It was, in Taryn Kloth’s own words, a stupid idea.
But it was an idea, and that was more than she had going for her at that point. By the time she had reached peak desperation for any sort of inspiration, all she had really done was sit and stare out the window of her home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“You just need to go on a walk by yourself,” a friend from LSU told her. “Go on a walk with God.”
Kloth said that was stupid. She didn’t want to do it. And then, of course, “I was walking,” she said, “and it was really cold, I was in South Dakota,” and she was weighing what was then the biggest decision of her life, the one on which the next several years would hinge: To sign with an agent, land an indoor contract, and play indoor volleyball overseas, or return to LSU and resume her burgeoning beach career?
Freezing and ready to turn around, Kloth noticed “there was this one street that was lit up with the sun, and the street name was ‘Pebble Beach,’ ” she recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “And I said ‘Alright, I’m going to go play beach.’ And it might have been just a stupid street sign but that was my sign.”
What happened next — and is still happening, before our very eyes — may make you wonder whether or not that sign was just a stupid serendipitous street sign or a little something more, if you believe in that sort of thing. But whether it was the universe’s not so subtle reminder that Kloth could be quite good at beach, or just coincidental happenstance, Kloth’s decision to return to LSU, to resume her career on the beach, has already panned out in such magnificent fashion there is almost no precedent.
In Baton Rouge for her final season, she’d team up with Kristen Nuss. They’d win every match as a pair, finishing 36-0. The 6-foot-4 Kloth would help Nuss become the all-time winningest player in NCAA beach volleyball history. They went to Gulf Shores, Ala. where they were alas able to compete in the NCAA Championships.
Yet had any of this happened one year earlier, had COVID not struck, had Kloth and LSU been able to compete in Gulf Shores just one season prior, she’d have been gone. She’d have signed that indoor contract, either in Italy or France or Germany. She’d have earned a roster spot on the United States National Team. She’d already gotten the call. On April 10, Kloth’s birthday, Karch Kiraly invited her to train in Anaheim, putting her in the pipeline for the Olympic dreams she’s had since she was a kid.
“In my plan, I’m definitely supposed to be in a different country, playing indoor,” Kloth said. “I was 100-percent obsessed with playing indoor. My mom would drop me off at the gym, I’d be there from after school, she’d go back to work, bring me dinner, I’d eat it quick, then go back to playing more. I could not get enough of it.”
It showed as much during a brilliant four years at Creighton, where she played outside hitter and finished her career named virtually All-Everything — All-America, All-Big East, Big East MVP. If there was an award or honorific, she won it. But she had an extra year of eligibility, and when her four years were up in Omaha, she put her name on the transfer portal, feeling out whatever interest there may be in her on the beach.
She heard nothing.
For three straight days, there wasn’t a single email or text message or voicemail. Sure, she had never played beach before, but still: Not even a bread crumb of interest for a 6-foot-4 outside hitter with solid ball control and an arm you simply cannot teach?
“All right,” Kloth told herself, “I guess I’m not playing beach volleyball anymore.”
Her coach, Kirsten Bernthal Booth, didn’t believe it. Was Kloth sure she was checking the correct email?
The inbox for the correct email address was flooded with interested schools. Now Kloth was in a different form of disbelief: “How do people want me? I’ve never played beach volleyball before!”
Every conversation with every school began the same, Kloth reminding them that “I’ve never played before, and you have to expect absolutely nothing.”
LSU was more than OK expecting absolutely nothing. A 6-foot-4 outside hitter?
Yeah. They could work with that.
A note about Kloth: She claims to be risk-averse, but when presented with two choices, she’ll invariably take the more difficult one.
“When I was picking my major, they said ‘You could take this one, it’s easy, or this one and kill yourself’ and I said ‘That one! That’s what I want to do,’” Kloth said, laughing. “I don’t know why I do that to myself.”
