up to their lucky loser match later that night, against Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon. Even then, they barely made it. Restaurants in Brazil operate at odd hours, and the match was scheduled for 6 or 7 p.m., Nuss can’t recall exactly. What she can recall is that the food took longer than expected, they couldn’t get a ride to the venue, and so, with an hour to go, they simply ran down the streets of Itapema for 15 minutes until they arrived.
“We get there and they’re fully warm. We peppered and then it was game time,” Nuss said, laughing at the memory. “And we played very well. We were just cruising. Everything was clicking. We were like ‘Should we do this every time?’”
These types of stories happened everywhere. In Gstaad, Switzerland, half the Volleyball World staff was wondering why Nuss and Kloth hadn’t shown up to stadium court, where they were scheduled to play Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka in the quarterfinals. They were miles down the road, on the warm-up courts.
They didn’t know they were allowed to use the stadium court to warm up…for their match…on stadium court.
“No idea,” Kloth said with a shrug.
They lost a thriller to the Latvians, 19-21, 21-18, 18-20, which brought about an entirely new discipline of learning for them: How to lose. Prior to 2022, they hadn’t had to deal with it. They won all 36 matches they played together in college. They won 10 of their first 11 tournaments as semi-professionals, collecting AVPNext and AVPNext Gold victories in Atlantic City, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Huntington Beach, Waupaca, and Atlantic City again, among others. They won the first AVP they ever played, stunning the field in Atlanta in 2021 after coming out of the qualifier. They dropped just four matches their entire rookie season, three coming to eventual Olympic gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman, the other to Kelly Cheng and Sarah Sponcil, the youngest Olympic team in American history.
In 2022, they were forced to reckon with the fact that losing is a real, and regular, part of the game.
“Last year really did make us both realize that we haven’t really lost,” said Nuss, the winningest player in NCAA Beach Volleyball history. “That sounds so wild to say but we really didn’t know how to lose. We had to figure stuff out. It put us in uncomfortable situations. It was constant communication. We’re still trying to figure it out. I’ve learned to realize that if we lose it’s not the end of the world. We were treating it like it was life or death after, especially at the beginning.”
They did win three of their first four tournaments in 2022, bringing home golds in Coolangatta and Kusadasi, Turkey, as well as AVP Austin. But Kusadasi was the last tournament they’d win for four months. Nuss had to learn that Kloth needed a few beats — maybe an hour, maybe more — to, as Kloth calls it, “get unangry.” Kloth had to understand that Nuss could, and probably would, dissect every point of the match as if it had just happened seconds ago.
“After a loss we do not talk for a little while, then one person chills enough to be like ‘I’m ready to talk when you are,’” Kloth said. “Then we have our conversation. It’s been our way to diffuse a situation and make progress from that. If you lose and you’re not getting anything out of it — losing sucks already, then you’re not getting any benefit. We do learn a ton when we lose. It just really sucks.”
Kloth takes the losses harder than Nuss. She loses sleep, tossing back and forth, mulling over the possibilities of what would have happened if she placed her seam hand a little firmer, if she hit a line shot a little higher, if she set Nuss a little better. Nuss, too, is as spunky a competitor as you’ll find, but she’s quicker to accept a loss, and to accept their reality that is still unbelievable to them: They now have the chance to explore the most exotic and beautiful locations in the world, to take a day or two reprieve from beach volleyball, and to enjoy the lovely side effects losing can bring.
“We’re still going to wake up, we’re in Doha, we get to go see this country I never thought I’d be in. It was flipping that perspective,” Nuss said. “We’re still holding ourselves accountable. We’re still going to wake up. This is my best friend. I still want to do this with her.”
Like sisters, they bicker.
Like friends, they support one another through their worst matches.
Like business partners, they’ve done an excellent job of branding themselves, with a newsletter, vlog, merchandise, sponsors, and a Louisiana community that backs them as if they’re a team as local as the Saints or Pelicans.
Like any successful team, they push one another and hold one another accountable.
That rare alchemy has resulted in Nuss and Kloth winning the 2022 AVP and VolleyballMag Team of the Year. They are the No. 1 ranked American team on the Beach Pro Tour, and the seventh-best team in the world. What’s astonishing to note is that they haven’t even been playing professionally on the international stage for a full year just yet.
“I still don’t think I’ve processed everything that’s happened and I don’t think I will until we have a normal year,” Kloth said, and then both her and Nuss laughed.
As if anything about this team, or its path, is normal.