HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Nick Lucena shouldn’t be here, sitting on a couch in Hermosa Beach, California, talking about beach volleyball. He should have been finished long ago, even planned on retiring with some of his good friends on the AVP Tour.
He and Matt Fuerbringer had come so damn close to qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. They’d done all they could, hit 25 FIVB tournaments in two years, won a pair of silver medals, rose to as high as No. 7 in the world. Yet Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal were No. 1, and Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers No. 3.
There was no room in the 2012 Olympic Games for the seventh-ranked team. So that, he figured, was that. He’d given this game everything he had, and for the most part, it had treated him well. He’d made hundreds of thousands of dollars, traveled the world, built friendships all over the globe. He had some good stories to tell, too, like that time in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 2005, when he and Dalhausser, playing in just the second international tournament of their careers, were invited to go out with Dain Blanton and Kevin Wong.
Sure, they still had a match to play the next day. An important one, too. Lose or go home. But this was Dain Blanton! Olympic gold medalist! So they went out, made a late night of it, and were soundly whipped the next day by Argentinians Martin Conde and Jose Salema, 14-21, 15-21. Got a good scolding for it, too.
By the end of that 2012 season, Lucena had played in 43 FIVBs. He won two AVPs and an NVL. His good friends and potential partners, Fuerbringer and Sean Scott, were retiring. Dalhausser was moving on from Rogers to compete with Rosenthal, while Gibb was turning to a mohawk-rocking perpetual youngster named Casey Patterson.
“I was out of a partner,” Lucena said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. On top of that, his wife, Brooke Niles, was pregnant with their first child.
So Nick Lucena’s mind was made: He was going to retire from beach volleyball. And he was ok with it.
Yet, here we are, a decade later, and Lucena is sitting on Bourne’s couch, talking about beach volleyball, and he is still very much not retired.
“Look at me now,” he said, laughing. “What the hell am I doing?”
What he’s doing is what he’s always done: He’s playing beach volleyball, and he’s playing it at a level very few in his generation ever have. Since he initially considered retiring in 2012, he’s played in 75 more FIVBs and 44 AVPs. He’s even, bless his heart, traveled to four NORCECAs. Twice he’s qualified for the Olympic Games, something he never envisioned happening, even in the midst of a potential Olympic run in 2015 while partnered with Theo Brunner.
“When I asked Phil to play in 2015, I said ‘I’m over it, I’m over it,’ ” Lucena said of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. “In 2012, we made a good run, Fuerby and I, and to get so close and to not make it, I was like ‘Eh, I don’t want to do this again.’ Theo and I were in a good spot. But I wanted to win some tournaments, and with Theo you could, but I said I’d just throw it out there with Phil.”
You know the story from there: Dalhausser said yes, the good friends were reunited, and a remarkable run into the Rio Games was made. And then they made another, in Tokyo, last summer.
“It’s crazy [how long I’ve been playing],” Lucena said. “I’m so fortunate, but never thought I’d be doing it this long. Who knows? It’s cool, and I still enjoy it, coming out here, getting to train against these guys. There’s so much. I’m hopeful for youth and stuff in beach volleyball, so getting to be a part of it for a little bit longer is special for me.”
Lucena always said he’d retire on two conditions: If he were ever booted from the main draw and into the qualifiers, and when Dalhausser stopped playing. Both conditions have been met — sort of — yet he’s still playing. Dalhausser has retired from the international game yet is still expected to compete domestically on the AVP. As for the former, Lucena will begin his 2022 season, a decade after first considering retirement, with 26-year-old Andy Benesh, and they’ll do so as the 15 seed — in the qualifier of the upcoming Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Challenger event in Mexico.
“I always said I would stop playing when I’m in the qualifier,” he said. “Listen, it’s been tough. I’m just like, there’s nothing to do. I love Tallahassee but there’s nothing to do. I’m the volunteer [assistant at Florida State, where Niles is the head coach], raising three kids, I need something. And it’s fun.”
Yes, if there’s a single word that would be an accurate summation of Nick Lucena’s current chapter of beach volleyball, it is that: Fun. He’ll poke fun at Trevor Crabb, chuckle at some of the workouts he’s observing in the USA Volleyball facility, tell Sean Scott to get back in shape. He’ll be a goof at practice — a competitive goof, to be sure. He’ll sky ball on match point, or any point he wants, really, as he did in Manhattan Beach and Chicago a year ago.
And, at 42, he’s still one of the best defenders in the United States, the man who can groom a young talent like Benesh into, potentially, a blocker who can help fill the massive holes left by Dalhausser and Gibb, the only blockers to represent the U.S. in an Olympic Games since Beijing in 2008.
“Andy’s awesome. I think he’s going to be really good. Willing to learn, listens, is ok with feedback. He just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Good kid, big fan,” Lucena said. “It’s been going well. Coming out here was the first week we’ve been going with other teams, and there’s definitely been a learning curve. I added Jordan [Cheng] as coach, and it’s all new to me. I’ve been playing with the best guy for six years — best offensive player, best blocker — so I’m trying to have a different mindset with it. It’s going to take some time and learning, but you get competitive and the ego kicks in, and you wonder ‘Am I too old to be doing this?’ But Andy’s been doing a good job and I think he’s going to be good moving forward for USA Volleyball. It’s tough for young blockers to get out here and play.
“He’s going to be good for some time. Good blocker, hand-sets, a little bit better than Trevor [Crabb] and that’s all you can ask for.”
Those 177 words are exactly who and what Lucena is at this moment in his long and celebrated beach volleyball journey: Competitive yet kind, willing to learn and willing to help others do the same, still hungry for success yet paving the way for the next generation to enjoy it both alongside him and after he’s finished. And, yes, he’s still poking fun at Trevor Crabb.
So Lucena will retire whenever he’s ready to retire, when his ability to dig balls alas begins to wane and his enjoyment of this beautiful game begins to fade. Until then, he’ll be digging balls and winning matches. He’ll be talking trash and be the first to give a hug after.
And he’s going to be having a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
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