The night was over. The autographs had been signed, pictures taken, without a single ask being denied. The margaritas had been drunk, a good many of which were downed on the flight back from San Francisco to Orange County. The semifinal, and then the final, of AVP San Francisco, had been re-watched, stories regaled.

For one, glorious Sunday afternoon, Ed Ratledge stood on beach volleyball’s mountaintop, alas an AVP Champion after two decades of trying and many years being ok with the fact that he might never become one. And now everyone, save for the new champ, was asleep, and all that remained of the greatest day of this lovable 42-year-old’s career was the mountainous remains of celebratory iHop garbage that still needed to be thrown out.

“I’m still sitting on the couch going ‘Wow, what a day,’” Ratledge recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “This is going to take about a week to set in. But I thought ‘I’m not going to leave this coffee table filled with iHop trash. I’m going to be a good citizen of this household, I’m not going to be this egotistical guy who doesn’t have to do anything on his big day. I’m going to take this trash, and I’m going to put it in that trash can.’ So I take it into the kitchen, and I think ‘Gosh, I still have an appetite left.’ So I go to put everything in the trash compactor, and it still feels heavy. I look in, and there’s a plate of pancakes, and it’s the perfect plate of pancakes, there’s enough syrup and butter to go with it, too, and I smash that extra plate of bonus pancakes.

“It’s the perfect microcosm for a man who was happy playing at a high level, never really conceived that he was going to win an event, and honestly played the events because he loved to play the events. But it’s the microcosm for that: I wasn’t expecting to win an event and put myself in the hallowed halls of AVP champions. I was the lovable loser and that’s cool but I got it done. And bonus pancakes on a career of an awesome time.”

Ed Ratledge is not like other professional athletes. He was the first professional beach volleyball player I met, at a clinic so small it can hardly be called a clinic, in a town, Navarre Beach, you’ve never heard of. If you’re a recreational beach volleyball player — or even an aspiring professional one, or, heck, a current professional — you can probably relate. You’d be hard pressed to find a beach volleyball court in this country that has not featured Ratledge, either as a coach or player.

But the difference between meeting Ratledge and any other professional athlete is that when you meet him, you actually meet him. In an era of arguably the most polished and media savvy professional athletes in history, Ratledge is as raw as the eggs used in the recipe for those bonus pancakes. He’s different, real. Nary has the man used a bromide or platitude in any interview or conversation with a player or fan. He’s the Fun Uncle of the AVP Tour, the man who, upon accepting an award at the 2018 AVP banquet, did not speak on the value of hard work and persistence and chasing your dreams and passions, but instead used his precious time on the microphone to talk about the importance of voting.

Just Ed being Ed.

He doesn’t want you to know Superficial Ed, Professional Ed, AVP Champion Ed. He wants you to know Ed Ratledge, the 45-year-old father of two who loves road trips in his camper van, coaching classes and clinics all over this beautiful country, and entertaining a crowd.

He loves winning, too, just not as much as some athletes. Which is perhaps why he hasn’t done more of it in 190 total events as a professional. That’s ok with him. It’s as much of a win to Ratledge to be featured in the dad issue of ParentingOC in 2019 as one of the “top pops on balancing family and career.”

“I am not Tri Bourne,” Ratledge said. “I’m not in the gym 70 hours a week. I’m not grooming myself to be the best beach volleyball player in world history. That’s not me. I love the game. I love playing it. But I think I have more balance in my life, maybe.

“I don’t want a relationship that’s not super, super deep where I don’t know and understand you. I can’t do any good for you in that kind of relationship. I want to know what really makes you see the world the way you see it. I want a deeper relationship if I’m going to have a relationship with anybody.”

The magnificent irony here is that Ratledge might have more relationships in beach volleyball than any current professional, both with fans and players and referees and AVP staff alike. If there’s a beach or complex in the United States, Ratledge has likely coached a clinic there, and he’s likely lent you his time and a listening ear and a mouth that isn’t scared to discuss any topic, be it blocking tips or politics or the hotels that feature the best bang for your buck in terms of breakfast buffets. No matter the conversation, you’re going to get a full dose of the Authentic Ed Ratledge.

That’s a priority of his, authenticity. Doesn’t matter if he’s lining up a jump serve on stadium court or ambling through the crowd on a side court. It’s never made sense to him, to be anything but real. So he is, everywhere he goes.

“Authentic self is where that rational part of your brain meets that emotional part of your brain,” he said. “Trying to ignore the fact that 5,000 people are watching you is not true to your authentic self. They’re there. So trying to ignore that fact — you’re shutting a piece of you that needs to be acknowledged. You’re not going to be your strongest when you ignore truth. I like to talk to the crowd because when I do I speak from [my belly]. You have to.”

And he’s speaking, all right. All the time. Between every point. Drives some of his opponents batty, which isn’t necessarily the objective, nor is it a particular concern of Ratledge’s. He’s just out there, being him, and whether you like it or not doesn’t so much matter, so long as you are willing to acknowledge the fact that he’s Ed Ratledge and that is, quite simply, who he is.

“If you make a plan to interact with the crowd and then come back to yourself, and then go play that point and then come back to yourself. If you can make that plan to go back and forth, the more often you make that plan — that two-step or three-step plan — the more in the moment you are. As long as you’re on that little plan, then you’re present, you’re doing the thing you set out to do, and you’re not truly distracted,” Ratledge said. “It’s very easy to go off-script and forget that I was going to go back to my breathing and then back to playing, and in that moment where I come back to my playing I’m going to go over the cues I want for this next play. It’s very easy to do that with practice, and I say practice as the operative word. If you’re practicing, it makes it a lot easier to do that. That’s a big part of any pro athlete’s regimen is practicing being in the moment, coming back to the task at hand.”

For so long, it would have been easy to write him off as an entertainer first, player second. For so long, his reputation was, as he admitted, “Ed the Lovable Loser, and that was cool,” he said. But then came that Cinderella waltz through the bracket in San Francisco, and “that’s a life highlight,” he said. “It divided time: there was before and after San Francisco. It was Eddie the Lovable Loser and all of a sudden you’re walking down the sidewalk and ‘That’s an AVP champion!’ People look at you differently and I think about myself differently after climbing that mountain and standing at the top for an afternoon. It’s pretty cool.”

Whether or not he can return to that mountaintop, he isn’t so sure. It takes a lot. Frankly, it takes training like Tri Bourne, and Ed Ratledge doesn’t plan on doing that. Doing so would throw off his perfectly tailored balance of family and work, coaching and playing, road trips and tournaments.

“I don’t know if I’m going to put in the work or have access to the partner that I need for that,” he said. But, as San Francisco proved: There’s a chance. The partner shuffle for the 2022 season has not yet begun, but when it does, Ratledge is in a position to be picked up, perhaps for the first time in his winding and wonderful career, by someone with a more impressive resume than him.

“I’ve been in the same exact tier or, in most of the cases, I’ve been ranked quantitatively with more points than the person I’ve played with. Put that on my resume, Casey Patterson,” Ratledge said. “I played with a qualifier, his name was Eric Zaun, did he do better after he dumped me? No. I played with another qualifier, he name was Rafu, I won a tournament with him. Did he do better after me? No.

“I’m decent. When I put my mind to something and I have a team around me — that’s something I learned from Jake Gibb, he’s all about team, team, team, team — and I have a great team around me right now. I just feel like I’ve got the potential to do really well this year.”

What’s one more good year in the life of Ed Ratledge?

That’s some bonus pancakes.

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