HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Sarah Pavan is not retired.

Funny thing, though, is that she’s heard rumors that she is, despite her never so much as uttering the word out loud for anyone to hear. She doesn’t appreciate those rumors, both because they are patently untrue and that, well, where did they come from, anyway?

“I don’t appreciate they got started,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I’m not happy about that. So I will make sure that if and when that time comes, it will be the way that I want and I will be the one to announce it.”

It’s not that she hasn’t thought about the prospect of retiring. Her own volleyball mortality has been brought to the forefront of her mind of late, ushered there by the shocking nature in which the sport simply moved on as one of its all-time greats, April Ross, quietly faded into the background. Ross, too, has not made any formal announcement regarding her career. She could very well pick up where she left off as easily as she could move on, coaching at Concordia as the most overqualified graduate assistant in the country, helping Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner, Olympic gold medal in hand.

What shocked Pavan was how seamlessly the sport just sort of went about its business, as if the third winningest player in history hadn’t been there at all.

“In recent years I have seen so many of the greats step away. I think the moment that really made me understand that was when April stopped,” Pavan said. “Here’s somebody who is among the best to have ever played, internationally and AVP, and she started out last season, played a couple tournaments and stopped. Nobody talked about her. Here I am, being like, ‘Wait wait wait! She did some great things. We can’t just let her fade out. That’s not how this should go.’

“When I saw that happening, I was like ‘You can give everything to this sport, you can win everything in this sport, but when you stop, you might not get a goodbye.’ Now, when I’m kind of floating here, it’s like ‘OK, yeah, that’s how it is.’ It puts it in perspective that this is what it will be like when it’s officially done so I’m going to live this up, I’m going to love every chance I have to compete in a tournament, I’m going to compete and compete hard, I’m going to be me and just enjoy whatever opportunity I have because when it’s done I’m going to be the only one who says anything or cares.”

There are approximately two people on Earth whose opinions Pavan cares about: Her own, and her husband, Adam Schulz. It isn’t the adoration of fans she seeks, nor the approval of those who follow the sport or even the higher-ups at Volleyball Canada. It isn’t even gold medals, really, or plaques on the Manhattan Beach Pier.

She’s won plenty: seven golds on the FIVB, a pair of AVPs, including the 2019 Manhattan Beach Open with Melissa Humana-Paredes when they beat Ross and Alix Klineman in the final. The lanky left-hander has been voted by her peers as the best blocker in the world three times, held the No. 1 ranking in the world for several stretches with Humana-Paredes, and finished the 2019 season as the FIVB Team of the Year. It isn’t the highs of those wins, the fall-to-the-knees moments you see in pictures she still seeks.

Sarah Pavan
Sarah Pavan celebrates at the 2019 World Championships/Ed Chan photo

It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

At 36 years old, with nothing left to prove to anyone, much less herself, Sarah Pavan is chasing peace.

“I don’t leave any tournament remotely OK unless I win. How often does that happen? I’m just a wreck the majority of the time and I just keep doing it. Why? Why do I keep going back to something that messes me up so much when the win percentage for the majority of teams is so small?” Pavan asked. “Winning is probably the only time where I’m at peace and not just ripping myself apart. It’s not healthy, kids. Do not follow this at all. Do not be like this. I can find something — something? Many things — to obsess about and want to improve and not be OK with but when I win, it’s just peace.

“I’m basically chasing peace. I’m not even chasing a high of being excited, so proud of myself, I’m chasing inner peace.”

Her standards are, she knows, extraordinarily unfair. But those are the types of standards that produce greatness. Pick a sport, any sport, and you’ll find the same common denominator amongst its greats: anything but winning — and even winning but doing so while not playing near perfect — gnaws at them, eats away at their sleep, has them replaying the smallest plays to the point that it drives them batty.

Paul Rabil, the founder of the Premier Lacrosse League and a man long described as the “LeBron James of lacrosse,” recently appeared on the Finding Mastery podcast, hosted by sports psychologist Michael Gervais. The way he talked about lacrosse mirrored the way Pavan speaks of beach volleyball. He didn’t stop there, either.

“I think that Steph Curry would tell you that when he doesn’t play well, he stays up all night thinking about it,” Rabil said. “That’s really hard, the extremes. We go to the extremes. Everything is to the nth degree.”

When David Halberstam wrote Playing for Keeps, his biography on Michael Jordan, the most oft-used word to describe the Chicago Bulls legend was rage.

“Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there,” wrote Wright Thompson in a feature on Jordan. “The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.”

Where Jordan sought — still seeks — a “release,” as Thompson wrote, Pavan simply seeks peace.

Zana Muno-Sarah Pavan
Zana Muno and Sarah Pavan celebrate a point at the Phoenix Gold Series Championships (Photo/Mpu Dinani)

She’s been like this for as long as she can remember. Her father, Paul, recognized the competitive streak and an insatiable desire for winning when his daughter was young. It wasn’t difficult for him to see it, for it was his own genes he was seeing, passed down to the next generation. If she wanted to win, if being the best was what she sought, and being perfect while doing so, he would help her get there.

