HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There was no mincing of words. When Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk were asked how it felt to be on the court together for the first time as partners, at a Challenge in La Paz, Mexico, and an Elite 16 the following week in Tepic, they answered succinctly, and candidly.
“Shit,” Bourne said.
“Terrible,” Schalk added.
But then Schalk laughed, because this is not the first team Schalk has helped build. He knows how it goes. It took Schalk and Ben Saxton, who teamed up in 2013 and would eventually qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games, 22 tournaments to win a medal. By the end of the 2016 season, Schalk and Saxton were ranked in the top 10 in the world. His debut on the Beach Pro Tour with Theo Brunner, in 2021, consisted of a first-round qualifier loss, a 17th in Cancun, an upset in a country quota, a ninth, another country quota upset, another loss in a qualifier, a 17th — and then a gold medal.
Midway through 2022, Schalk and Brunner became the top-ranked team in the United States and finished fourth in the World Championships.
These things, both of them know, take time.
“At the end of the day, if you’re building with your partner and you’re working, the best team will get there,” Schalk said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “The interesting thing is, creating the best team is more difficult than you think because it’s so much about chemistry, so much about working together.”
Already, in just three tournaments, there have been moments — “teases,” Schalk called them. They qualified in Tepic, stumping Austria’s top two pairs to do so, coming back in the third set to beat Moritz Pristauz and Robin Seidl, a team who had just won bronze in La Paz the week before. They played the Czech Republic’s David Schweiner and Ondrej Perusic, the current world No. 8 team, to a 25-27, 25-27 loss. They went the full three sets with Sweden’s David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig, the tournament’s eventual gold medalists, and three again with eventual bronze winners Nils Ehlers and Clemens Wickler. Two weeks later, they won their pool in a Challenge in Itapema, and showed more than a bit of grit in a 21-17, 12-21, 16-14 win over Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Maciej Rudol, a match in which they were down 7-12 in the third set before mounting a stunning run.
Yes, close only counts, as the cliché goes, and perhaps what you may be thinking at this point in the story, in horseshoes and hand grenades. Neither is satisfied with simply being close. But the fact that they’re there, that they have proven they can contend with three of the world’s top-10 teams — Sweden is No. 4, Czech Republic 8, Germany 10 — and handle several in the top-25 is sign enough that the USA isn’t as far behind as many might think.
“There’s a lot of communication and little things. He’s getting used to my rhythm at the net which is a lot different than Theo, and Chaim moving behind me is totally different than Trevor [Crabb] moving behind me. Just totally different styles,” Bourne said. “It’s exciting because the potential feels like it’s there. At the end of the day, potential doesn’t get you a good finish. We’re at where we’re at, which is two pretty poor finishes. Qualifying for an Elite 16 is pretty difficult to do but that’s what we’re trying to accomplish, something really difficult.”
There will be no corners cut, no rocks left unturned. They have the same trainer in Mykel Jenkins, a coach in Leandro Pinheiro, the 2022 VolleyballMag Coach of the Year, who turned Bourne into the 2022 MVP of the AVP and whom Schalk is enjoying. They have a sports psych, regular check-ins with the physical therapists at USA Volleyball, and a glut of sponsors ranging from apparel (Laird) to supplements (Blocks) optimizing their sleep and nutrition on the road.
“I feel like a pro this year. We’re doing it how we should be,” Schalk said. “We’re fully in. We’re taking care of everything we need to take care of. It’s refreshing for me, too. We’re both fully accountable.
“I struggled in the first tournament. Right after, we met, I wasn’t there all the way. I felt quite good in the second tournament. He didn’t feel quite where he wanted to be at. We’re addressing issues immediately instead of being like ‘Whatever, we lost.’ It’s easy to be like that in beach volleyball. I think it’s a sign of good things to come because we want to nip it right away, figure it out. To have that system is pretty cool and I think long-term that’s what’s going to pay off.”
The road to the Paris Olympics is, indeed, a long one. Fourteen months remain in the Olympic qualifying period. Sixteen major qualifying events — Challenges, Elite 16s, World Championships — as well as the NORCECA Continental Championships remain in 2023 alone. So they’re managing their schedule, coming home to see family at AVP New Orleans rather than go to Saquarema for another Challenge. They’ll be back in Brazil in a few weeks, in Uberlandia for an Elite 16.
They’ll be less “terrible” then they were in La Paz. Less “shit” than Tepic. In a world of instant gratification, there will be times, months, even, when building a team for the longterm feels borderline insane. Such is the price of admission for the massive undertaking that is attempting to qualify for an Olympic Games.
“There’s going to be waves, one month where we play amazing. We’re not happy. It was a tough first couple tournaments but optimism is there for me,” Schalk said. “I like knowing that no matter what happens in the next year and a half we’re both doing the things we feel like we need to be doing. Win or lose, to me, if we win, that’s gravy, it’s awesome, I’m doing it the way I want to be doing it. We’re doing everything. That’s the way. As soon as we’re going off a little bit, it’s awesome that I have a guy who’s bringing you back in if you need it. We’re not going to get lazy. We have our core set of values. It’s exciting for me.”
“When you go all in, no matter what happens, it’s scary because I gotta take the full accountability,” Bourne added. “There’s no excuses. But at the same time that’s super freeing, just being ok with this is what I got. I’m going all in. I’ll admit it. I’ll own every loss and I’ll own the crap out of every win.”