The 2009 Beach Volleyball World Championships were, in that ironic sort of way that things can sometimes tend to go, both somewhat of a disaster and inarguably the greatest thing that ever happened to Norwegian beach volleyball. Of the four Norwegian teams in the men’s field that year in Stavanger, Norway, considered by many to be one of the best stops on the World Tour, the highest-finishing teams tied for 17th. The women didn’t fare much better: The three teams finished 17th, 17th, and 37th.
The men and women on the courts that weekend were, simply, outgunned. But it wasn’t the ones competing that weekend that made those 2009 World Championships a subtle turning point in the sport’s history; it was two kids in the stands, watching the greats in Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann, Alison Cerutti and Harley Marques. Born were the outsized dreams of children: They wanted to win a World Championship one day, as Reckermann and Brink did.
Thirteen years later, that’s exactly what Anders Mol and Christian Sorum did.
Volleyball wasn’t new to either of the Norwegians then. Hardly. Mol’s family is practically royalty when it comes to volleyball in Norway. His mother, Merita Berntsen, competed in the 1996 Olympic Games, the first to feature beach volleyball in the program. His father, Kaare, played more than 100 matches for the Norwegian indoor national team and is the team’s coach; Anders’ uncle serves as the assistant. All of them have either attended or work for — or both — the now-famed Top Volley Academy, a boarding school in southern Norway that produced the likes of Anders and Sorum, as well as Hendrik Mol and Mathias Berntsen, who is both Hendrik’s partner and cousin.
“It’s kind of a family business,” Kaare told the media during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Sorum isn’t, technically speaking, a family member, though for all intents and purposes he may as well be. Like the Mols, he was raised on the sport. It was how his parents met. When the time came to pursue either volleyball or soccer, it was an easy choice: “I chose volleyball,” Sorum said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter four years ago. “I always liked the beach more. You’re always a part of the game, you have to do all of the skills –]pp defense, setting.”
It is now a fact that no player in the world plays defense as well as Sorum, that no player blocks or sides out as well as Mol, that no team has even the smallest margin to make an argument for who is the best in the world. When Sorum and Mol swept Brazil’s Renato Lima and Vitor Felipe in the finals of last weekend’s World Championships, they laid claim to every major title in beach volleyball, all at once: 2021 World Tour Finals, 2021 Olympic Games, 2021 European Championships, 2022 World Championships.
It is silly. Freakish, in the most complimentary of ways. And, had it not been for their home country hosting the Stavanger World Championships in 2009, it’s possible none of this would have happened at all.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to play beach volleyball: When I saw the World Championship in Stavanger, I said ‘I am in love with this game,’” Sorum said. “The crowd, the sport, it was so crazy.”
It was Sorum, funny enough, who pulled Mol onto the beach. Mol was playing indoors while Sorum hit the World Tour with Berntsen. A few too many pictures from Brazil was all Mol needed to know: The beach was where he needed to be.
“I saw Christian and Mathias, traveling the world, sending me pictures from Brazil, and I was super jealous,” Mol said. “I wanted to jump on that train as well.”
When 2018 began, Mol and Sorum were the boys who would become king, just 21 and 22 years old, respectively. They finished out that season, their first full year as partners, on back to back to back wins in Gstaad, Vienna, and Hamburg, the biggest three events on the calendar. In between, they sandwiched their first of a record four consecutive European Championships.
“We always try to develop, always try to improve our game, and now, even though we’re number one in the world, there is much to improve,” Mol said. “We want to keep pushing our level. That’s our motivation as well: We want to see how good we can become. We want to push the sport to a higher level.”
Does that sound familiar? It should. Mol said those words on SANDCAST four years ago, and he repeated them, nearly verbatim, after winning the gold medal match in Rome — four straight years of being on top of the world. Much has changed in the sport, yet Mol and Sorum, at their core, have remained very much the same: They are the same students of the game they were 13 years ago, when they soaked in all of those matches as teenagers in Stavanger.
“For me, I don’t think about the previous tournaments,” Sorum said four years ago. “When you tell me now, that we won four tournaments in a row, I can’t believe it because it’s so crazy. If you asked me in May, if anyone will win four tournaments in a row, I’d say no. The FIVB level is so good now. Teams from the qualifier can win. The level is so high. We just play and focus on playing and we get confidence while you’re winning.”
What was most illuminating about listening to that podcast from four years ago is that all of it is so relevant now. It’s as if we spoke to them after World Champs, not prior to the p1440 event in Las Vegas in the fall of 2018. It’s the simplest ingredient to their magic: The world adapts and changes and throws every last kitchen appliance, including the sink, at them, and sure, they’ve added some wrinkles, some new elements, but at the end of the day, Anders Mol and Christian Sorum are the same today as they were yesterday.
They’re just kids who want to play beach volleyball.
“We’re just having fun. The last three tournaments, we had fun, and we really enjoyed playing. It’s been a struggle. Before, we were really grinding, and now it’s been fun and we enjoyed it. We were relaxed, and that was huge,” Mol said.
“We’ve had a lot more media attention than we’ve ever had, and we’re a lot more famous than ever before. You can see people recognizing us on the streets. That’s pretty cool. It’s not a life-changer or anything. We’re pretty down to earth so it’s not going to change much for us.
“We want to grow the sport, and we want to make the sport bigger in Norway and the whole world. We really love this lifestyle and we think that it’s something a lot more people can have a relation to. I think the potential for beach volleyball in the future is really big, because it’s a spectacular sport.”
Four years from now, maybe we’ll listen to this again. The only thing that’s likely to change is how many medals Norway has added to the treasure trove.