The Perfect Mismatch
On July 5, in the middle of an Olympic qualifying tournament, Jake Gibb boarded a plane for home. He and his beach volleyball partner, Sean Rosenthal, had just been upset in the first round of a Moscow event. There was one other tournament remaining to determine who would compete in Beijing, but depending what happened in subsequent rounds in Moscow, either they would claim the last US Olympic berth for Beijing, or it would go to Matt Fuerbringer and Casey Jennings, who were still alive in the main bracket.
If their countrymen lost, Gibb and Rosenthal were in. If their compatriots kept advancing, the 18 months of suspense would continue.
As Gibb sat on the tarmac in Moscow, his personal trainer was sending him instant updates.
Fuerbringer and Jennings forced a third game, and Brazil was up 8-6.
"Our plane starts taking off," Gibb said. "I really should have my phone off at this point."
One last time, Gibb writes, ‘Any updates?'"
"The plane is in the air now and I can see she's typing."
Jeez! Send it!
"Suddenly, we go out of range. I see an ‘X' instead of bars."
Oh man - now I'll be 13 hours on plane!
Four years ago, Gibb and Rosenthal were not contenders to make the Olympic team. Both had taught themselves how to play, each had a different partner, and neither was competing on the world tour. Everything in their backgrounds was opposite. Nothing pointed directly to success in the sand. And nothing, it seemed, could have brought them together.
Gibb grew up in Utah as the youngest of 11 children and was a late bloomer when it came to sports. He played golf in high school and tried out for basketball during his senior year, but his growth spurt came later when he gained six inches and grew to 6-foot-7.
After high school, Gibb went to Costa Rica on a Mormon mission. He returned to Utah in 1997, married in 2000, and attended the University of Utah but did not play college sports. He graduated in 2001, and a year later, moved to California with his wife to pursue beach volleyball, a game he had randomly picked up in his back yard.
"We didn't have a penny to our name," Gibb said, but his wife encouraged him.
"She said, ‘Go try this beach volleyball thing for two years, then we'll re-evaluate.' If I'm not in the top 20,"Gibb told her, "then I won't play anymore. Sure enough, by 2004, Gibb was ranked No. 10 with his partner Adam Jewell.
Gibb would stay.
Rosenthal, grew up in Redondo Beach, Calif., as the second oldest of seven kids. He never knew his father. His mother was unwed. He was a tremendous athlete, but lacked the parental guidance to keep him focused on school. He was working by the time he was 14 or 15, installing computer data cables and fiber optics for the now-defunct Absolute Cable Solutions, and hanging out at Hermosa Beach, about a mile from home.
When he was 16, Rosenthal made his professional debut on the AVP tour and teamed up with his 36-year-old boss whom he'd met at the beach.
"I was learning by playing," Rosenthal said of the sport.
Little did Rosenthal suspect at the time, his mother was addicted to methamphetamines - until one day, his mother's home was raided.
All of his siblings who were younger than 18 were taken away and put into the custody of his maternal grandmother.
Rosenthal, was 19 and doesn't remember how many siblings were removed.
"I think it was three or four of them," he said. "It was kinda crazy. I didn't live there. I was living with friends. I think I was at the beach and someone said, ‘Hey! Your mom's house got raided.' It wasn't the most shocking thing I'd ever heard. We lived next door to a cop growing up."
Rosenthal's grandmother lived in Palmdale, an hour and a half away.
"I never went up there when they were there," he said. "It didn't make me closer to them. It's all the same, I'm sure. It just happened. For me, I was playing every weekend. The time [mom was in rehab] flew by and everything was back to normal."
Around 2001 beach volleyball was just lucrative enough to sustain Rosenthal who, by his admission, hadn't grown up with money and knew how to live without much. By 2002, he was recognized as the best server on the AVP tour.
Even when Gibb started to establish himself in 2004, the two players traveled in concentric circles. Until Gibb's partner, Stein Metzger, dropped the bomb.
