HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There comes a time in virtually every moderately successful beach volleyball player’s career when they are presented a choice that is essentially this sport’s version of Buridan’s Donkey. In that hypothetical scenario, a donkey, equally hungry and thirsty, is placed exactly equidistant from sources of food and water. The choice can be paralyzing: Does it eat or drink?
As this 2022 season began, there was Molly Turner, exactly equidistant from a pair of goals: To be directly into the main draw, or to give herself the best possible chance at winning — by picking up a partner who would require going through the brutal gauntlet of qualifiers.
What would you do? Take the easy route? The one in which you play the points game, perhaps even play with another fellow defender and take on a defensive look that Turner laughingly described as “split-pulling,” because both are too small to put up a reasonable block? Such a choice would give you a coveted spot directly into the main draw — and Turner had options to do so — but, in all reality, the best possible finish would be a ninth, maybe a seventh, should all go exceptionally well.
Or do you take the hard route, the one in which you begin well before the actual main draw, in the qualifier, with no promise of points or money or any main draw experience, but with the potential payout of career-high finishes, career-high points, career-high prize money, a career-best season?
“I feel like that’s the story of this year for me, the qualifier, and not in a bad way, because everyone’s always trying to point count and stuff, but I was like ‘Screw it,’ the next generation for women and girls are young, and if you make it out of the qualifier you’re riding this high,” Turner said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I feel like teams that came out of the qualifier after winning a big game come into the main draw like ‘Let’s go.’ You spend so much money and it’s terrifying and I’m super anxious always, up until the last game, but I’ve had no regrets thus far.”
Her results this season speak volumes: In eight events on the AVP, Turner amassed a career-high $13,050 in prize money. She took seven top-10 finishes despite coming through the qualifier tournaments — known in this year’s vernacular as Tour Series events — in Austin, New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Manhattan Beach, and Chicago. She hit Volleyball World tournaments in Mexico, Lithuania, Poland, and Italy, and is currently on her way to Dubai. She won a pair of medals — both of which came after coming through the qualifier.
“The weird thing about this year is that I would like to be main draw all the time, if I felt confident with someone and wouldn’t point count and would be successful in the main draw, I would do it,” Turner said. “But there was this little part of me that was like ‘F*** it, let’s just be in the qualifier, let’s see if you can do it.’ Every time I was like ‘Let’s do it again!’
“I’m not going to say I was never nervous. Even playing with Torrey [Van Winden] in the Manhattan Beach qualifier, on paper we should have qualified, and we did, but every team it was just a team from college and all those girls are grinders and they don’t care and they’re just yahtzeeing balls, like ‘There’s Torrey!’ I was like ‘Oh my God.’ Every game was super scary and I was stressed before every qualifier but it was really worth it in the end. It made me a little edgy I felt like, like ‘Hey, I’ll do it again. Let’s just qualify again, and again, and again.'”
And she won. Again and again and again. She won a gold medal in Italy with Maddie Anderson, despite Anderson having zero international points to her name at the time. She won gold in a NORCECA in Punta Cana. She won the San Antonio AVPNext with Jessica Gaffney, which qualified them for the Pro Series event in New Orleans. Then she won again in Seaside with Carly Skjodt, qualifying them for Chicago, then claimed first again with Skjodt at the $20,000 Laguna Open.
“You know when you walk into a tournament, and you’re like ‘If I play my best, I have a really high chance of winning this. If I play my best and grind, I can do this,’” Turner said. “And then there’s some tournaments you walk into and you’re like ‘Ah, I’m not feeling this’ or it’s a Gold Series and it’s like ‘This is going to be tough, I gotta play.’ Those tournaments, you walk in and you try to have a chip on your shoulder, but when you’re partner-hopping, you don’t know what they can do, honestly, you have no idea what they’re capable of, you don’t know if their best comes out twice a year.
“Every time I’d play with someone new it was just fun. Every time I got on the court with Carly I was like ‘What? You are crazy athletic.’ She’ll turn and smack it over backwards and I’m like ‘What is happening and how did you do that?’ It’s been fun. Do I like partner hopping? No. Do I have a choice? No.”
Soon, she likely will.
Turner has risen to be the No. 27-ranked female on the AVP Tour, and the 11th-ranked defender. Her international points are now good enough to pull anyone into the qualifier of a Challenger, as she did with Anderson over these next two weeks in Dubai. Her unquestioned success at every level has established a winning precedent, and that ‘f*** it’ mindset has made it clear that she’s willing to string together one-way flights from Los Angeles to San Antonio to New Orleans to Chicago to Iceland to Germany to Lithuania — as she did in a wild stretch from mid-May to mid-June — all in the name of playing the best beach volleyball she can.
“This has been the first year where I kind of understand what that term of going to the Olympics actually means,” Turner said. “It is so difficult and I feel like anyone can throw that around and just be like ‘I’m going to go to the Olympics’ or ‘I’m going to try’ but the money you have to shell out is unbelievable.
“So although I have started to realize how hard it actually is, I want to give it a go and see if I’m built for this. So I wanted to give it a go, see how it went, feel it out, and every tournament I go internationally I just get bit by this bug of ‘This is so cool, I want to play on this tour so bad.’ So I’m still trying to decide if I’m built for it and see how that goes. It’s just mentally just draining. It’s tough. I don’t think anyone knows that until they experience it.”
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