Here she was again, picking between a sport she had mastered, a sport in which she had guaranteed money — and a sport she had never before played, nor had any clue how to play.
“I’m used to hitting the crap out of the ball every single time, and then I went to the beach, training in the sand, and I would hit every single ball into the middle of the net or below it, and it was embarrassing,” Kloth said. “I remember thinking ‘These people all think I suck. I know it.’ I couldn’t set a ball to save my life. They were like ‘Square up!’ But I had no idea what that meant. I was so, so unbelievably frustrated my first year. I was mentally overwhelmed and just trying to be OK with where I was.”
Truth be told, she wasn’t OK with where she was. She was pissed. When Kiraly gave her the call after her first season at LSU, inviting her to train in Anaheim, “I said ‘Yes! Get me out of the sand!’ ” Kloth said. “I was this close, this close, to just giving up on beach. I didn’t actually get to play in Nationals that year. I don’t like to quit. I’ll do anything to get to where I want to be, and not getting to play at nationals is the reason I’m still playing beach volleyball, which is crazy. I still can’t get over it. It’s crazy how it all works out.”
Indeed. Even as late as the fall of 2020, Kloth still wasn’t planning on committing full-time to beach. Yes, she’d finish out her eligibility at LSU. But her future was still indoors and she knew it. A single match in a single tournament, at an AVP Next in Nashville, Tenn., changed that. In the semifinals, Kloth and Nuss beat professionals Delaney Mewhirter and Katie Spieler, who had taken as high as a seventh on the AVP Tour. In the finals, they swept Olympic hopefuls Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman, 21-13, 21-15.
“When I was 16, I played (Kolinske) with Betsi Flint and got absolutely destroyed,” Nuss said in an LSU YouTube video. “A couple years later, to play the same player who is a very elite player, to come out on the winning side was a full circle moment for me and that was kind of when I decided what I wanted to do.”
When they got in the car after, Kloth put in a Google search: How to play beach volleyball professionally.
“That Tennessee tournament was where I was like ‘Maybe I could play this,’ ” Kloth said. “I had no idea. There was no way I could compete with some of these people. Going into games, it was just ‘Here I am, I’m going to do what I can.’ ”
In two AVP tournaments thus far this season, the beach volleyball world has gotten but a glimpse at what Kloth and Nuss can do. In Atlanta, their first AVP as a team and Kloth’s first of her life, her and Nuss would become just the second team in history to emerge from the qualifier and win. So new was Kloth to the AVP that, when Nuss hit a trickle ace for match point against Brandie Wilkerson and Sara Hughes, she celebrated, thinking she had won.
She’d never before played with the freeze.
“I wanted to crawl under a rock,” Kloth said.
Yet she’d do quite the opposite. Her and Nuss have since become the newest darlings on Tour, with purple and gold “TKN” shirts dotting the audience no matter where they compete. In Manhattan Beach, they’d get a rematch with Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, the team they vanquished in an excellent final in Atlanta, and that rematch was a crystal ball in what is to come, should both teams remain together: The best rivalry on the AVP Tour had just been born.
Not that Kloth or Nuss will acknowledge such a thing, such lofty praise, just yet. They’re still a couple star struck kids along for the wildest ride of their lives, a ride Kloth was never even supposed to be on in the first place.
“It wasn’t until November that I was all in, and when I go all in on something, I’m like ‘This is it. I’m going to go full force at it, and if I fail, I will do everything I can to get to the level I want to be at,’” Kloth said. “Kristen agreed to play with me for some reason, and after that, Kristen is the all-knowing of our team, so whatever she says goes, and that’s how it worked out with (coach Drew Hamilton). We’ve just built this thing, this three-person team.
“I obviously know all these names, and so I see all the people playing in all these games and I’m like ‘Well, here we go. We need to throw everything out there and see how it goes.’ The competition, wanting to compete with the best, is what keeps pushing us. We see where everybody is and we want to get to that level.”