In beach volleyball it’s just you and your partner on court, so finding the right teammate is crucial to success – right? But just how far can trust, respect, patience and friendship take you in the most unique of team sports?
We sat down with teams from Brazil, the USA, Germany, Canada and Austria and asked them what ingredients are needed to make it to the top
Picture the scene. It’s the gold medal match at the Olympic Games. The scores are level in the deciding set. Your partner makes an uncharacteristic mistake. An easy opportunity at the net that they would usually put away in their sleep. A chance missed.
Four years of blood, sweat and tears; thousands upon thousands of points and plays and hundreds of those ‘what are we doing?’ early morning training sessions in deepest, darkest winter.
The mixture of emotions suddenly rush through your head – this is not the place to lose focus, a packed Center Court under the floodlights with millions around the globe scrutinizing your every footstep on the sand.
“What were they thinking?” you ask yourself.
Forget it. It was just a mistake. Hey, they didn’t mean it. Remember you’re in this together. They need you and vice-versa. Because you’re a team, and this is beach volleyball – the Olympic discipline that throws together two gladiators of the beach with one goal: to conquer the world on sand.
To quote Shakespeare, ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. And just like in ‘real life’ relationships, there are inevitably bumps along the road to victory in beach volleyball.
Where the magic happens
For three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings, having faith in the person standing alongside you on the sand is vital if you’re going for world beach volleyball domination.
That’s exactly what the American and her teammate Misty May-Treanor achieved – winning Olympic gold together in 2004, 2008 and 2012, as the legendary duo reigned supreme for well over a decade.
“When you’re chasing big dreams it would be impossible without trust,” says the 39-year-old, nicknamed ‘Six-feet of Sunshine’.
“I think the number one thing you need as a team is the foundation of respect and self-respect. That makes it easier when you face the harder times as a team and that’s how we worked through some tougher situations. Calling my partners up and understanding where both people are at and how they want to get better. The more you show in the relationship, the more you are able to tell each other. When a partnership is strong, that’s where the magic is.”
Joined at the hip
As well as trust and respect, another key component of any beach volleyball constellation is the relationship away from the sand – especially when you have to spend three-quarters of the year in each other’s company. In 2018 the beach season begins in February and ends in August.
In the wonderful world of beach volleyball partnerships, being together on the tour for such a long period of time can be a tricky balance to strike. When is too much time together a good thing?
“We didn’t spend too much time off the court together unless we were traveling due to where we each live and our schedules we had to maintain off the court when we were home,” explains May-Treanor, who is now director of volleyball operations at Long Beach City College, mentoring what she hopes will go on to become the volleyball stars of tomorrow.
“Kerri and I both have different personalities but learned to balance off each other which is important. I don’t think you have to be the best of friends with your teammate but you must communicate with each other, trust and respect one another and each other’s differences. Of course a friendship will be there and it will continue to blossom.”
You’re not the boss of me
With an astonishing haul of 104 gold medals together, Kerri and Misty proved that a team doesn’t have to be in each other’s pockets 24/7 to be successful but that’s not the case for other teams.
On the sand, the experienced pair both admit the early stages of their partnership was littered with arguments and fights as the Austrian alpha males battled for the right to be ‘boss’ in the team. Now, over time – the duo started playing together in 2012 – the two are happy playing dice together after an evening at dinner with their family and friends.
“It’s not absolutely 100 per cent necessary that you need to get on with your partner but I think it helps when you’re spending 200 days together sleeping in hotel rooms!” laughs Clemens. “I think it would be very annoying if you don’t like the other person when you’re travelling the world.
“We had fights to begin with. We’re two very big personalities but we almost don’t fight any more. The World Championships was a fairytale for us. All of those good fights, bad fights, good discussions and bad discussions eventually put us in the right direction. There were so many situations in the past that helped us – and you could see those things playing out at the critical moments on the court with us beside each other in Vienna.
