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It’s not that Taylor Sander has been bored this fall and early winter. But, goodness gracious, the sheer amount of free time on his hands — what’s a man to do with himself?
“I’m not used to it,” he said, laughing.
No kidding. It has been nearly a decade since Sander could wake up in his own apartment this time of year, in the United States of America, and do whatever it is that he wants to do. He can take a walk a few blocks and grab a coffee at Granny’s Groceries in Hermosa Beach. He can surf. Lift. Play volleyball if he wants. Hit the Lakers-Clippers game at night. Doesn’t matter.
“Normally,” Sander said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “I’d still be busy right now.”
But busy, Taylor Sander is not. He is not in Poland, or Italy, or Brazil, or China, or anywhere else overseas, playing the sport that has been the drumbeat of his life for his entire adulthood. Long one of the best outside hitters in the world, a bronze medalist on the 2016 Olympic team, Sander is here, in Hermosa Beach, nowhere near an indoor court, wondering the same question asked by beach volleyball players up and down the coast: What in the world do we do in the off-season?
“Now that I switched to beach I have all this free time,” he said. “It’s been nice.”
He always knew the switch from indoor to beach would come at some point in his career. A native of Huntington Beach, California, Sander grew up playing — and winning — whatever junior beach tournaments he could. Even as he went on to become a four-time All-American at BYU, where he set records in virtually every category — all-time single match aces record (9), career service aces (182), career kills (1,743), season service aces (55) — even when he won that Olympic medal on the United States National Team, even when he was commanding contracts in the highest leagues in the world, the question lingered: “Can I do it?”
Could he switch to the beach and be as successful as he was indoors?
He just didn’t think he’d attempt to find that answer so soon.
A career playing indoor volleyball is not for the faint of heart. The abuse on the body is one thing, the emotional and mental toll it can take is another. There is no professional league in the United States. To pursue a career in indoor volleyball, then, calls for a life in which you are overseas for the majority of the year, oftentimes in places where English isn’t spoken, you’re the only American on your team, and you go months without seeing your family. Many Americans have thought it was the path for them, only to return almost immediately.
“My vision was always indoor,” Taylor Crabb said several years ago, when he began his transition from indoor to beach. “I went to France for a year. There was something about living nine months in another country by yourself that wasn’t really for me I guess. I wanted to play beach, but in my 30s, after my indoor career was done.”
Crabb’s beach career began far earlier than he would have thought. It’s worked out well enough: He is now widely considered to be the best defender in the United States, and will likely have that claim for two more Olympic quads, at least.
But Crabb’s switch was perhaps a premature end to what he could have done indoors. There is no telling how good he could have been. For the past half-decade or so, the world has seen just how magnificent Sander is indoors.
In the past six years, Sander signed contracts in Italy, China, Qatar, Italy again, Brazil, and, most recently, Poland. But his family was growing, as his second child, Isla, was born on November 1. Living overseas would only grow more difficult.
Perhaps it was time.
Who better to ask about potentially coming home to the beach than one of his oldest friends, a guy he had played against his whole life, someone who probably could have made an Olympics indoor but chose the beach instead?
Who better to ask than Taylor Crabb?
“I kinda brought it up to [Taylor Crabb] just asking some questions: ‘Hey dude, can I make a living on the beach?’ Little questions because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Sander said. “It kinda sparked a conversation and he said ‘Well I’ll take you!’ I said ‘Oh! Well that was pretty easy!’ I wasn’t even coming to you to ask to play with me.”
There is no shortage of good fortune in Sander’s timing. He is coming to the beach during perhaps the largest dearth of experienced and elite blockers in United States history. Gone are Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb, the only blockers to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games since they debuted in Beijing in 2008.
Someone needed to fill the gap.
And if there are no other blockers who have been to the Olympics on the beach — Tri Bourne, Crabb’s COVID substitute in Tokyo, being the notable exception — who better for Crabb to play behind than a guy who has been to one indoors?
“I obviously have confidence in my volleyball game and my volleyball knowledge to come out and make the switch pretty fast without any practice really, just trying to see if I can make an Olympic Games on the beach. That’s my goal,” Sander said. “Then talking with Taylor: ‘Hey dude, you’re one of the best defenders in the world, I don’t want you to pick me up out of pity. I want you to do what’s best for you, for what’s going to put you in the best position possible to make a run at the Olympics.’ I think he had the faith in me to say ‘Yeah we can do it.’ It’s going to be interesting.”
Their debut as a team, in November in Itapema, Brazil, had no shortage of interest. Claiming the final slot in the main draw, Sander and Crabb went in with virtually no practice, save for a week in Utah and a few four-man tournaments — not exactly the most optimal training environments prior to competing on the World Tour for the first time, in the heart of beach volleyball’s most powerful federation. They went in admittedly out of shape. They went in with Sander, who is 6-foot-4, only knowing how to run basic line and angle blocks.
And they still took a ninth. At a four-star.
“That’s how we approached it: Let’s just learn as we go,’” Sander said, laughing as he recalled a number of plays in which he was more or less winging it, relying mostly on natural instincts and a high volleyball IQ. “I’m talking to Taylor during the match and saying ‘Dude I’m sorry I have no idea what I’m supposed to do in this situation’ and he goes ‘Dude don’t worry about it.’ Literally I just learned how to three and four block and delay block the week before I went to the tournament. I was stoked because I got some good blocks and before I had no idea what I was doing.
“I was playing pickup with my friends in Great Park in Irvine and my friend puts up a three [the signal for a dive block into the line] and I’m like ‘Bro what? I thought it only went up to ones and twos!’
“We were both out of shape, didn’t practice much. I probably worked out four times that month. Cardio was tough. Just went there. No real expectations, just don’t make too big a fool out of yourself. I didn’t feel any pressure, just hey, have fun, play volleyball, that’s what it is.”
Fun was had. As was success. Sander and Crabb beat a young Danish team that would go on to stun top-seeded Brazilians Evandro and Alvaro. They’d upset Spain’s Adrian Gavira and Alejandro Huerta in straight sets. Sander got a pair of cracks at two of the best blockers in the world in Alison and Andre Loyola. They’d lose those matches, yes, but winning and losing wasn’t necessarily the metric by which they were measuring the weekend. They went to Brazil to learn, adapt, and simply get Sander some exposure — and much-needed points — to his first beach tournament since he and Crabb were teenagers.
“It did allow me to see that yeah, I can hang with these guys,” Sander said. “Those guys are mid-season and they have their tour in Brazil, so they’re sharp. If we were a little better in some areas, we could definitely push these guys, so it gave me a little confidence: Put in some work, learn from some guys, be a student of the game. It is totally different from indoor so I do have to start over. I still have my volleyball skills I’ve used throughout the years that I can apply. It’s a different game, but I do have a little bit of beach knowledge.”
That knowledge is about to take an expedited crash course this upcoming season. Crabb and Sander are retaining coach Rich Lambourne, an indoors Olympic gold medalist himself who coached Crabb and Jake Gibb to an Olympic Games. They’ll begin their AVP season in the main draw, the World Tour in the Challenger events.
It’s a new journey for both, and a thrilling one for the fans to follow.
“I didn’t think I would be here so soon,” Sander said. “Just the stars aligned and I said let’s just go for it. Obviously I need to figure out the world of beach volleyball and how to make a living and things like that, but I’m excited to see where beach volleyball goes.
“It’s gonna be fun. We’re going to put on a show.”