MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina — The waves are crashing gently against the shore just off the porch of Adam Roberts’ house in Myrtle Beach. This is my favorite sound in the entire world, rivaled only perhaps by a bubbling creek, a crackling fire, the deafening silence of mountains.
I arrived here only last night, April 20, for a week of training with Roberts, who is perhaps my first real partner in this game, someone with whom I’ve committed to months of tournaments with neither of us thinking about the possibility that the grass may be greener elsewhere.
Myrtle Beach is not literally where I am going, but, metaphorically speaking, it is. It is a week of training, from 9:15-noon. We have a coach. We will lift weights, stretch, recover, spend time together as a team, as a family. We are preparing for several FIVB tournaments in Europe — Bulgaria, Prague, maybe Sochi.
This is the direction of my life.
Yet for the previous four days, Myrtle Beach is not where I was, nor where I would consider myself to be from. From a life standpoint, I am from Hampstead, Maryland; from a beach volleyball standpoint, however, I am from Navarre, Florida. The weekend preceding this week-long training block in Myrtle was Fuds, the bi-annual Fudpucker 4 Player beach volleyball tournament held just off the boardwalk in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
This weekend I lived, for days on end, at the intersection of where I am from, and where I am going.
Just before our first match of Sunday’s elimination rounds — Saturday was pool play, in which my team, Vollis, went 3-0 — Jack Metz approaches me. Jack, like so many of the people in Fort Walton Beach, is one of the first people I met in this game. He’s a smaller type you’ve seen on livestreams and tournaments many, many times: great ball control, good setting, crafty shots. I can’t remember ever beating Jack while I lived here, from April of 2014 through September of 2015.
Then again, I was also not any good.
I am reminded of this often, sometimes in funny ways — “do you remember how cringe your hand-setting was?” — sometimes through compliments. Jack reminds me of this via compliment.
“I’m sure you hear this often,” he says, “but it’s so cool to see how far you’ve come from when you were here.”
Over the course of the weekend, I will, indeed, hear this often. But there is no getting used to it. Hearing this will not get old. Success is still new to me in beach volleyball, and I am still, in so many ways, a novice. No matter our profession or industry, we move through life in scales. We are novices in elementary school until we are the big, bad fifth graders. Then we are novices once more in junior high, until we’re running the joint as the eighth graders. Then we become freshmen, and we know nothing once more.
Beach volleyball — or whatever your job may be — is no different. I was a novice, through and through, in Fort Walton Beach, until I wasn’t. And then I moved to California, and I was the equivalent of a freshman once again. Then I became a novice on the AVP Tour — still there — and am currently battling through the rankings on the FIVB.
All of us — you, me, your best friend — have come far and have far to go. There’s beauty in that.
But it’s rare we get to spend time at this strange intersection of where we’re from and where we’re going.
All weekend long, I was there.
All weekend long, I would play a match, then immediately grab my phone, find a quiet spot, and tune into the Cancun four-star. I’d watch my friends, yes, rooting hard for them, but I’d study as much as anything, noting block moves, offenses, how to play in hurricane winds.
All weekend long, I’d physically be in the place where I’m from, yet mentally be a short flight away, in Cancun, Mexico, yearning to be where I am going.
I was almost there, too. Was on the entry list and everything. Had signed up with Billy Allen, knowing our points together would get us into all three tournaments. But Allen eventually backed out, not wanting to risk losing a silver medal finish in Edmonton, which might ruin his chances of pulling his real partner, Andy Benesh, into an event. I was a bit crushed, to tell you the truth, even if everything about Allen’s decision made perfectly logical sense. And, to his credit, it all worked out exactly as planned, and Allen and Benesh are competing in the second event together, as they should.
Everything comes in time.
Rarely do we ever agree with the universe’s timing.
I certainly didn’t. I was bummed to the point that I nearly texted my team — JD Hamilton, Evan Cory, Cody Caldwell, Vollis owner Jay Dorsey — to tell them that I didn’t want to play Fuds.
Tournaments like Fuds, my thinking went, wouldn’t get me any closer to where I am going.
Tournaments like Fuds — the fun ones, the iconic ones, the ones that make this sport so dang beautiful — are where I came from.
I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to move forward.
I never sent that text.
I’m glad I didn’t.
But that happiness wouldn’t set in until Sunday afternoon, before the semifinals. Before there would be a match that was, in many ways, beach volleyball’s past vs. its future.
I wasn’t the only one at the crossroads of where we’re from and where we’re going.
Their resume could fill an entire book and then some: five combined Olympics, one gold medal, one bronze medal, dozens of AVP wins, World Championships, you get the point.
My team’s resume includes as many AVP main draws as their team has Olympic appearances.
And yet, I’d argue anybody putting odds on the match would have made it a push. Here is Evan Cory, one of the best can’t-miss talents there is at the moment. He’s 23, has not yet made a main draw, but will. Here’s JD Hamilton, one of the best friends I’ve ever had, who, alongside, Evan, kind of transformed southeast beach volleyball culture. He has also not made a main draw yet.
Here is Cody Caldwell, a national champion out of Loyola Chicago who has become quite beachy. He has made only one main draw.
There are many more to come.
It may sound insane, then, for me to say we’d be at even odds with the Olympians and Ed and Samuels, but I honestly think that’s the truth. It showed, in one of the most fun, insane, epic beach volleyball matches I’ve ever played. A crowd I’d estimate around 2,500 to 3,000 people was loud, raucous, engaged, booing strange things like a replayed point because of a pigeon, roaring at rallies that JD extended with wild digs, growing louder when Rosie did the same.
The ghosts of beach volleyball’s future going head to head with that of its glittering past.
We won that match, 17-15, and then the next, in a final that could best be described as anticlimactic.
It was a cool experience for me, to win that tournament. Fuds is the first beach volleyball I ever watched live, on a newspaper assignment in April of 2014. Seven years later, I won it, mostly because JD passed every ball perfectly, making it easy to set the can’t-miss hitting windows of Caldwell and Cory.
I felt a bit petulant, afterwards, that I ever doubted coming to Fort Walton. It’s necessary, I think, to take stock of where we’re from, to get back to our roots, to see and hug and thank the people who launched your career, put you on the direction you’re on. It’s wonderful to introduce my new friends to the ones who are the reason I have any friends in this game at all, to see Meaghan Allen, and say that she taught me how to play, and Dan Labrador, and say that he also taught me how to play this game, and Gigi Vardai, and Matt Rivest, and Shaun Rannals, and Jack Metz, and so many others, and I’m being very truthful about each one of them.
They all taught me how to play.
They all put me on the direction I’m going.