“I don’t think we would have finished where we did if we weren’t good friends. It was important, it was perfect, and our friendship helped a lot – we always knew we were good players but the proof of working on our relationship came through at the World Championships.”
When one is not enough
In the five seasons that team spirit helped Alex and Clemens climb up through the beach rankings together – which included a 2016 appearance at the Rio Olympics – Brazilian Pedro Solberg Salgado has had five different partners.
In 2018, that number will rise to six following the news that the 31-year-old will play with George Wanderley. George, just 21, will be Pedro’s 14th different teammate since he began on the World Tour at youth level in 2002.
“I never had the same partner for more than two years,” explains the notorious partner swapper of tour, who played with previous partner Guto Carvalhaes for just one season last year. “I had success with Harley, who was my partner in three different seasons, and with Bruno, with whom I played for only one year – so it really depends.
“I was part of some teams where the results did not come immediately and we could see it was not going to happen. But I also see some teams that start really well but cannot keep the same results for much longer.
“Of course, being able to have the same partner for a long time and really build a successful team is really special. That’s what I wanted for my career, but, for a number of reasons, it never happened. I hope it happens now with George.
“I think it is very important to have a good relationship with your partners but it’s very hard for me to have a positive attitude and believe in my team if I have a partner that is not someone who I admire. I don’t like playing with people with who I believe to have a weird way of viewing things. It’s something I struggle with, but I don’t think it’s a rule. I’ve seen a handful of teams who had some success even when the players didn’t have the best of the relationships because they knew how to separate things.”
Mixing and matching partnerships in Brazil is common practice. It helps being able to hand-pick from a wealth of talent in a nation where beach volleyball follows only soccer in the popularity stakes.
Europeans Doppler and Horst are well aware they face an uphill task competing against teams from Brazil – the pool of top-class beach volleyball athletes available to pair-up with is significantly greater in the South American beach powerhouse nation than in little landlocked Austria.
“It’s easier for the Brazilians,” adds Horst. “I could never play with someone who I cannot get along with but in Brazil I would have a different opportunity. If I don’t have fun with one player, I can take another. If I don’t like playing with Pedro Solberg, I’ll call Alison Cerutti and say ‘come on, let’s go.’”
In it for the long haul
But does sticking together as a team help you achieve success or can you thrust two strangers onto the sand and succeed straight away?
Well, last summer’s Beach Volleyball World Championships – attended by almost 180,000 beach volleyball fans on the idyllic Danube Island in the Austrian capital Vienna – saw contrasting champions crowned.
Brazilian rising stars Evandro Gonçalves Oliveira Junior and Andre Loyola Stein only began playing with one another at the beginning of last season, yet stormed to glory in Austria. They then went on to win silver at the World Tour Finals two weeks later. Not bad for a first season in each other’s company. At 22, fresh-faced Andre made history by becoming the youngest men’s world champion.
Yet for the women’s champions, Laura Ludwig, 31, and Kira Walkenhorst, 26, their route to the top of the beach volleyball world has been a carefully planned and executed one since they joined forces in 2012.
“We started out by wanting to play in the 2016 Olympics but we had to accept that we were not good enough straight away and deal with that,” explains golden girl Ludwig, who was voted the Most Outstanding Player by her fellow professionals last year. “At first, I was like, ‘oh my god, can I do this?’ I thought with that in my head that after one year I’d probably quit!
“However, there were so many things that were right. What we learned was to trust the team and each other. You think about the goals you have: you have come together to form this team for a reason, so you have to work on it.
“I think it’s probably a little different in Brazil, the players swap because perhaps the ability is in their blood, they can play with anyone. It’s a different culture to Europe and maybe that’s why that works. However, for Europeans, perhaps for Germans like us, we want to be a little more structured. You know, we want to sit down, work it out, and, after a long discussion, it’s perfect. I couldn’t say what is best, because everyone’s character is different.”
