There was precisely one element of this strange and nomadic professional beach volleyball life that Toni Rodriguez knew to be true: “The travel,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “is going to be gnarly. That was the only thing I kind of knew.”
This entirely correct assessment, one which she’d experience first-hand quite soon, didn’t dissuade her in the least. At the end of March, she packed her bags and hit one of the more difficult trips on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour this year, leaving on a red eye from Los Angeles, laying over briefly in Fiji, sprinting through the international terminal in Sydney, hop on a bus 15 minutes to the domestic terminal, where she would barely make it in time to board a tiny plane that would take her to Coolangatta, where a car that drives on the opposite side of the road would transport her to an AirBnB three miles from the venue of the Coolangatta Futures event.
And then Toni Rodriguez, who had only left the country once before, at a Volleyball Vacation event in the Turks and Caicos, who was raised in bucolic St. Amant, Louisiana, a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where many of her peers are already married and starting families of their own, promptly won a bronze medal on beach volleyball’s world tour.
“Everyone back home probably thinks I’m crazy,” she said, laughing. “A lot of people from my town have already gotten married and they’re having kids and they’ve settled down and I’m over here traveling the world, just playing volleyball, living the sweetest life ever, and they’re like ‘What is Toni doing over there? What is going on?’”
What is going on is not at all surprising to those who had seen Rodriguez on a beach volleyball court at LSU. She walked on to the indoor team as a true freshman in 2014, beginning what one of the more circuitous collegiate careers any Tiger has ever — or should ever — experience. An ACL tear during her senior year at St. Amant High School, where she was a three-sport athlete and named The Advocate’s Athlete of the Year and Times-Picayune Baton Rouge Player of the Year as a healthy junior, forced her to redshirt her first season at LSU.
That was in 2014.
Eighteen matches later, in 2015, she’d tear her other ACL.
By 2019, her eligibility on the indoor team was up, but she was technically only a junior on the beach. She’d win 21 matches in her first season on the sand, all on court three.
“It was different, it was something new, and I was like ‘Yes!’” Rodriguez said of that first year.
She’d be granted another two. When COVID cut the 2020 season short, with Rodriguez and Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope jumping out to a 10-2 start and LSU earning its first No. 1 ranking in school history, athletes were granted what has been dubbed a “COVID shirt.”
For a seventh year, then, Toni Rodriguez was coming back to LSU.
“I should get a crown or something,” she said, laughing. Though there would be no crown for Rodriguez, there would be a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, a 24-6 record in her final — this time actually final — season as a Tiger, and a bright future in beach volleyball.
“I knew I wanted to play professional beach volleyball, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, who I was going to do it with, there was a lot of unknowns,” she said. “It was kind of scary.”
In what is already becoming a motif of her career, Rodriguez didn’t simply dip her toes in the waters, feel it out, test it. She just dove in headfirst — no plan, no safety net, just an endearing amount of passion and a mountainous goal to reach.
“Me and my dad loaded up my car after Chicago [where she and Aurora Davis would fall in the second round of the qualifier] and that was it,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was going to train with, who I was going to play with, who was coaching me, how I was going to make money. That was my first move from home. It was a lot of big things. I’m finally an adult after playing in college for seven years.
“I moved out at the end of September, so I’ve been out here for six months. It’s been awesome. When people ask me I always say it’s the best decision I’ve made for my volleyball so far. I’ve had a lot of good opportunity already with jobs, practices. I’ve loved it. I love the people. I love the community. It’s been awesome. I’m sure my family is sad that I’m not home and they’re figuring that out but I know they’re super proud and super excited for the season.”
Already, Rodriguez has a bronze medal to her name and a momentous victory over Brazil’s Josemari Alves and Carol Goerl. Already, her passport has been tattooed in two different continents. Already, she has qualified for an AVP, finishing third in the Panama City Beach AVPNext with Savvy Simo to earn a main draw bid into Austin, where they would finish seventh, beating an AVP champion in Karissa Cook and tour veterans Delaney Mewhirter and Maria Clara Salgado. Already, she is settling into a life that is as foreign to a 25-year-old from St. Amant as torrential floods and rain would be to a 25-year-old in Torrance, California.
“Starting it off in Australia was super exciting. I definitely had the nerves going into it. I didn’t know what to expect from the competition and then getting to play with Zana [Muno] was so awesome and she was such a good teammate helping me get through those nerves. To start there, feel out the competition, what does the international competition look like exactly, and then to finish with a bronze was light years ahead of how we would do which was awesome.
“Brazil, playing with Zana again, I felt less nervous. Even though we were at a higher level event, I felt super calm and relaxed. I’d already done one international event, I’m ok, I feel good, prepared, ready to go. Looking back at Brazil, I think we played well.
“This past off-season, I set my goals, I knew what I wanted to do, and playing in the Olympics is a goal of mine and in order to do that you need to play internationally and I’ve talked to so many people and I’m trying to figure out the system. After talking to so many people, fully understanding that’s what I had to do and that’s what I want to do, so when Zana asked me to play I said ‘Ok let’s do it.’ This is what I want and for Zana to ask me to do it, I was super stoked. It’s already preparing me for what’s to come. I have big goals and I know I’m new, but I think I can do it.”
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