“Growing up, my dad coached me and he also taught at my high school so I had him for high school and club. I was not told that I was good, so I just grew up with this standard that you can be better, you can be better, you can be better and I very rarely got a pat on the back and pats on the back came from winning, not from being excellent but coming up short,” Pavan said.

“I was the most ultra-competitive kid in every sport I played, so it was winning or nothing. Growing up and getting that constant feedback of there’s always something you can be better at but winning is great, it sinks in and it becomes kind of who you are and that perfectionist mindset is so ingrained in me. I would say as I’ve gotten older and become more self-aware and understood why I am the way I am, it has been something I can be more objective about and try to be kinder to myself but it’s easier to be kind to a partner or a teammate than it is to me.

“I was wired in this way where I need and want to be the best and I think my parents saw that in me and wanted to encourage me in that. My dad is also very competitive so he could see the similarity there and could relate. I was obviously loved and it wasn’t you have to win or you’re nothing, but if I wanted to practice by myself, he never said no. He wanted my success as much as I did and he wanted to support me in every way. He took the stance of ‘OK well if you’re going to be this and be a perfectionist, I’m not going to try and change you.’ ”

In so doing, Paul helped his daughter become one of just four players in NCAA history to be named All-American all four years, a right side who would win 126 matches and lose just seven while at Nebraska. That perfectionism led to a perfect 4.0 GPA and a degree in biochemistry. It led to Pavan becoming one of the best indoor players in the world, finishing a decorated indoor career in the Italian Superlega with Casalmaggiore in 2018. It led her to becoming an Olympian on the beach in 2016 with Heather Bansley despite splitting her time indoors — “a summertime activity,” as Pavan described it. A fifth in those Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, made her wonder: What would happen if she committed to the beach full-time, if she gave it the attention it deserved?

“I didn’t want to look back and be like ‘We were so good but what would have happened if I put all of my energy into it?’ I left for that reason,” Pavan said.

With a new partner in Melissa Humana-Paredes, she won a career-high three gold medals in 2019, the first full-time season on the beach in which she didn’t split time indoors. They won a World Championship, a Canadian first. They flew to the top of the FIVB rankings, another Canadian first. They won gold at the Commonwealth Games, another first. They won in Manhattan and Hawaii. Heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they were, along with Klineman and Ross, and Brazil’s Duda and Agatha, arguably the best team in the world.

It is impossible to say what would have happened had there been no pandemic, had the Olympics happened when they should have, had Pavan and Humana-Paredes sustained the momentum they had built in 2018 and 2019 into those Games. But after all of that, after authoring the entire Canadian record book, after trailblazing a new path for all of those who will come after her, the Olympics were delayed a year, COVID reared its ugly head, and Pavan and Humana-Paredes finished fifth at a strange and fanless Olympics in Tokyo.

“The same position when I was doing it half time. It was kind of disappointing,” Pavan said. “I just did not want to have regrets or think what if when Tokyo ended.”

It is enormously unfair for a beach volleyball player’s legacy to be measured by success at an Olympic Games, an event that happens every four years, an event that does not even feature the most elite field and takes an extraordinary amount of good fortune and perfect timing to win. But that, fair or not, is the standard by which Pavan, at this moment in time, measures her success. And, like any loss, it eats at her in ways that are incomprehensible to those who are not driven like Pavan is, which is to say, virtually no one, outside of the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants and Steph Currys and April Rosses of the world.

“You think about how important winning is to you as an individual and your own career, and then you step away, the sport continues, tournaments continue, everything continues. What you did doesn’t really matter, nobody thinks about it. You think about it, and all of those things are important to you as an individual but it is a very humbling thought process,” Pavan said. “I think it’s become much more in focus to me now as I’ve had to sit and watch a couple tournaments I had fully intended on being at happening, and the sport continues. It moves on. The sport doesn’t miss me or need me or anything.

“In our own sense of self-importance we feel like it should for whatever reason. I don’t feel that way but it just puts things in perspective that this is what I do and it’s something I enjoy doing but by no means does the sport need me. It makes the perspective of if and when I do retire I will hold those memories and cherish them and I think when I officially step away, I will have an appreciation for what I did.”

The appreciation will have to wait for a few more years, at least. Pavan is no longer playing with Sophie Bukovec, with whom she played three events — two in Qatar, one in Mexico — before their partnership dissolved. What her future looks like remains unclear. But regardless of who will be playing behind her 6-foot-5 block, she has the self-awareness to know exactly what it is that she’s chasing, and it isn’t gold medals or prize money or the adulation of thousands of screaming fans. It isn’t even another Olympic Games.

As the twilight of her career approaches, Sarah Pavan is simply chasing peace.


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