HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Terese Cannon really wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary when she realized just how extraordinary her life has become.
Like virtually every other resident of Hermosa Beach, a city of just 1.43 square miles, she was riding her bike to get where she needed to go, FaceTiming her twin sister, Maryn.
“What a life you live!” Maryn said.
“I know!” Cannon replied. “The beach is right there, here I am, and now my passport has all these stamps in it. I think if you asked me when I was 10 if this is what I’d be doing, I’d have said I hope so! But it’s pretty awesome to actually be doing it.”
By ‘doing it,’ Cannon means gleefully walking through the lush mountains and waterfalls in Switzerland one week, dodging bats in Rwanda the next, surviving a heat wave in Atlanta, grinding through the cold and rain in the Czech Republic, crushing piadinas in Italy, winning a gold medal in the Netherlands.
Is this really her life?
The girl from Rochester, New York, a city of roughly 200,000 that receives, on average, 77 inches of snow per year? A town close enough to Canada that, by sheer proximity alone, you’re far more likely to pick up a hockey stick than a beach volleyball?
“I was obsessed with sports and athletics and always followed the Olympics and professional athletes but never thought that was a career I’d actually do,” Cannon said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I never knew anyone who did it so I never thought it was something I could actually do, but I loved sports, and I couldn’t imagine ever stopping.”
She has had no shortage of legitimate reasons to stop, either. Like most volleyball players raised on the East Coast, Cannon’s volleyball path was of the indoor variety. She briefly considered playing her college ball at the College of Charleston, where she could have competed indoors in the fall and on the beach in the spring, but it was Georgetown that ultimately won her over.
Yet in a strange twist, at the end of her freshman season, she was just one of three players remaining on the team; everyone else either graduated or transferred.
She could have stopped then. Instead, she took a snowbird trip to Clearwater, Florida, where a coach named Anna Collier was running a beach volleyball camp.
“That was the first time where I thought: ‘This is so cool. I want to play beach volleyball,’” Cannon said.
She had met Collier before, at a camp in, of all places, Rochester, New York, when Cannon was a freshman at Our Lady of Mercy High School.
“I had a great time, then nothing,” Cannon said. “I did a high performance camp one summer somewhere in there in high school but was super overwhelmed. I came out to California, everyone knew everyone, everyone was so good, and I was this skinny, awkward girl, didn’t know how to control my body, not good at volleyball, let alone beach volleyball. It was fun, but never again.”
And yet … maybe again. Cannon figured, after the camp in Clearwater, that she could at least call Collier, ask the then-USC coach if she knew of anyone who might need a 6-foot-3 blocker. Raw, sure, but still: 6-foot-3.
Maybe she could even play for USC?
“Little did I know that SC was the best school in the country at the time,” Cannon said, laughing. So she could have quit after her freshman season at Georgetown, and she could have very well had that decision made for her by Collier, who took her as a walk-on but still held the right to cut her at any moment.
“I could not hit a ball on the court,” Cannon said. “And I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I just moved all the way out to California, and I might get cut.’”
But dynastic programs the likes of USC are not made on accident. Nor are they architected by coaches who make enormous misses on talent, and in Cannon, Collier didn’t miss. She gave Cannon the time she needed to develop, allowing her a sophomore year on courts five and six to transition from indoor to beach, then slotting her in the starting lineup full-time as a junior alongside Nicolette Martin.
In four years at USC, Cannon would win 112 matches and lose only 31. She’d graduate with two National Championships and first team Pac-12 honors. Despite that success, despite not being raised on the beaches of Southern California, as the majority of her teammates and opponents were, the few losses she took still cut deep.
“I used to cry every time I lost. My poor mom wouldn’t know what to say, ‘I don’t know if I should call you, I don’t know what to say.’
“I would be so, so, so upset every time we lose. All throughout college, I thought I should be winning, and every time I’m losing, it’s ‘Oh my gosh, my life is over, the world is coming to an end.’ ”
And yet it is that very ability to absorb a loss and grow and learn from it that has put Cannon exactly where she is today: Resting during the qualifier of the Itapema four-star. For the first time in her career, Cannon is straight into the main draw of a four-star FIVB, partnered with Sara Hughes, her former teammate at USC.
“We knew some of the top teams weren’t playing, and we got it,” Cannon said. “And we’re not even barely in, we’re in the middle! We’re excited.”
As she should be. As should anyone who has followed Cannon’s journey this year.
In six straight tournaments this season, Cannon fell in a country quota. In April, she spent three weeks in Cancun, played a grand total of four matches, won one, and didn’t have a single point to show for it. She traveled to Switzerland and lost in the first round of the country quota. Saw some waterfalls. Walked in the rain. Hopped on a plane to Africa then lost in the quota again in Rwanda.
A run like that can be debilitating, even to the most resolute of athletes. But Cannon’s goal for 2021 wasn’t exclusively to win. Winning would be nice, yes, and Cannon loves winning. But progress, learning, growth — that was the main intent.
“This year, the whole goal for the whole year was to get better,” she said. “I wanted to get better. As hard as it is to go into a tournament — you want to win every tournament — but my mindset was: At the beginning of this year, it’s going to be what it is. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to get better. In the middle of the year, when I was just losing, losing, losing, I was thinking ‘I’m not getting better! This is the worst! Why am I doing this?’”
She was doing it for little moments nobody other than Cannon would recognize as seminal. Moments in Cancun when she would practice with a team, not knowing who they were or where they were from, and beating or competing well with them. A few days later, she’d see that team picking up a top 10 finish.
“It was the first time where I thought: The level is really good, but I can compete with it,” Cannon said. “It was the first time where I thought I felt I belonged there and I’m not quite there yet, but I’m on the way, and one day I can get there.”
That day has alas arrived. Little dividends of her relentless work began coming her way throughout the middle and end of the year: a third in AVP Atlanta with Molly Turner, a top-10 in the Czech Republic with Corinne Quiggle, a silver in Italy with Turner, a gold in the Netherlands with Delaney Mewhirter.
Now this: Straight into the main draw in Itapema, blocking for one of the brightest young stars in the United States.
“This year, I honestly think I’ve grown and learned the most because losing in those country quotas is so tough, especially when they’re not played here, and I’m investing all of my own money in this and I’m trying to get points and I just want to win,” Cannon said. “I love to win. It was really hard to lose those, but just traveling and being in these other beautiful parts of the world helped remind me that there is more to winning and losing. Sometimes you get up and you play bad and you just have to take the good, leave the bad, and move on from it.
“When I took a step back, yes I was losing, but I was trying new things, working on a new arm swing, working on my passing, all this stuff, and something changed and it’s starting to pay off, which feels good. It’s nice to get good results.”