At the end of the 2005 season, Metzger wanted to split.
Gibb and Metzger were the No. 1 ranked team on the AVP that year, and Gibb was the tour's most valuable player. They had also captured three medals that year on the international FIVB tour, where Gibb was co-rookie of the year.
Since Metzger left while the team was on top, however, Gibb had his pick of partners and Rosenthal was his first choice.
"Sean was really raw but one of the most athletic players in the world," Gibb said. Not many players were as quick or had a vertical leap greater than 40 inches in soft sand. Not many players could hit the ball with both hands with equal velocity.
"I knew he could play some [defense]," Gibb said. "I called him and when I started talking about winning gold at the 2008 Olympics he said, ‘That's what I want, too.'"
Their goals aligned, and the renegade and the upright Utahn united.
They hired the 1996 Olympic silver medalist Mike Dodd to be their coach, and in their first year together, the pair won an international tournament in Acapulco by defeating the 2004 Olympic gold medalists Emanuel and Ricardo of Brazil in the final. They also earned two second-place finishes on the FIVB circuit, and Rosenthal was named 2006 FIVB Rookie of the Year.
Despite the way their inaugural season looked on paper, Gibb called 2006 season "tough," explaining, "Sean led the league in hitting errors, so we had a good talk: If you put half of those balls in play, we'll go farther in more events. I had my things to work on, too."
In 2007, they could tell they were improving because their opponents were no longer serving to Rosenthal every time. (Teams usually serve to the weaker offensive player.) But the pair's best international finish that year was fifth, and the qualifying period for the Beijing Games had already begun.
To be selected for the Olympics, a team's best eight results on the FIVB tour between New Year's Day 2007 and July 20, 2008 would count toward qualifying, and the teams would be ranked accordingly. The two highest-ranked teams from each country would qualify for the Games.
Although AVP results didn't count toward making the cut for Beijing, Gibb and Rosenthal continued to compete domestically, too. Home victories padded their bank accounts and Rosenthal became one of the most popular players. A traveling band of his neighbors, friends, and local beach lovers dubbed "Rosie's Raiders" became - and still is - the most vocal group in the stands. One of the Raiders is Rosenthal's mother, who has been clean for 4 ½ years.
The team continues to train in Corona Del Mar, Calif., where the 28-year-old Rosenthal, lives. Gibb, 32, lives about 10 minutes away in Costa Mesa.
Dodd thinks the partnership works because "Sean, to his credit is super level-headed. I think it helped him get this far in life. He realized what he had to do.
"Jake had that full element of love and family and religion and morals. He's one of the most open-minded people I know.
"The two of them were so different, that they weren't really so far apart," Dodd added.
As Gibb took flight over Moscow (and Rosie remained in Russia), he began to despair as he lost communication with his trainer on the ground. He was about to turn off his electronic device when a few long bars appeared on the screen.
A message came through: 15-10 Brazil
It was the score of the third set.
And one more thing.
Dodd, said, "Going into a competition as unique as the Olympics Jake and Rosie are maybe the scariest team. They've beaten all the best teams in the world. It would be better if they were more consistent, but a gold medal isn't a pipe dream."
Although Gibb and Rosenthal have not defeated their US Olympic teammates, 2007 world champions Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, in a final, they have beaten them in five of their 22 match-ups, including once this year at an FIVB stop in Adelaide, Australia.
Sean Rosenthal: I'd suggest not to do it the way I did and to do it the traditional way. Go to high school, play, get into college, and get school paid for. But you can definitely make it and have fun with it. You should be blessed enough you're playing a sport and it's a good life."
Jake Gibb: Sean just has a drive you can't find in many people. He's taken it upon himself to succeed. No way could I have done it by myself. You have to have the right support system around you [to get this far]. My wife financially supported me when I first started; she was a loan processor. Get a good physical trainer, an amazing coach early on.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.