In the summer of 2001, Dain Blanton was riding the high of winning the Olympic gold medal a year before with partner Eric Fonoimoana. In this article, printed in the July 2001 issue of Volleyball explains his mindset as he and Fonoi looked ahead to the next season.
Blanton competed in the 2004 Olympics with Jeff Nygaard, where the duo finished 19th. Today, Nygaard and Blanton once again find themselves on the same team as Blanton recently joined the coaching staff of the USC sand volleyball program where Nygaard serves as an assistant coach for the men’s volleyball team.
You know what I think is most impressive about Tiger Woods? Not that he just won the Grand Slam of golf. Not that he’s the best golfer in the world at the age of 25. Not that he has two Masters wins when some great golfers are still looking for their first.
It’s this: Even with all he’s accomplished, he’s got the desire to keep getting better.
You remember four years ago when he won his first Masters? He finished ahead by 12 strokes, and everybody knew at that moment that hed be The Man for the next 20 or so years. But after that victory, he completely broke down his swing and changed his game. He changed it even though hed been doing it the same way since he was about two years old.
Im sure a lot of people said he was crazy and thought he shouldnt mess with something that was working so well. But I understand his thinking. If you want to be the best, youre willing to take that kind of risk because youre never satisfied.
That’s the mindset I want to have this summer. Coming off winning the Olympic gold medal with Eric Fonoimoana, it would be easy to go into cruise-control mode. Im not thinking that way. I want to work harder and get in better shape and become a stronger player.
I want to take my game to a completely different level before I turn 30 in November.
The bottom line is, Im not satisfied.
The first thing Ill tell you about last summer’s Olympics is that it wasnt nearly as much pressure to be there as it was to qualify. Partially, that was because the competition was tough along the way, but it was mostly because Eric and I had to work against the strong forces of politics.
In February of 2000, teams that wanted to make a run at the Olympics were asked by AVP management to submit a list of FIVB events they wanted to play.
Eric and I looked at the international schedule and picked events that were earlier in the summer so we could stay in the main draw and avoid playing in qualifiers. Then, we turned it in.
Three months lateronly two weeks before an FIVB event in Mexicothe AVP management told us we couldnt play in Mexico and would also have to skip other events wed planned to play in. To us, it made no sense. They had three months to get back to us, and they chose to do it right before the start of the season.
The thing is, we were only one of two AVP teamsKarch and Adam Johnson were the otherto have a good shot at making it to Sydney. The other spot had been pretty much locked up by Kevin Wong and Rob Heidger, who spent the previous year piling up FIVB qualifying points.
Why wouldnt you want one of your top teams to take its best shot at qualifying for the Olympics? I think there are a couple reasons, one being that they probably didnt think we could win. Another was that they wanted Karch to play in the Olympics again and go for a fourth gold medal.
As it turned out, we decided to ignore the AVP restrictions and play in the FIVB Olympic qualifying tournaments that we originally signed up for. That got us suspended from an AVP event in Chicago, and it left a bad taste for us that never really went away.
What probably bothered us most was that they wanted us to skip some FIVB events when there was no AVP event. How much sense does that make? Here we were, trying to qualify for the pinnacle event in the sport and do something that would ultimately help the AVP, and they wanted us to sit at home.
A year before, AVP management had even tried to play down the significance of the Olympics. They said it wasnt really important for beach volleyball, and they talked about how the FIVB was playing politics by hiding behind the Olympic rings.
The way I see it, youve got to be realistic. If youre the average TV viewer and youre watching American players in the Olympics, you dont give a damn about any of that stuff. You dont know about the FIVB or the AVP or all the disagreements that there have been over the years. Youre just thinking, These are our best athletes. So if we get our asses kicked, most people just figure that Americans must not be very good at this sportand that’s pretty hard to choke down considering we invented it.
Youve got to look at the big picture. The Olympics is huge. In basketball, it may be different. An NBA World Championship is possibly bigger than an Olympic basketball gold medal. And winning Wimbledon for a tennis player is also probably bigger than the gold. But for beach volleyball, this is our best chance to showcase our sport on a worldwide stage. You dont want to miss out on a great opportunity.
After all that, we qualified in Belgium by taking a third, our best finish up to that point in the season. If wed finished fourth, Karch and AJ would have qualified, and then AJ would have had to get a new partner because Karch had hurt his shoulder.
That was definitely the most pressure Ive ever felt at a tournament. In the match that clinched it, we had to beat the No. 1 team in the worldJose Loiola and Emanuel Rego. That was tough enough. But there was also an unspoken pressure. If we didnt make the Olympics, I think a lot of guys would have been saying, See, you shouldnt have gone to all those events. You should have stayed home and played AVP.
