Domestic volleyball, International volleyball, it's all the same, right? Not exactly!
Domestic beach volleyball is financially risky, requires a large time commitment, and a certain type of person who is willing to follow a dream. Now take those same factors and multiply them by 10 to understand the international tour.
While these risks are frightening, it's all worth it when you step on to the court, look down at your uniform and realize that you are doing something that you have dreamed about since you were a child, representing the United States. Playing for USA gives you a sense of pride and makes you want to be the best you can be.
So how do you make this dream happen when you have no international entry points, no experience, and the top four teams on your domestic tour are all ranked among the top 10 in the world? Well you have to force yourself to take a chance, start small and aim big.
My first priority was to get some entry points. The best place to start accumulating points is on the FIVB Satellite and Challenger Tour. My first trip this year was to the FIVB Liechtenstein Satellite in the little city of Vaduz. I learned quickly never to panic when traveling to international events. We missed our flight, drove 4 hours in a rental car with no map (when we should have been taking the train), and had no room when we arrived at our hotel at 1:00 am. Just hours later I found myself on the court in the qualifier against teams I have never seen before, with refs who barely spoke English and a partner who I have only practiced with once. Lucky for me, USA has a nice scary ring to it when you are about to play another country that knows nothing about you. I played through the elements and just focused on the ultimate goal. After 4 days of playing, my partner, Lauren Fendrick, and I found ourselves on the podium receiving the gold medal and listening to our national anthem. Step 1 complete.
Next stop, the FIVB Egypt Challenger. As it costs too much money to fly back to the States we decided to troll around Europe for the next week until we arrived in Cairo, Egypt. My comfort level went up after a long three-hour bus ride to El Alamin from the airport when I noticed a few familiar teams from the previous event. Victorious again!
Winning a second gold medal in Egypt allowed me to gain confidence and appreciate the mental, social, and financial risk I was taking, but again, I just focused on the ultimate goal. You would think that after completing two smaller international events that making the segue to the FIVB World Tour would be a piece of cake... but they are two totally different pictures.
After winning two golds on the FIVB Satellite and Challenger tour, Lauren and I found ourselves no better off as we headed to Dubai. Our hard earned 100 points still put us low in the qualifier, but the qualifier would have been a dream to be in just to avoid the country quota, where all the USA teams in the qualifier have to play off for the one U.S. spot. I believe a beach volleyball player defines their passion and drive when they agree to fly across the world to play another amazing team from their own country in a single elimination match before they have even entered the tournament. The country quota is the scariest match I think I have ever played in, but winning that match against Angie Akers and Brook Hanson definitely gave me the confidence to continue on and play my best for the rest of the week.
In our first FIVB World Tour Main Draw we found ourselves as the 26th seed playing the 6th seeded team from Sweden in 100-degree heat. After our upset win, we lost to Switzerland and found ourselves in the contender bracket battling our way through the tournament. We did not find ourselves on the podium but were content with our 7th place finish, having knocked off 4 higher seeds including another Swiss team and the Netherlands. We embraced this start as a sign that we should continue to play and go to the last remaining world tour events.
Our high finish in Dubai allowed us to be seeded 5th in Phuket, Thailand. We took advantage of our draw beating teams from the Netherlands, China, and Finland, but were eventually knocked out of the tournament by USA's Tyra Turner and Nicole Branagh, who then made it to the final, making us settle for a 5th place finish.
In Sanya, China, we beat teams from Mexico, Italy, and Canada, but lost first to Sweden and then got knocked out of the tournament by the eventual winners, April Ross and Jen Boss from the US. We finished 7th again.
I look back at these 5 tournaments and smile at my accomplishments. After the frustrations of long hours in planes and airports; getting sick on the interesting food; adjusting to extreme weather conditions, sleeping in hard twin beds; defeating the language barrier between other players, refs and the locals; balancing my family, friends, and jobs at home; and risking the initial money to fly across the world, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Traveling and playing on the FIVB is hard, it requires strong commitment and dedication but the people who do it have the passion for the game that continue to drive them to excel and be among the best in the world.