“Hi, I’m Ben and I got a real bad cocaine problem.”
That was the first sentence Ben Vaught ever said to me. That came a little more than three years ago, on the north side of the Huntington Beach Pier. In that moment, I didn’t really know exactly how to respond to this blond goofball who introduced himself in a manner that was either recklessly, unnecessarily bold, or he was just kidding, one of those guys who you can never tell when they’re serious or not.
Shoot, I didn’t know. All I knew about Californians was the stereotypes we got on the East Coast, where all of them are blond, impossibly good looking, a bit odd, and can be described in vague terms like “laid back” and “chill.” Most, too, probably smoke a lot of weed.
On the surface, Ben seemed to fit the stereotype, though I’ll note, before we get too far into this story, that he does not, and never did, have a cocaine problem. Ben’s never touched cocaine. Ben’s a great kid (I’ll always call him a kid, despite him turning 22 quite soon).
And that above introduction kicked off three years of one of my closest friendships in California, one in which he refers to me as his big brother.
Over the next three years, Ben and I played or trained together on average no less than two or three times a week. I spent Thanksgiving at his house. His parents are my de facto California Mom and Dad. We’ve played a CBVA with me on the left playing left-handed (we took fifth two years ago, and were we pretty proud of that). We’ve played a CBVA with me on the left playing right-handed (torn rotator cuff to the left; evidently you have to take this mysterious concept of “time off” in this sport to remain healthy).
We’ve joked about playing real tournaments together, but neither of us ever really took that seriously because we’re both left-handed and everyone knows the Golden Rule about lefties: You don’t put a lefty on the left.
A few weeks ago, Ben and Branden Clemens qualified for a trio of NORCECA tournaments. They played the first, at the end of September in Punta Cana, and took ninth, though Clemens tweaked his wrist and didn’t want to push it.
So Ben called me. A lefty.
I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. After all, we’d only joked about playing together, and we mustn’t forget the Golden Rule: Never put a lefty on the left. Turns out, Benny was serious. Per USAV rules, you’re allowed one sub per calendar year to swap in for the partner with whom you qualified. Ben used his lone “wild card” of sorts on me.
So on Wednesday, we’re headed to Martinique, a little French island in the Caribbean that seems quite the idyllic place to play beach volleyball and maybe accidentally miss my return flight home. On a more serious note, it fulfills the last unchecked goal I had for this year: Compete for the United States of America.
I’ve always wanted to, and I knew, at the beginning of the year, when I began mapping out my goals, that a NORCECA or even a one- or two-star FIVB would be something I’d love to do. Had Ben not called me, I wouldn’t have had the chance. Now I do.
Also competing for the USA are the women’s teams of Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook and Melissa Fuchs and Victoria Dennis.
Now I get to put my passport to use for the first time, so Tri can stop making fun of me on SANDCAST for never having left the country. Now I can compete for the red, white and blue, and maybe even come home with a medal for Old Glory. I don’t really care if it’s just a NORCECA. I’m happy to start at the bottom rung of the ladder — it’s where I should start, anyway — though I do find it hilarious that it’s an Olympic qualification event, and technically, Ben and I will be in the Olympic race together (#RoadToTokyo!!!).
I still get to rep the U.S. And I get to do it with a fellow lefty and one of my closest friends. Don’t worry, Mrs. Vaught, there will be no cocaine involved. Though we might just come home with a medal.
There is also an FIVB World Tour three-star event in Chetumal, Mexico, this week, that includes second-seeded Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat and fellow Americans Brittany Howard and Kelly Reeves, seeded 16th, and Kim DiCello and Irene Pollock, seeded 20th.
The USA pairs of Kim Smith and Jace Pardon and Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango are in the qualifier.