By Gregg Found | Nov. 06, 2019, 3:20 p.m. (ET)

Karissa Cook and Jase Pardon on the podium alongside Argentina and Brazil at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on July 30, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

Karissa Cook has quickly become a big fan of the emerging sport of 4x4 beach volleyball. And she has a gold medal to prove it.

“I love fours,” said Cook, a veteran of both indoor volleyball and the traditional 2x2 beach volleyball format. “I think fours is by far the most fun format. It’s almost the best of both worlds between the two sports where you have the camaraderie and team dynamic of indoor (volleyball) plus the more free-flowing on-court play and athleticism of beach (volleyball).”

Cook and her five U.S. teammates — Emily Hartong, Kelly Reeves, Katie Spieler, Geena Urango and Allie Wheeler — waded into new territory together by competing in 4x4 beach volleyball at the ANOC World Beach Games last month in Doha, Qatar.

Despite little 4x4 experience between them and plenty of learning on the fly, they finished the tournament atop the podium as champions.

“For most of us it was really the first time that we played the 4x4 format at all,” said Cook, 28. “We just went into it knowing that every match we were going to learn something new about the format. I think the biggest surprise was how much better we got at 4x4 throughout the course of the tournament.”

The results backed it up, but they didn’t come easy.

An early pool-play loss to Brazil forced the U.S. team to continue to experiment with its spacing, lineups and pace.

“I mean, to call that a loss was to even put it mildly,” Cook said about the Brazil match. “They obliterated us in pool play.

“What we learned from that pool-play loss and then a couple of matches right after was that we were trying to play the game more like beach volleyball. But in terms of running an offense and trying to get good blocking matchups and trying to stay in the system, really passing and setting more like indoor, was kind of the smart play.”

Adjustments made, Team USA thrived and earned a rematch with Brazil in the gold-medal match, where, as Cook said, “the tables completely turned,” and they won in straight sets.

The World Beach Games was just one season highlight for Cook, whose passport is filled with new stamps from countries she has visited in the last year traveling for USA Volleyball: Austria, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Martinique, Peru, Qatar, Russia – not to mention all over the U.S.

“I think the only continents we missed were Australia and Africa,” said Cook, a native of Santa Cruz, California, and alum of both Stanford and the University of Hawaii. “It was a wild, globetrotting year for sure.”

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She has plenty to show for the trips in plenty of formats: a win in an FIVB snow volleyball event in Russia, plus two gold medals in two different beach volleyball formats on two different continents.

Her first beach volleyball gold of the year came when she paired with Jace Pardon at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 in Peru.

Cook and Pardon did not drop a set all tournament until the final, winning the semifinal against a tough Brazilian team before meeting Argentina in the final. The Argentinean team featured Ana Gallay, the defending Pan Am Games champion and a two-time Olympian.

“The matches were so tough once we got to the semis and finals,” Cook said. “There’s some tournaments in your life where you feel like everything’s going your way and everything’s easy and you can do no wrong. And this was so not that tournament for us.”

After dropping the first set 21-14, Cook and Pardon rallied to win the next two sets 22-20 and 15-10 and earned the first U.S. beach volleyball gold medal ever at the Pan Am Games.

“I thought that Jace and I pushed through a lot of not-perfect situations,” Cook said. “And it was kind of one of those gritty wins where you get to the end and think, ‘Ah, thank god we persevered.’ And, ‘Holy moly that was really hard.’”

The trip was made extra special for Cook by the presence of two particular fans in the crowd who traveled to Peru.

“My mom and my fiancé were able to come down for that Pan American Games trip,” she said. “My fiancé luckily speaks fluent Spanish so he kind of babysat my mom through the country, which was great. I didn’t have to worry about her.”

When Cook looked back on her season she laughed in describing how it felt like she competed in three different sports — doubles beach volleyball, triples snow volleyball and fours beach volleyball.

And she’s game for whatever comes next.

“If they can come up with one more strange format, I’m sure I’ll volunteer to try it out.”

Gregg Found is a Denver-based sportswriter. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.