HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Taylor Sander could hardly lift his head up last week. It had been more than three months since he stepped foot on a beach, either real or makeshift, such as the one on which he competed in Cape Town, South Africa, a center court plopped in the middle of a city square. Snowboarding in Utah, hopping in at the occasional BYU practice or open gym, playing with his kids — “altitude training,” Taylor Crabb joked — isn’t the easiest path to getting the sand legs back.
“Holy crap,” Sander said of his first practice back with Crabb. “Yeah, I’m feeling sore.”
His legs will soon recall what it’s like to move in the ever-shifting grains of Hermosa Beach. After all, he took, oh, 10 years off from competing in an amateur beach tournament before playing in his first professional season in 2022, setting historic marks for a rookie on the AVP Tour. There is no doubting his legs and cardio will return to the world class level at which they’ve competed on a volleyball court for virtually his entire adult life. What there is no replacement for is the off-season that he and Crabb agreed they needed before the upcoming 16-month gauntlet of AVP and Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour leading up to the Paris Olympic Games.
“I’m refreshed. I’m rejuvenated. I’m ready to go back to work,” Sander said. “I was going a little stir crazy being away from volleyball but we’re back. I’m excited.”
You can retrain your body to do just about anything, particularly a body that is as well-oiled for volleyball, no matter the surface, as Sander and Crabb are. But the refreshment? The rejuvenation? The excitement? That comes only from taking the proper approach to a season, knowing what you and your partner require to peak at the right times, playing at your best in the right tournaments. There was no shortage of criticism for Crabb and Sander — and Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, and Theo Brunner and Trevor Crabb — when they skipped out on the season-opening event, an Elite 16 in Doha, Qatar. Each team weighed the pros and cons of beginning their seasons, which could stretch as far as December for the Beach Pro Tour Finals, and decided the cons of starting early far outweighed the pros.
“This is probably a later start than I’ve ever done. Usually I start the first week of January but that’s just how our lives have been,” Crabb said. “That’s a weird part that doesn’t get talked about or looked at as much is that people don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes for everything. They just see us as volleyball players and that we should be doing volleyball 24/7 but this was a much needed, longer break to regroup. And like he said, he’s refreshed, rejuvenated, ready to go to work this year.”
Crabb, as much as anyone, understands just how long an Olympic qualifying period is. He is the only American male currently playing who has qualified for a Games, doing so in Tokyo with Jake Gibb in 2021 (Bourne, as you probably know, was subbed in for Crabb when he tested positive for COVID). He knows a slow start is far from a death sentence. In the first six events of he and Gibb’s run at Tokyo in 2018, their best finish was a ninth. In back-to-back tournaments, they finished 17th and 25th, dropping back into the qualifier for the Vienna Major.
“I remember sitting in the hotel eating dinner in Japan after we took last and Nick Lucena walked by me and said ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s a long race.’ That just calmed me down,” Crabb recalled. “He’s right. There’s another year and a half left. There’s a bunch more tournaments, we don’t need to go crazy about a couple bad events.”
Nor do they need succumb to the pressure of competing in a haphazard frenzy, playing as many events as possible. On the Beach Pro Tour schedule this season are nine Elite 16s and nine Challenges, as well as World Championships and the Beach Pro Tour Finals. The Olympic rankings include only a team’s best 12 finishes throughout the period, which finishes in June of 2024. To jump into the madness before you’re ready is far worse than finishing last in three straight tournaments, as Gibb and Crabb once did.
“It’s a long grind. It’s your best 12 finishes and however you decide to do that, I don’t think there’s one correct way,” Crabb said. “You just gotta go out there and have 12 good finishes.”
The first of those 12 finishes might not come until April, at Challenge events in Itapema and Saquarema, Brazil. And they also aren’t necessarily the top priority for Crabb and Sander, either. Crabb has long eschewed the narrative amongst American beach volleyball players that the Olympics are everything. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, he spoke of a desire to help rebuild the AVP to the point that the Olympics are the side dish, not the main entrée.
“For beach volleyball specifically, everybody talks about the Olympics. That’s the overall goal. But they look past that we have a season. We have a tour,” he said two years ago. “The NBA is more important than the Olympics. To win that championship, and then becoming an Olympian, is a bonus. Our season gets looked over. Everything is just focused on the Olympics, just get there. That’s what I hope to see change, is that we have our season, our change, and it’s just as important, winning our season, then on top of that, becoming an Olympian. Our season should be just as important.”
Where will their season begin, then? Not in La Paz, Mexico, for a Challenge, but in Miami, for the AVP’s opening event that will double as a 40th birthday for the Tour. It’s a move that makes sense on multiple levels, namely that jumping into a stacked international qualifier isn’t the wisest first competition back, especially when their previous tournament on the Beach Pro Tour, an Elite 16 in Cape Town, ended prematurely with a straight-set loss in the qualifier.
“The AVP is for our livelihood. We make more money on the AVP than internationally,” Crabb said. “Our sponsors care more about the AVP because that’s where their market is. It’s tough. You want to go make a living but you also want to chase your dream and go to the Olympics so you have to weigh everything. You have to do that to the best of your abilities. That’s why we’re going to start off with AVP Miami because we haven’t been training much. We don’t want to just throw ourselves into the international scene and get spanked down real quick. We want to be ramping up.”
Soon, Sander won’t be so winded at practice. He’ll be able to hold his head up just fine. He and Crabb will resume the form, perhaps an improved version of it, of the team that won in Phoenix and Huntington and made finals in New Orleans, Hermosa, and Chicago. Sander will continue improving upon a rookie season that is, statistically speaking, the greatest in AVP history, winning an event faster than anyone since the AVP began running its own tournaments in 1984.
“We have time to be peaking,” Sander said. “It’s going to be a really long year, looking at the schedule, so if we can do a steady climb and be our best later on, I think it’s going to be better for everybody.
“I learned a lot and there’s a lot I need to get better at and I’m more focused on that this year. It’s a hard game. It’s hard being a blocker. But I tried doing a little learning this winter and watching a little film on myself and guys this winter and I know what I need to do to help the team and I’m really hungry to take it to the next level not only on the court but the stuff behind the scenes, training, watching video, preparing my body better. Those are things I always did indoor because they were always what we had to do: You get your schedule and it’s all lined out for you, on the beach it’s up to you. I’m excited to take what we learned last year and do a couple things better and prepare a little bit better and we’ll be a lot better this year.”