By Nina Matthies’ definition of it, she’s been working since she was 16 years old.
“I got paid and I had to do stuff,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So I’m thinking that’s work.”
And then, in the midst of laughing at her own simple — but not inaccurate — definition of work, she catches herself. Yes, she was paid and had to do stuff, but that stuff she had to do was either play volleyball or coach volleyball or be an ambassador for volleyball, and that “never really felt like work for me,” she said.
“So the part about retiring: Why do I want to retire? I love what I do. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do if I stopped playing or stopped coaching. When I stopped playing, that was the end and I shut the door; same thing with indoors, when I stopped coaching indoors, I never went back in the gym again. Beach, I was ready. When you’re 66, you’re just like ‘Hey, I’m ready to just not have to do the things I don’t want to do.’ Maybe that’s selfish, I don’t know.
“I had been playing from the time I was 12 until I was 40. That’s a long time. Coaching is competitive but a different kind of competitive. I was just ready to not be competing. I don’t want to compete anymore. I just want to relax.”
Relaxing, for Matthies, looks exactly like what you think relaxing may look like for one of the most accomplished individuals, regardless of gender, in the sport of volleyball, regardless of surface. Earlier that day, she had gone on a seven-mile hike in the Malibu canyons she’s lived in for so long but has never gotten the chance to explore. She works out daily in the garage gym she built with her husband, Dan. She cooks. Visits the grandkids. Has gotten big into bird-watching. Gardens.
Always moving, doing something.
That has been the theme of Matthies’ extraordinary life: Movement. When she was a kid growing up on the Manhattan Beach Strand, back when real estate on the beach was cheap because it was so far from the jobs in the city, her mother gave her a boundary from the Manhattan Pier to Marine Street. That was her front yard. She could run around all day, play the made up games children do, swim, or, as she quickly discovered, play beach volleyball.
At the time, there were no organized sports for women. If you wanted to get involved in something that required athleticism and was in a relative team setting, you could cheerlead, “just for something to do,” Matthies said.
Nina Matthies does not cheerlead.
Nina Matthies plays volleyball. She didn’t care who she played with or what time of day it was, she played. All day long.
“I’d just play on the beach and I didn’t know I was good or not good or whatever, I know I won,” Matthies said. “I knew I liked to win and I won things. People would ask me to play and I’d play.”
Matthies won all of the things. She won indoors, including two national championships at UCLA. She won on the beach, 44 events in total, seven of which were Manhattan Beach Opens, and enjoyed a remarkable run from 1984-1986 in which she won 21 of 25 tournaments. She did all of that winning with kids at home and a full-time job coaching Pepperdine somewhat on the side, but not really on the side — nothing is ever on the side with Matthies. Everything is all in.
“I took the job at Pepperdine, and I said ‘Ok, I’m making this much money on the beach’ and I was basically making my salary every weekend so I said ‘This is what’s important,’” said Matthies, who took over coaching for Pepperdine in 1983. “Coaching was important, but we didn’t have to do paperwork stuff. I did my deal, did what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t sit in an office all day. You didn’t have to. It was kids and husband first, training on the beach, and Pepperdine, all clumped together. We were good. Everyone was happy. I kept it going as long as I could.”
She may be retired, but her work in the game has left an indelible mark, one that will continue to grow whether Matthies is on the beach or bird-watching in Malibu. It was Matthies who spearheaded the effort to form the WPVA in 1986, Matthies who organized the rest of the women and said that they deserved better. They’d show up to tournaments and the courts still wouldn’t be set up, the seeding not finished — or maybe even started — and they had to play with this stupid pink ball.
“It was, I don’t know what it was, but it was pink!” she said. “We just wanted a say in how the tournaments were run, how they were seeded, to be consistent, consistent times, everything being consistent and more professional. I’d had enough, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to be respected as an athlete and not be used to help the guys. I thought we carried our own weight. We just wanted some respect, or maybe I did.”
They got their respect. Matthies helped organize a boycott of an event in Hermosa Beach, and in 1987, the women had their own tour. The WPVA would disband in 1997, but Matthies’ work had sent the message that women and men deserved the same type of respect and treatment.
Since the AVP restructured in 2000, there has been equal pay, equal treatment — and no pink balls.
Matthies will never take credit for any of this, mind you. Her demurral of praise does not come with an ounce of false modesty. It’s genuine when she says that “maybe I’m good at convincing other people to help me,” or that the 590 wins, 11 conference titles, and 10-time WCC Coach of the Year honors in 31 years at Pepperdine would not have been possible without a cadre of excellent assistant coaches.
It’s that mindset that Kathy DeBoer loved when she called Matthies and asked if she would want to help make the push for beach volleyball to become an NCAA sport.
“I said, `Nina, I need you. I need your help, need your leadership, need you to chair this because of the credibility you have in the sport,’” DeBoer told the WCC, where Matthies is in the Hall of Honor. “She’s not an attention seeker. She isn’t somebody who’s ever going to pat herself in the back. That’s what made her special. That’s what made her at times difficult to play for.
“There’s no excuses in Nina’s world, no shortcuts. You go out there and you win or you lose and then you go back there the next day and you do it again.”
Now you can see Matthies’ work not just around the country, but the globe. Beach volleyball is the fastest growing NCAA sport in history, and the trickle-down effect of the now-100-plus programs that have adopted it as a sport has been immense. The number of girls playing volleyball on any surface has boomed. Clubs are popping up in corners of the country you’d least expect. Programs in rural areas and small cities have become powerhouses — hello, LSU and Florida State.
In the 2021 Olympics, college beach players will decorate the rosters: Tina Graudina of USC will be competing for Latvia, Sarah Sponcil (UCLA) and Kelly Claes (USC) are third in the U.S. Olympic race, Kelley Kolinske (Pepperdine) is one spot behind.
In Paris in 2024, it will be difficult to find athletes who didn’t compete in the NCAA in the United States.
“The part of the beach becoming an NCAA sport was a big deal to me,” Matthies said. “It’s such a great sport. We needed some avenues for the gals to play more and to train and to have good training, earlier, younger, to compete with the rest of the world. That part is pretty awesome to have been a part of. Really amazing.”
Matthies may be “relaxing” in Malibu these days. Enjoying the retirement life of beautiful hikes and cooking and bird-watching. The sport, however, is covered in her fingerprints, decades of work that will pay dividends for generations to come.
Check that: We cannot call it work.
Volleyball has never been work for Nina Matthies.