The window is quickly starting to close on 43-year-old John Hyden in his quest to become the oldest man to qualify for beach volleyball at an Olympic Games.
After finishing in a tie for fifth place at the FIVB Cincinnati Open last weekend with 26-year-old teammate Tri Bourne, the duo now has less than a month to make a last-ditch effort at the next two FIVB World Tour events to book their tickets to Rio de Janeiro.
The qualification criteria states that the 15 highest-ranked teams as of June 13 will earn Olympic spots, but because Brazil is both the host country and the defending world champions, the 17 highest ranked teams will earn berths. Rankings are determined by a team’s 12 highest finishes from Jan. 1, 2015, to June 12, 2016.
But here’s the twist. A maximum of two teams per country can qualify. So while Hyden and Bourne are ranked No. 13 (4,790 points) in the world, they rank behind the American duos of No. 4 Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena (5,480 points) and No. 7 Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson (5,240 points).
The United States is the only country with three teams in the top 17, showcasing Team USA’s strength in beach volleyball, a sport in which it has won a gold medal on the men’s or women’s side at every Olympic Games since the sport’s 1996 Olympic debut.
Hence, Hyden’s apprehensive response about making history as the oldest man to play volleyball on Olympic sand.
“It would be great, awesome to have that on my résumé,” Hyden said. “Right now, I'm not hyped on it, because we're far behind in points and the possibility limited. It’s tough to think about.”
Hyden and Bourne have been on a roll to open 2016, though, claiming a silver medal at the FIVB Xiamen Open and bronze at the FIVB Qatar Open in April before taking bronze at the FIVB Sochi Open earlier this month.
The FIVB Moscow Grand Slam (May 24-29) and FIVB Hamburg Major Series (June 7-12) will be the last two chances for the pair to win enough points to jolt themselves ahead of their fellow Americans in the FIVB Provisional Olympic Ranking.
Hyden is already a two-time Olympian, having competed as an outside hitter on the U.S. men’s indoor volleyball team at the Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Games, where the squad finished ninth and 11th, respectively.
In order to prolong his volleyball career, he transitioned to the beach game, which offers a softer surface better suited toward older players. Three years into his transition, in 2005, Hyden swapped out his indoor trainer for beach trainer Mykel Jenkins, and his beach game began to progress drastically.
Hyden received a lot of press in 2011 when, during the NBA lockout, U.S. Olympian Kevin Love played against him during the Manhattan Beach Open.
“It was funny because when we played I tried to hit into his block a couple times and it wasn’t working,” Hyden said. “One time, which made the front page in the paper, I hit it in his face. It was kind of funny.”
But qualifying for the Olympic Games in the beach game can be much more arduous, as Hyden’s found out.
“There are only two teams that go, four players that can go to the Olympics,” Hyden said. “For indoor, they have a bunch of people that can go; you have a lot of time to qualify and win a spot on that team. In beach, it’s limited and really tough.”
Hyden teamed up with Bourne in 2013 and, despite a 16-year age gap between the two, the duo worked their way to three consecutive AVP Championships title games, finally finishing first in 2015, in addition to securing a fifth-place finish at the 2015 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.
While Hyden — who by winning the Berlin Grand Slam in 2014 became the oldest man to win an FIVB World Tour event (41 years, 8 months, 15 days) — could be nearing the very end of his career, Bourne is just starting to enter his prime.
Bourne, a son of two triathletes, grew up playing on the Hawaiian sand before playing Division I volleyball at USC. He was the 2013 AVP Newcomer of the Year and Most Improved Player, but his approach on the court is more instinctive in comparison to Hyden’s tactical mindset.
“He’s more serious; he’s not loose, looking like he’s just there to play around,” Bourne said of Hyden. “This is his last hurrah for sure. It’d be a huge story if as a 43-year-old he became the oldest beach volleyball Olympian ever. To think he played in the 1996 Olympics, it’s crazy. In 1996, I was 7 years old, in elementary school just pretty much hanging out at the beach every day. I was younger than his daughter is right now.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.