Lucena Brings Passion to His Performance

July 02, 2009, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

STAVANGER, Norway (July 2, 2009) - The future flashed before Nick Lucena's eyes when he was 17. Playing in his first recreational beach volleyball game, the Florida State student looked beyond the super-cool sunglasses and good-time vibe that are staples of the sport, and saw something even more appealing.

"I’m a real competitive person," he said. "I loved the competitive part. But how to do you get that good, not growing up playing? That was the question. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd end up at the highest level."

But there he was Thursday morning, lining up with teammate Brad Keenan on Thursday in Stavanger, Norway at the 2009 SWATCH FIVB World Championships, the sport's most prestigious event next to the Olympics.

Although they lost to fellow Americans Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb, it was only a temporary setback for Lucena, 29, who’s won $219,000 during his eight-year career and was the AVP's third-ranked player a year ago.

In fact, Norway was just the latest stop in an unlikely odyssey that Lucena hopes will end at the 2012 London Olympics. It started in Fort Lauderdale, where his Cuban-born parents embraced all sports.

"My dad sort of snuck out before the revolution, my mom came over later," he said. "They were very supportive. We were always outside, playing baseball, soccer, football.

"Now, they’re into my volleyball - my parents and brothers and sisters. They know all my stats, they come out to California to watch me play."

Beach volleyball was nowhere on Lucena’s horizon when he left home to play soccer for Florida State. But once he started slapping a ball over the net and charging through the sand, he threw everything into his adopted sport, even taping photographs of top American players on his dormitory wall.

"Three years later, I was beating them," he said. "I was in shock.

"I consider myself more of an athlete than a volleyball player. I’m not really as good or fundamentally sound as some guys. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. But whatever works, works."

In 2003, Lucena teamed with Phil Dalhausser, another young, late-starting Floridian, and within a year they went from being the 63rd-seeded team in a small tournament to No. 12 in the United States. But when Dalhausser switched to Todd Rogers, eventually winning gold medals at the 2007 World Championships and Beijing Olympics, Lucena scrambled to find a suitable partner.

But first he eliminated Dalhausser in the 2006 season opener, giving his former teammate ninth-place finish, his worst ever with Rogers.

"He’s an intense guy,’’ Gibb said on Lucena. "The more intense he is, the better he plays."

Stepping onto a Stavanger court Thursday, Lucena’s passion was as clear as the sweat on his face. He yelled, paced, agonized, berated his own play, and even slammed into a sideline fence.

"He’s a little out of control. But I like that," Keenan said.

Added Lucena: " I’m trying to be on more of an even keel, but I don’t know if it's helping. It's that Cuban temperament; it's in my blood. Most of my family is like that. I'm blaming it on that."

It hasn't been an easy year for Keenan and Lucena, who started their first season as teammates with big expectations, but have finished fifth or lower in four of six AVP tournaments.

"We were looking to the Olympics. I was looking for a young big guy," Lucena said.
"It's frustrating because we wanted to be good right away. We've had kind of a slow start so it's going to be a longer process. We were on the second and third-ranked teams last year, so we thought we'd be better with each other. But it isn't working out that way. Mentally, we've taken a step backward.

"But I want to play as long as my body lets me. It's great, being able to make money, the incredible travel. I'm super-grateful."