HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Theo Brunner knew, the moment he saw the incoming call, at an odd hour in the afternoon, and Chaim Schalk’s name on the screen of his phone, the conversation that was about to happen.
“I already had my spider sense going off,” he said earlier last week. And he was right. You don’t play more than a decade of professional beach volleyball without developing a firm understanding of partnership dynamics, and when one might be coming to an end.
Sure enough, by the end of that phone call, Brunner was a free agent, while Schalk had teamed with Tri Bourne. Bourne had previously broken up with his longtime partner, Trevor Crabb.
It would have been easy for Brunner to make a hasty, perhaps panicky, decision. The first event of the 2024 Olympic qualification cycle will be played as early as February. But you also don’t play more than a decade of professional beach volleyball without learning a thing or two about the consequences of poorly thought out decisions.
“I gotta be super careful,” Brunner said. “I’m not going to try and jump into anything too fast.”
Instead, Brunner, as he has been wont to do these past several years, dove deep into film, examining the team that was his greatest foil this season: Bourne and Trevor Crabb.
“Going back, I know Tri is the MVP and everything, so I expected him to be dominating, but Trevor played awesome in so many of those matches,” Brunner said. “And I was liking what I saw on defense from him.”
He liked it enough to schedule a phone call with Crabb, with whom he actually gets along very well, despite what social media may otherwise suggest. Crabb, like Brunner, was at the top of the metaphorical beach volleyball food chain. He had virtually his pick of partner.
“My main concern was if he was willing to be all f****** in, because this is all I got,” Brunner said. “The next two years I want to put everything I’ve learned to the test and go all out — video, in the gym, doing everything. He seemed super fired up so that’s what I was looking for.”
That phone call, and a day in between to think it over, was all the two needed: Theo Brunner and Trevor Crabb are making a run at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
“Playing with Trevor just spoke to me deeply, just f*** everyone else and play with Trevor,” Brunner said. “It’s actually crazy that people advising me on who to play with, almost nobody told me to play with Trevor. In my mind, he’s a winner. I watched a ton of his video more in depth than I have in the past and I was super impressed. I think our personalities are going to be a really good fit because we get along, and I kind of need someone bringing the energy and he brings the energy and instigates with the other team and I love it. I think it’s going to be a really good fit.”
Crabb, as Brunner pointed out, is a consummate winner, logging six AVP titles since 2019, with at least one victory every year since 2019. He’s in rarified air as the three-time defending Manhattan Beach Open winner. Now, with Brunner, he’ll have the opportunity to win playing full-time defense for the first time in his nearly 10-year career.
“I’m excited to play with the best blocker in the USA and one of the best in the world,” Crabb said. “We are both a little extra fired up for this run together and I think complement each other’s game well. I’m even more excited to expand my defense full time and I think I am an upgrade for Theo.”
When Crabb emerged on the AVP in 2013, he did so as a full-time blocker. When he and Bourne partnered at the end of the 2018 season, he began split-blocking. But the more he and Bourne played, the more Crabb became the defender when the team needed a dig (or a block from Bourne). Bourne has since returned to full-time blocking for Schalk, and now Crabb will be playing defense almost exclusively. While that may come as a surprise to some, this is something Crabb has envisioned himself doing since 2017, when he would occasionally defend for Sean Rosenthal during their partnership.
“Definitely something that I could see myself doing in the future,” he said in January of 2018. “But also it comes down to you getting a good blocker, and right now I consider myself one of the better blockers out there. So, you know, you go to defense, you’re competing with the good defenders for those few good blockers. It’s definitely something that I could see myself doing — a little more split blocking.
“My goal for sure is the Olympics, and obviously to medal in them — gold medal to be precise. But that’s everyone’s, right? It’s definitely something I see myself doing, and I can definitely see myself doing it as a blocker and potentially even down the road as a defender.”
Now he has not just a good blocker, but the man voted the best in America at that very position. They both have the same goal in mind: The Paris Olympics — and a gold medal, to be precise.
Happy for them. Will be rooting for them along with Tri and Chaim.