HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It had been four years since Sophie Bukovec played a full season on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. In March, when she made her debut as Brandie Wilkerson’s new partner, she asked her blocker the most vital of questions in the social media-driven sport that is beach volleyball: Who do I need to follow on Instagram?
Wilkerson’s reply may surprise you, and it certainly did Bukovec. It wasn’t any of the women dropping regular content. Not any of the men posting wildly athletic highlights. Wasn’t Volleyball World or the AVP or any governing organizations, where bits of news may be gleaned.
It was, rather, an unsuspecting individual: “Theo Brunner.”
When Bukovec began to investigate the matter for herself, she found herself “crying laughing,” she recalled on a podcast in early September. “So funny.”
In a sporting world gone mad with overused clichés, bromides, and facades that resemble nothing of the human being behind the app, Brunner provides a refreshing dose of candor. His social media presence, however light and moderately used, is positively hysterical. His post-match interviews, typically forgettable affairs to which most won’t bother tuning in, have become must-watch television. Take, for example, his chat with Julius Brink following what is likely the biggest win of his season, a quarterfinal victory in the World Championships over Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen. The back and forth with Brunner and Chaim Schalk was a work of digitized modern art.
Brunner: “I sucked really bad at blocking. I couldn’t have done any worse. Every decision was wrong. There was a bunch of low ones where I still went high and got chiseled. It was super frustrating, so the fact that we won with our sideout is a big win for sure.”
Schalk: “That’s just Theo for you.”
Brunner: “He sucks at defense too.”
Schalk: “For sure. I’m trying to stand in there, I took a ball right off my face, and you didn’t even set me very well on it. It was a trap set.”
Brunner: “It was pretty good.”
When you’re finished laughing, what’s important to note is this: That win vaulted Brunner and Schalk into the medal rounds of the World Championships. It pushed them into the No. 1 spot in the USA Volleyball rankings. It gave them a shot at qualifying for the World Tour Finals, with its gargantuan prize purse — $150,000 to the winners — should they have pursued it further. It legitimized them a real threat to win at any level on the Beach Pro Tour. And Brunner remained perfectly authentic, self-deprecating, and candid, a rarity in modern professional sports.
“It’s not the best for sponsors and all that stuff, but I really don’t like social media,” Brunner said on SANDCAST. “But when I started, I was like ‘F it, I’m just going to be writing whatever I want. My soul can’t handle ‘Took a ninth! Another top-10 finish!’ Even though a ninth isn’t top-10, it’s top-12, right? ‘A lot of lessons to learn from that finish!’ I think I did that once and I was just like ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘Alright, who are you?’ ”
Who he is has become easier to see this year than any of the previous 13. When Brunner made his first AVP main draw, in 2009, he did so at the height of Phil Dalhausser’s powers, and when Jake Gibb was nearing his peak. For the next 12 years, Brunner — and every other American blocker — remained in the shadow of Dalhausser and Gibb, the only American blockers to qualify for an Olympic Games since George W. Bush was last in office. But with Gibb fully retired, and Dalhausser playing exclusively on the AVP, Brunner has alas been able to take his spot, alone, as the best American blocker.
“Mentally, just having been through so many ups and downs and horrible losses, and that’s the thing about beach, and I think why older players can do better sometimes — you’ve just been through so many things, so now when it’s 14-13 and it’s your side out, in the past you would have been ‘This is such a big point!’ Now it’s just whatever,” said Brunner, who is 37 years old.
“For me, I figured out a mental thing where as long as I did what I meant to do — I took a look, I was patient, if they make a play, whatever — as long as I made the play I wanted to, I can live with that, and that makes for better tournaments, better playing in the clutch and better finishes. It’s just letting go. I guess it’s cliche, letting go of the result, it’s easier said than done, but I’ve sort of gotten in the groove of that. But a lot of it is just experience over the years and having horrible losses. It’s just not as visceral anymore.”
It’s easier, too, to let go of results when there are only so few in need of letting go. Brunner amassed a career-high $42,600 in prize money on the AVP this season, winning in Hermosa Beach while making four total finals, tied with Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander for the most of any team on Tour. Internationally, he and Schalk are the top-ranked American team by a long shot, holding a comfortable lead over Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, a crucial edge when Olympic qualifying is set to begin in a few months.
He’s been here before, though. At the end of the 2015 season, Brunner and Nick Lucena, coming off a fourth in that year’s World Championships, were in prime position to qualify for the Rio Olympic Games — until Dalhausser called Lucena, and Lucena bolted for his old friend. But this stretch is different. He has a partner in Schalk who isn’t going anywhere, who meshes with Brunner both in playing style and personality better than any of Brunner’s long list of accomplished partners.
“We definitely fit well together,” Brunner said. “It’s always tough because there sort of needs to be a leader, an alpha out there, but we don’t necessarily have that. We’re both good at different things. I’m super calm and he gets fired up, which is good for us and good for me, because I can be super calm sometimes. I always watch a lot of video at home and try to plan the stuff we’re going to do for the future but when we’re on the court he steers the ship. It’s a good fit. That’s always been one of our strengths is to figure things out on the fly and we communicate well during games. It’s chemistry, for sure.
“I’ve been looking at Paris as my last run, so it was like, whatever, I think me and Chaim, he’s a good veteran player, we can work things out.’”
However it works out, be it a medal in Paris or a finish off the podium, suffice it to say: You’ll know exactly what Brunner thinks about it in the end.