HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Tri Bourne’s been thinking about Will Montgomery lately. They’re good friends, those two. Played both with and against one another. It was with Montgomery that Bourne first hit the beach as a professional, tooling around New Zealand. When Bourne was picked up by John Hyden, Montgomery turned to fellow Santa Barbara native Avery Drost and, eventually, Jeremy Casebeer.
In 2015, as Bourne was making a push for the Rio Olympics with Hyden, Montgomery played his last professional event, falling in the first round of a qualifier in Doha, Qatar, with Curt Toppel. Now?
Bourne’s an Olympian, a Manhattan Beach Open champion, with an argument as the best blocker in the United States. His good friend, Montgomery? He’s a firefighter. Surfs a lot. Spearfishes. Enjoys paid time off.
Over these past five weeks, in Turkey, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Rome, Bourne thought a lot about the life Montgomery has built. The stability. The lack of time away from home. The normalcy of it all.
“I see Will pulling into head-high stand-up barrels, and I wanted to be doing that!” Bourne said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “He’s spearfishing, pulling up 150-pound tuna. He knows what he’s getting paid, he has time off, he does what he loves, and I’m like ‘Jesus what am I doing?’”
Such is the emotional volatility that comes with pursuing greatness. Montgomery had been there plenty. He played in his first AVP main draw in 2009 and chased it for seven years. He simply had enough. Bourne? At 33 years old, he still has two Olympic quads left in his legs. He’s still the second-ranked team in the United States, behind Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner. But with a 2-year-old daughter at home, sometimes they sneak up on him, these strange thoughts of a life that doesn’t involve pursuing beach volleyball around the planet.
“I’ve woken up every day, in pain, extra tired, and just questioning everything. But then I’m like: Yep, been here. Pretty much every year there’s a point where this happens. But then you’re going to weather it and you’ll play well and you’ll think ‘This is amazing. Everything is good,’” Bourne said. “When you’re pursuing something difficult or tough, challenging, you get to that challenging time and it’s easy to forget that ‘Oh yeah, you wanted to challenge yourself. You wanted the challenge. Now you’re in it, dude.’ When the wave lets you up to grab a breath of air, just remember you’re in it. Tom Brady was saying that guys would call him over the years, and his friends would finally win championships, and they’d all say ‘Bro, that was so f****** hard.’ And he’d say ‘Yep, that’s what I do.’ They’re surprised. They win a championship and they say ‘That was extremely hard’ questioning if that was worth doing it again. And Tom said ‘Yep, that’s what I sign up for, every year, to go to that place.’ You have to go to that dark place and get comfortable there.”
Bourne acknowledges, daily, that his dark place is, in reality, quite sunny. He’s a professional athlete. His office is in the fresh air, just off the strand on 29th street in Hermosa Beach, with a full ocean view. He reports and answers to no one, save for a scoreboard. It’s a remarkable life, and one that comes with certain costs, such as playing one of the worst matches of your career at the worst possible moment. Bourne knew, but didn’t allow himself to come to terms with it, that he and Trevor Crabb knocked themselves out of the World Championships when they lost a stunner to the Netherlands’ Matthew Immers and Mart van Werkhoven in the second round of pool play in the Kusadasi Challenger on May 19.
It was a salve — a small salve — that, the following week, they played perhaps their best volleyball of the season in the Ostrava Elite 16, sweeping both Piotr Kantor and Maciej Rudol and Australia’s Paul Burnett and Chris McHugh to qualify. Then they beat Estonia’s Mart Tiisaar and Kusti Nolvak, and had a match point on Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan. But, good ball or not, the shadow of losing World Champs threw a wet blanket on the trip.
“We lost, and then we’re like ‘OK.’ I didn’t even look or ask for two days, until I said ‘ok I’ll ask Trev’ and he goes ‘Yeah, we’re out,’” Bourne said of World Championships. “And I go ‘Well, now I’m depressed. Good start to the trip. Complete joke of a start to the year.’ Then it was battling that the rest of the trip. We played some good volley.”
They did that. And they even received a gift from the Volleyball Gods, slipping into World Championships when Sweden’s Jonatan Helvig and David Ahman had to withdraw due to an injury. And then, as soon as momentum swung their way, it reversed course: After a first-round win over the Netherlands’ Leon Luini and Ruben Penninga, Crabb tested positive for COVID. They withdrew in ninth, the final strange bookend to a strange trip for the two.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally and physically drained as my last trip,” Bourne said. “Granted, there’s a lot more to it. First of all, losing, feeling like you’re not playing well, losing, is emotionally draining, because you’ve put so much into it. And then Trevor got sick for two tournaments. He got COVID for World Champs, so that’s draining, just being around someone who’s sick is draining. Then he gave it to me. So I get home, I’m in the SANDCAST studio for three days, quarantining, not seeing my daughter and wife — or seeing them, but through the glass sliding door. That happened to be my wife’s birthday, then Father’s Day, then my birthday, all in quarantine, and I’m thinking ‘What’s wrong with me? I don’t think I’m going to make it to Paris. This is a lot. Maybe we just invest in Gabby’s career [as an actress] and I go stay at home dad.’
“The amount of times that has popped into my head is a little scary, but then I thought about it: COVID, travel, losing, five weeks away, and I got a little back tweak going on. Maybe I’m not thinking correctly right now.”
He knows it, too. Knows that all it takes is one win, one tournament, to flip the script. It wasn’t all that long ago that he and Crabb were in a similar position, falling in a country quota for the Doha four-star that could have been a points boon in the Tokyo Olympic race. And then, just as the season seemed to be slipping away, Bourne got the call into the Olympics, they won the Manhattan Beach Open, and all was well again.
Such is life as a professional athlete. It’s why Bourne has become so interested in documentaries on perennial winners such as Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Kelly Slater — guys who have weathered the peaks and valleys for years on end. No matter how many times he imagines himself spearfishing with Montgomery or pulling into barrels on a surfboard, he knows he’s not ready to give it up. Not even close.
He’ll go right back to that proverbial dark place. As he’s done his entire career, he’ll get comfortable there.