What’s kind of funny is that after we qualified, we came back and were suddenly being embraced and promoted by AVP management as the AVP Olympians.
This, after all their efforts to keep us from qualifying for the games. They even had a banner up at Manhattan Beach.
It just made us shake our heads.
One piece of advice Id give to any young person is to have more than one role model. There are a couple of reasons. First, if you build up just one person, there’s a chance theyll let you down. Weve all made that mistake. You know, you put some athlete on a pedestal and, next thing you know, he’s sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs.
The other thing: just about everybody has something to offer, so why not take advantage of it. I think it’s good to pull the best qualities of many different people.
One influence for me has been my mom, Jewell. My father, Joe, died when I was 6, and my mom raised me and my two older brothersEverett and Kurton her own, which isnt easy. My mom defines the word selfless, always thinking of others before she thinks of herself. She comes to a lot of my tournaments, and I can tell you this: If she could, shed be at every tournament everywhere, even the ones halfway around the world.
As far as athletes go, there have been a few that I consider influences. I always liked Magic Johnson, just because of his versatility on the basketball court. He could play guard and bang in the low post, too. There was one NBA finals series where he played every position.
That’s one thing that drew me to the beach. I like the fact that you have to be good at every skill. Indoors, you can specialize, but if you have a major weakness on the beach, people are going to go after it.
Another athlete Ive gotten inspiration from is Michael Jordan. Did anybody in the NBA over the last 10 years want to win as much as Jordan? A lot of guys say the ring is important, but Im not sure they really mean it. When youre making that much money, it’s sometimes hard to keep your focus and stay motivated.
Jordan never let the money get in the way of his drive to win.
The knock on Eric and me is that were not consistent. We might win an event, then finish ninth the next weekend. All I can say is, I dont know why we havent been more consistent, but it’s something were trying to change.
A goal for us this year is to win back-to-back events, which weve never done. That would be a move in the right direction.
A guy like Karch, it’s awesome that he’s kept up such a high level for 20 years. You can talk all you want about, yeah, he’s getting old. Well, he’s got 142 wins. What do you got? I respect him a great deal for what he’s accomplished, just the same as I respect Kent Steffes and Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos and anybody else who has won over time. True champions win over time.
To get there myself, one of my challenges is to become a better setter. It’s no secret that Im not known for having the sweetest hands on the beach.
The thing is, I did set well in the Olympics. Anybody who knows volleyball would tell you that. Before each game, Id go to the practice court and set dozens of balls, focusing on getting it right where Eric likes it. And for weeks before the Olympics, I spent a lot of hours on the beach working on my setting.
It’s not like I dont know what to do. Im surrounded by great setters, and Eric’s a great setter. But when you get in bad habits, theyre hard to break. You stop using your legs and you get in trouble because youre just using your hands. When I focus and use my legs and square up and contact the ball correctly, Im fine.
Another weakness for us is blocking. It’s not a big weakness, but we get the majority of our points from hustling and playing defense and being quick and physical. If I can give Eric the set he likes and we can block a few balls, well put other teams in a lot of trouble.
One of my goals this year isnt directly related to winning more tournaments. I want to use my success as a gold medalist to get the sport of beach volleyball back to where it was 10 years ago, back when the energy was high and the prize money was, too.
With that in mind, Im going to spend even more time working on Dain’s Day at the Beach, a program I started in 1997 to expose as many kids as possible to the sport. I want the next generation to have the same opportunities that Ive had.
As far as this season goes, Eric and I will strive to improve on our Olympic success. For me, Eric is the perfect partner. We both like to play a physical and powerful type of volleyball, and we have a blast playing together. I dont think I could find a partner who is as committed or works as hard.
I have to say, I think it’s more exciting to watch a power game like ours than a finesse game. Dont get me wrong. I respect finesse players. Take a guy like Brazil’s Ze Marco, who we beat in the Olympic gold medal match. He plays a strategic game, and he’s really good at it. It’s more like a chess matchsort of a float-them-and-wear-them-down mentality. But I like to see balls hitting off the side of people’s faces and sunglasses breaking and people getting blocked straight down. I just think that’s more fun for the fans.
To each his own, though. What matters most is winning the big matches, and one thing Im proud of in my career is that my wins have come against top teams. That was true in the Olympics when we beat Ricardo and Ze Marco, and it was also true when Canyon Ceman and I won our first tournament by beating Kent and Loiola in Hermosa Beach in 1997. And in college at Pepperdine, we beat a good Stanford teamCanyon’s teamto win the 1992 national championship.
The nice thing about beating the best is that it leaves no questions. Nobody goes home wondering what might have been if this team did this or that team did that.
This year, Eric and I know well get everybody’s best game. So that’s our goal. To answer all the questions.