Theo Brunner was in need, he says, of a rebirth. Not quite a religious ceremony, but something to revitalize a beach volleyball career that had, while not sunk, gone a bit sideways. There was the chronic calf injury that flared up, a nod to the fact that he hadn’t really taken a full off-season in several years. There were the flashes of success – a silver at the Kuala Lumpur three-star with Reid Priddy – sprinkled in with missed opportunities – two crushing three-set losses in country quotas in Gstaad and Rome.
The proverbial rebirth came in the most unwelcome of places, at the most unwelcome of times. Funny how it works like that.
Theo Brunner was thrown back into an AVP qualifier.
“At first I was super-bummed,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, of he and John Hyden being seeded Q1 at AVP Chicago. “But then I thought, this is good for me. It’s good to remember what it’s all about, see what everybody else has to go through every tournament, stop being all high horse, who cares about the qualifier. To get back in there was a nice thing.”
It’s easy to say that in retrospect, of course. It would not have been easy for him to say that midway through the afternoon of August 29, when he and Hyden were down one set to none – 15-21, no less – to Jake Urrutia and Earl Schultz in the final round of the qualifier. Losing the second or the third would have meant the first failed attempt at an AVP main draw since 2009, when he and Matt Heagy fell in the second round in Ocean City.
“I was like ‘Ah crap, what am I doing?’” Brunner said. “But it was a good reminder of the love of the grind, which you can forget sometimes.”
Throughout literature, any moment of rebirth, of finding a new identity or rediscovering an old one, requires a trial. Brunner had his. And he and Hyden prevailed, winning the next two sets, 21-13, 15-7.
It wouldn’t be until three weeks later, though, when he and Hyden were put back into the qualifier again, that they would return to the championship winning team they had been a year prior. It had barely been more than a calendar year since they won AVP Hermosa, coming back at the freeze to beat Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty, 16-14, in the third.
They did that, however, as the one seed.
In Hawai’i, for the final event of the year, they’d do so also as the one seed – in the qualifier.
Just as they did in Hermosa the year before, they returned to the final. And then the most poetic story of the year came to a crashing halt. Hyden, at 47, would have broken his own record as the oldest to win an AVP title, in searing heat and shallow sand, no less. Had it not been for a Herculean performance from Taylor Crabb, Brunner and Hyden would have locked up the greatest storyline of the year.
Alas, a 20-15 lead in the second set was undone by Crabb and Jake Gibb, just as another lead in the third was undone, thwarted once more by the Bug and Gibb.
“Oh, Hawai’i,” Brunner lamented more than once on SANDCAST. “Still hurts.”
And it will hurt for some time, to be sure, but never has there been a rebirth without a bit of discomfort. Brunner is now entering the off-season, his first blessed off-season in as long as he can remember, one of the most coveted free agents in the sport. Hyden has turned to Bill Kolinske, but after that, who knows where the chips may fall.
“It goes from the top down and I’ve been fortunate enough that I’m one of the guys people are waiting on,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying not being super focused on that stuff this off-season but I still have a bunch of people in mind and have chatted with a few different people.
“My wife forced me to watch the bachelor and it just occurred to me that this is a lot like the bachelor. Just trying to find a mate for next season. It’s a lot like a relationship – this guy is really good at this, but I don’t know if we’d get along that well. It’s pretty funny.”
And life, in beach volleyball, is fun again for Theo Brunner.