Sara Hughes embraces new responsibility: Beach volleyball’s role model

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Sara Hughes-SANDCAST-Beach volleyball
Sara Hughes celebrates her first win/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

On one of the walls in Sara Hughes’ bedroom is a poster of Misty May-Treanor. It’s been there since she was little, when Hughes began getting into volleyball, serving as a reminder of what she might become one day should she continue to pursue this beach volleyball dream of hers.

So it struck her when, during a tournament this season, a parent of a young fan approached her and told Hughes that, on one of the walls in her daughter’s bedroom, is a poster of Hughes.

“I was like ‘No way that’s actually happening,’” Hughes recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I am so grateful for that and I hope I can keep being a person young people can look up to for a long time and thank you to everyone who does.”

Did you catch that, at the end? Hughes thanked the fans for looking up to her, not the other way around. In an era where celebrities grow more and more closed off, taking instead to social media to communicate behind iPhones and laptops, Hughes remains open, willing to talk to anyone, pepper with anyone, give back any way she can.

“I’m always just trying to help people,” she said. “If anybody wants to ask, just come up to me, you can ask me directly.”

No different than May-Treanor continues to treat her.

When her age could still be measured with a single digit, Hughes would head down to the Huntington Beach Pier and sit on the wall, waiting for a chance, any chance, to simply shag balls for May-Treanor. Sometimes May-Treanor would let her pepper or hop in for a drill or two, creating an indelible memory that Hughes will cherish more than likely the rest of her life.

“I love talking to people and I love talking to young girls because I don’t think I’d be in the position I am today if I didn’t have the coaches I had and people like Misty May taking the time to talk to me,” she said. “I love doing the same to everyone else.”

She’s a sponsor’s dream, Hughes. She has the looks –- blonde hair, blue eyes, Colgate smile –- the smarts –- she’s currently on a one-year track to earn her master’s degree, just a year after delivering a graduation speech at USC –- the media savvy, the talent, a voracious competitive drive juxtaposed with a disarmingly charming personality.

Oh, yes. She has earned this position, the right to have Mikasa run her through photo shoots and turn those shoots into posters for young girls to hang on their walls, to point to each night and morning and say “I want to be like that.

Her accolades at USC could fill a small book’s worth of pages, and it’s a wonder if some of her records –- four consecutive national titles, a winning streak that eclipsed 100 matches, a perfect 48-0 junior season, four-time All-American –- will ever be broken.

Justifiably, this drew no small amount of media coverage, and while she was appreciative –- always thanking anyone for taking the time and interest in her –- it drove her a bit insane, how those reporters would invariably walk right past her exceptionally talented teammates. On the occasion that the media showed interest in the rest of USC’s indomitable team, more often than not they’d ask questions not about how their match went, but what they thought about Sara and her partner, Kelly Claes.

“I hated that when it was just ‘Oh! Sara and Kelly and Team USC!’ ” Hughes said. “I was like ‘No, you don’t realize, these girls who are on (teams) two, three, four, to the eighth team, they’re our support system. We would not be close to being good or successful without our teammates. They deserve just as much fame and respect as we do because we’re out there on the same hot court at USC and we’re training, every day, together.”

Her teammates, as she said, were plenty talented, and a number of them -– Nicolette Martin, Terese Cannon, Jenna Belton, Sophie Bukovic, Allie Wheeler, to name a few -– have already begun making a name for themselves on the AVP Tour.

Yet Hughes, as May-Treanor was, will be the name fans point to as the next in this massive wave of beach volleyball talent rising from the college ranks. She will be the one on the posters, and in the commercials for Oakley and KT Tape and Mikasa and any other sponsor wise enough to sign her.

She’s becoming the next generation’s version of May-Treanor –- the one everyone looks up to -– quicker than she could have possibly realized.

The final question of SANDCAST is reserved for the athletes to discuss anything else they’d like to discuss, anything the hosts may have missed. Most demur, maybe shout out a sponsor or two, thank us for the time.

Hughes, instead, had a message for her fans:

“For the young players and any parents who are listening, I love the indoor game and the beach game, of course. So a lot of players are making this decision where they love the indoor but they have to play the beach in college because they think that’s the only thing they can play. I just think it’s huge for young girls to play both if they love both.”

You can teach any volleyball skill there is. But to become the next face of a sport, as May-Treanor once was?

That’s a trait passed down, from one legend to the one who might just become the next.

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