MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Tri Bourne needed to stay there just a little longer. Where he was is difficult to describe, even a full week after the fact. If Bourne had directions to wherever it is he went, he’d go there every match if he could.
But, truth be told, Bourne had never entered the place to where his mind ascended two Sunday afternoons ago. His wife, Gabby, hardly recognized the scowling, barking, vein-popping Hawai’ian far more well-known for a demeanor so relaxed he’d occasionally get distracted by a barreling swell.
“I’ve never seen him that focused,” Gabby, an actress and the mother of their almost-two-year-old daughter, Naia, told NBC’s Camryn Irwin. “He’s in another zone.”
To get to a place you’ve never been, you first must go where you’ve never gone.
August 22 marked more than six years since Bourne made his first Manhattan Beach Open final, in 2015 with John Hyden. He lost, 19-21, 17-21 to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, the team who would also eventually take his Olympic spot. The following year he’d make the finals again, letting a Casey Patterson seam swing for the match sliver under him. It’s haunted him since, for Patterson and Jake Gibb would come back to win, 17-21, 21-18, 16-14.
Bourne knew what it was like to come so close he could taste his salty plaque on the pier, only to lose it. Down 12-16 in the second set of the 2021 Manhattan Beach Open semifinals to Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, he couldn’t let it happen again. As he and Trevor Crabb have become known to do, Bourne let Schalk and Brunner know: “It’s coming,” he told them as they switched sides.
Only what was coming, nobody could have really known, for it was then that Bourne entered a mental space neither he nor Gabby nor Crabb had ever seen before, a space he wouldn’t exit until he was pounding Fanta shots by the half-dozen at Shellback Tavern hours later.
What was coming looked, physically, like this: Bourne chop around Brunner, Schalk error down the line, Bourne block, Bourne block, timeout, Crabb dig to Bourne’s patented short line shot, Bourne block, Bourne block.
Seven straight points against one of the best side out teams in the world; Bourne was responsible for six.
He didn’t celebrate. He knew what had happened, over and over and over again, in Atlanta the week before. How many times had they put a team on the ropes, only to let them back in? Up 8-2 against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, they’d wilt and lose the set. Up again against Andy Benesh and Billy Allen, again they went to three, eventually winning a match they had little business winning. Up a set to Brunner and Schalk, with all the momentum on the beach, they’d fall in the semifinals.
“There wasn’t any celebration of it because Atlanta, we let people back in, let people back in. All our practice the week before was ‘When we get to that moment, we need to push through,’” Bourne said on his eponymous podcast, SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
So wherever it is that he went, he stayed there. They’d carry that momentum in the semifinal and win the third set, 15-11, and in the finals, they’d meet the only team in America as hot as Brunner and Schalk: Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger.
Bourne once allowed Patterson’s on-court antics to distract him. The dancing. The dialogue. The pandering. He’s a crowd-favorite for a reason, Patterson, forever the entertaining ambassador beach volleyball continues to need. And, true to form, Patterson was dancing and chatting with a gold-clad fan from the first point of the match.
“I was like ‘I just gotta stay here a little longer. Don’t leave,’” Bourne said of the mental focus he found during the semifinals. “I went all in. I was like ‘I don’t know if my body is going to keep doing this, but I’m going until I drop.’ I felt like I had my legs until the end.”
In a 21-19, 24-22 victory, his first in Manhattan, Bourne led the match in hitting percentage (.500), digs (8), blocks (4), and controlled blocks (9), astounding numbers considering the fact that he split his time at the net and on defense with Crabb.
“Whenever I got served, I was just like ‘I’m giving it to my guy,’” Crabb said afterwards, laughing. Crabb knew his legs were getting gassed, just as he also knew that Bourne, in that moment, seemed somewhat impervious to the basic human conditions of fatigue and pain and calorie expenditure. Whenever he could, Crabb put the ball back in the hands of Bourne.
“I was just trying to stay in that place I found at the end of the semifinal,” Bourne said. “That’s all that was going on, and it came off very intense. I didn’t care. I needed to win.”
He did. In his third Manhattan final, and first since 2016, Bourne alas won, putting his name on the pier, alongside one of his best friends since he was a grom trolling the grounds of the Outrigger Canoe Club.
“Second time around was just as sweet because it was his first time winning, so it was almost like I got to experience that again, having your partner win it for the first time, so it felt like the first time,” Crabb said. “Plus it was our first win as a team so it still felt like something new. Especially Manhattan, just picturing myself winning that in the future again, it’s going to be just as sweet as well, no matter how many you have, because it’s so special. There’s so much history behind it.”
This past week, Bourne allowed both his mind and body to relax. He and Crabb, for the most part, took the week off, spending the weekend in Mexico celebrating Maddison McKibbin’s nuptials. They surfed, ate tacos, coming back to Earth from wherever it is they went during the final two matches in Manhattan. Just one tournament remains, the final AVP stop in Chicago this weekend.
Whether or not Bourne and Crabb can find that place they found in the semifinals remains a question, though one thing is a certainty: They’ll be talking, scowling, finger wagging, playing the role they’ve invented for themselves — beach volleyball’s most entertaining team.
“Being willing to put yourself out there more, even doing stuff like podcasting, you learn how to just be comfortable and be yourself in front of crowds and cameras and whatever,” Bourne said. “That’s an art you need to learn when you’re on the court, to engage with the crowd but not distract yourself. Some people get a little nuts and then fully distract themselves from playing well. We’ve gotten close to mastering that skill, involving the crowd but being ourselves and just absolutely being in the zone at the same time.”