The clichéd German efficiency has helped Ludwig and Walkenhorst become household names and super stars in their homeland. In 2016, they captured Olympic, World Tour, European and National gold – but that’s not to say the duo never questioned being together before their stellar season.
“At the World Championships in 2015, we had a moment where we lost in the first elimination stage and we were like ‘shit, is this going to work? Is this right?’” explains Ludwig. “We were thinking ‘are our characters right, do we have the right coaches, is it something with the way we’re practicing, are the tactics right’ – there were a lot of questions.
“Our coach asked us. We didn’t know. We sat down and talked about it. After four days we found a way, we were just too frustrated; we felt that we didn’t have the patience. So we thought, ‘okay, are we committed?’ We mapped out a plan, we had to stick to it, stay patient. We knew we could play amazing beach volleyball and our coach explained that in the end we had to believe in the plan, stay on track and have the patience…”
That’s what friends are for
If patience isn’t a problem and culture isn’t the topic of conversation, then what’s needed to connect two individuals is good old fashion spirit. And sometimes that can be borne simply out of friendship.
Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena – both in their late-30s are still high in the world rankings thanks to a string of incredible results, including a glorious gold medal at the 2017 World Tour Finals in Hamburg. “We’ve known each other for so long but we argue like brothers,” jokes Dalhausser, an Olympic champion in 2008. “The most important thing in any team is chemistry and I’ve been lucky that I’ve always got along with my partners off of the court.”
Brazilian, Larissa Maestrini, one half of the hugely successful Larissa/Talita partnership with Talita Antunes, agrees: “It is vital that we accept and respect each other and that our goals and our dreams are aligned. We knew that having a good relationship would be essential to the success of our team.”
Friendship is exactly what helps 2016 Olympic champions Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt get along – but the Brazilian superstars know where to draw the line when they’ve had enough of each other.
“Our friendship definitely helps our team a lot even though we do a very good job on keeping it separate from our professional relationship,” reveals Alison, known on the World Tour as the ‘Mammoth’ for his grand, intimidating presence on the court. “We know how and when to praise or to push each other.
“We are very different in our lifestyles. And that works very well because we respect each other a lot and I feel that we complement each other, both as friends and as partners. After four years, we know how to deal with our differences and, despite our different personalities, we make sure our goals are always aligned. It has been like this the same since we first played together.”
Please release me, let me go…
Of course there will come a time when all teams, successful or not, will have to call it a day. The spark in the relationship may have fizzled out or, in some cases, players find somebody else.
“One hundred per cent of unions will come to an end,” states Canadian 2016 Olympian Ben Saxton, matter of fact.
Saxton compares the beach volleyball duo dynamic to parts of real-world of relationships. The ending, ‘the divorce’ is the final part of a four-step phase which includes ‘courtship’, ‘honeymoon’ and ‘old married couple’ stages.
“A beach volleyball relationship is a real thing,” says Saxton, who split with Chaim Schalk after four years together in November. “Though it is a professional partnership and isn’t likely to end in true love, there are a lot of similarities with the romantic kind of relationship.”
Through the highs and lows, gold medals and first round eliminations, it’s a rollercoaster being a part of a beach volleyball team, on the road for months on end together fighting for ranking points and podium places.
But, as Saxton quite rightly puts it: “there’s no singles in beach volleyball”. You need somebody by your side, otherwise you face being left behind; pointless, penniless, partnerless…
“It’s so important as an individual to rely on a partner – beautiful in fact,” concludes Kerri Walsh Jennings, smiling. “You’ll never forget that experience that forces two people to become a team. Beach volleyball is the best team sport on the planet – just two people, taking on the world.”
And this is why, when you’re standing on the sand in the gold medal match of the Olympics Games and look across at your partner, you see them giving you the look only you know – and all of a sudden, all of those worries about that missed point are gone and everything’s all right in the world.
Because it’s all about team spirit, and without that – and your teammate – you wouldn’t be a part of the most unique team sport in the world that keeps millions of fans flocking back for more year after year.