The detailed list of what Zana Muno wanted for Christmas as a sixth-grader was an inventory of everything you might not expect from a young girl raised in California’s chic and swanky South Bay community. Here was not a request for beautiful clothing or the trendiest jewelry or cutest accessories, but an exhaustive, several-page presentation of every type of soil and seed Muno wanted in order to plant her new garden.

“It immersed me quickly,” Muno said, laughing. Thus was born the seemingly dichotomous path and passion of Zana Muno: ferocious competitor and preternaturally gifted beach volleyball player, one of the brightest young talents on the AVP Tour and … the girl who genuinely loves shoveling chicken poop.

That poop, after all, makes tremendous compost, which makes for soil to use in a flourishing garden, “and it’s all just so cool!” says the 25-year-old who somehow loves sundresses as much as she loves shoveling poop.

Indeed, there is much about Muno’s life that doesn’t often get mixed together, yet can aptly be labeled as cool. Twice this past season, she matched her career-high on the AVP, finishing third in Atlanta with Crissy Jones, and third again in Chicago with Kelley Kolinske, despite only a few days of practice. In the first international event of her career, in Belgium this past July, she emerged from 15th on the reserve list to tenth in the qualifier to first on the podium, gold medal in hand.

Yet throughout that wild ride of a season — Muno played six events with five different partners, of no fault of her own — she also put the finishing touches on a chicken coop she built during COVID, raised 11 chickens of varying species, delivered eggs to her practice partners when the chickens were providing, and allowed her mind to race through the possibilities of what else could be added to Muno Ranch.

Goats?

Cows?

“I want it all,” she said.

To separate one from the other — Muno’s beach volleyball life and her ranch life under the Instagram alias, Zee Farmer — frankly isn’t possible, which is sort of the point. If beach volleyball is her obsession, a career path she loves, her family’s ranch is “my saving grace,” she said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I love the South Bay, grew up in the South Bay, went to high school in the valley, and then went to UCLA. So I never left, but to have this space where I can be with the Earth has been so monumental for me.

“The chickens are my little fur babies. It’s just fun. I’ve gotten so attached to the Earth, just growing things and watching a chicken lay an egg and then you have breakfast, it’s just so mindblowing to me. I’m obsessed with it. I think it’s so cool. I feel like we’re so detached from our food, we just go to the grocery store and know it’s there but we have no idea where it comes from. Once I got chickens I got hooked and now I want to do it all.

“It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how valuable it was for my person and me as a human being. That’s when I got very addicted to it. I always loved it, but I didn’t realize the value of it for not just health but for myself as a person.”

It is easy for tunnel vision to creep in, slowly, unexpectedly, without realizing it when living in the South Bay, a beach volleyball-obsessed community where the conversations are dominated by beach volleyball, a walk down the Hermosa Beach Strand features nothing but beach volleyball, and if beach volleyball is what you do for a living, there is no real need to leave — other than, of course, to play beach volleyball somewhere else. It’s a magical thing. But it’s easy to become detached from the real world, where there are plants and animals and other jobs that do not require a ball and a net and there is work that must be done with your hands.

“To actually build something and see it come to life — we talk about it in volleyball: The changes are so small,” Muno said. “When you do get that click, it’s so exciting, but they’re very hard and emotionally, physically, they’re such big changes that are really hard over long periods of time, but in two months, I got sticks and made a home, which I think is so cool. It was so good to have something rewarding and to see all the work I’m putting in be manifested into something, because with volleyball and anything sports, it’s a lot slower of a process to see change.”

The change on the court might seem slow to Muno, but to an outside observer, she has been a major force in ushering in a monumental shift not just in her game, but in the sport of beach volleyball as a whole. She is at the forefront of a new generation of talent, a wave of NCAA players making their mark on the AVP and FIVB tours.

It’s somewhat astonishing to think that the first main draw of Muno’s career came just two years ago, in Hermosa Beach of 2019, where she and Jones would play 11 matches and finish third. Since, she has taken six top 10 finishes on the AVP, added a gold medal on the World Tour and another top-10 at a two-star in Brno, Czech Republic.

That success is no accident. Disappointed with her performance during the Champions Cup in 2020 — Muno and Amanda Dowdy finished 11th, ninth, and 15th — Muno went to France to stay with her boyfriend, Micah Ma’a, a fellow UCLA alum who was competing for Stade Poitevin Poitiers. But in France, there were no chickens to feed, no coop to mend, no volleyball to play. When Ma’a was at practice, it was just Muno and her thoughts.

“I was emotionally, mentally in the gutter because I was doing nothing,” she said. “I was just there watching my boyfriend play beach volleyball, and the French people kept calling me the accessory, and I was like ‘Oh my God, no. Please no.’ My ego was shattered. That was a big wakeup call because I felt like I didn’t give 100 percent, I didn’t give 100 percent into beach volleyball my first year. Then last year around New Year’s, I said ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to go 100 percent.’”

You can see the results for yourself: Even in a truncated season with just three AVPs, in which Jones injured her knee in the first event, and Muno was left scrambling, one tournament after the next, she thrived. On the eve of the Manhattan Beach Open, Muno plucked her former teammate at UCLA, Savvy Simo, out of the qualifier and split-blocked. They still managed to win a match, despite Simo having played three matches in the qualifier the day before and Muno not having blocked since college.

Before Chicago, Muno played in the Czech Republic with Delaney Mewhirter, made a quick visit to see Ma’a in Poland — he is now playing for GKS Katowice — practiced a couple days with Kelley Kolinske, and promptly took another career-high third. It wasn’t the prettiest season. It wasn’t how anybody would have voluntarily drawn it up. Yet when Muno spent six weeks in Poland with Ma’a this off-season, she wasn’t mentally or emotionally in any gutter. In fact, “I was ok doing nothing, because I knew that I had given that all and this is my time to relax and enjoy my time with loved ones and feel like I didn’t give 100,” she said. “Now that I’m back, I’m ready to go, and I’m ready to give 100. I filled those tanks. I just had to make that choice: This is what I’m doing. Making that choice last year, I kept falling more and more in love with it, because I gave 100 percent of myself to it.”

A small correction: She gave 100 percent of herself to what she has allotted to her metaphorical beach volleyball tank. Some give 100 percent of themselves to their craft. Muno enjoys the balance of beach volleyball and the ranch, of putting in hours on the sand while carving out time to shovel chicken poop with her grandfather and playing board games with her mom and taking a game of squash far too seriously with Ma’a. Yet it is that caring for all aspects of her life, not just the beach volleyball one, that, somewhat paradoxically, allows Muno to push the perimeter of her abilities.

“I’m not going to play my best if I don’t fulfill these other areas in my life,” she said. “I really plummeted at UCLA because I was just drained. I didn’t feel like I could give emotionally to my team, I wasn’t a good leader, because I wasn’t filling any other basket. I feel like I learned that lesson and I know my values and those are my most important things, and filling those is going to make me a better volleyball player.

“To be able to go to the Olympics and have that also would be awesome to show that you can do it this way, and you can have balance, and it’s not easy — I don’t see my boyfriend six months out of the year because this is my dream. You have to make sacrifices and it’s hard but you can still fulfill your other tanks enough so when the time does come and you’re done, you have relationships and people and hobbies and other passions. I just want to show people the importance of all that.”

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