Courtesy of Beach Volleyball Major Series Media Service
We are family
Love, kids, family ties – nothing is easy when it comes to the beach game
Where would the beach volleyball elite be without family? From meeting your other half on the beach, to starting a family, nothing is easy in this game. And, as some of the world’s leading players testify, it can be even more difficult when you need to leave them behind again to go in search of glory…
The life of a beach volleyball player is a profession many can only dream of. Who would say no to a career of traveling, serving, spiking, digging and diving around the world in front of a backdrop of sun, sea, sand and packed crowds in some of the world’s most breathtaking locations?
However, behind every top athlete and their ambition to make it to the top is a human being with life goals of their own. Relationships to make and maintain, and families to start and support.
Juggling a career at the top level on the beach with family life is no mean feat. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions.
Just ask recent Fort Lauderdale Major champion and father of two boys Nick Lucena. Last year, the 38-year-old missed the birth of his second child, Cole, as he desperately attempted to rush home to Florida from a tournament in New York to be beside his wife, Brooke.
“It was a little more than frustrating and I freaked out a little because I couldn’t do anything,” admits the Floridian defender and 2016 Olympian.
But despite being unable to be there for such an important moment, the American is philosophical about the situation.
“It’s what we signed up for, this is the life of a beach volleyball player,” Nick continues. “It’s the hardest thing being away from your family. When I missed Cole’s birth, I felt terrible.
“As I get older, the hardest thing is leaving them. When we’re away on tour we’re basically having a FaceTime relationship. It’s usually a daily call. It’s part of the routine. It’s not ideal and I don’t want to miss too much of them growing up.”
Nick’s teammate, 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser, faces the same challenges. Together with wife Jennifer, the man nicknamed on the World Tour as the Thin Beast has two children, Sebastian and Sophia.
“It sucks but it’s part of our profession,” says the 38-year-old blocker. “Sebastian makes it hard. He cries every time I leave which sucks even more. Both of my children were born in summer so I’ve missed plenty of birthdays and parties because of beach volleyball.”
When the beach plays cupid
Among the globetrotting community of beach volleyball, like-minded and success-seeking people are never far away from one another. Nick met his wife through the sport while Phil’s wife also played. So it’s not uncommon for players and coaches to fall head over heels on the sand.
Take rising Czech star Marketa Sluková for example. The 29-year-old met her husband, Simon Nausch, through beach volleyball. However, the former Austrian player now also happens to be her coach.
“I understand if people can’t imagine working with their loved one or partner all of the time,” says two-time Olympian Marketa, who met Simon at a training camp in 2009. “Many couples run businesses together. We’re no different. I can see why people might think it’s weird being married to my coach. He has, after all, to tell me what to do. But I see it as a huge advantage. He’s always there and I’m sure that’s something players who leave their loved ones behind would also wish for.”
Marketa appreciates that outsiders looking in might question their arrangement, but fortunately she has the support of teammate Barbora Hermannová. “It’s not like we’re skipping arm in arm together, it’s not like we’re always on honeymoon!” Marketa laughs. “I know I’m in a unique position but a happy one, a chance to live my dream job with my partner. It’s a gift and I’m grateful but we both know, if there comes a time when we feel Simon isn’t getting the most out of the team then we’d look for a new coach. We value the relationship more than beach volleyball.”
Last season’s results proved the trio’s working relationship is healthier than ever. Marketa and Barbora finished in the top 10 in every tournament, winning two medals in process. However, the next step in Marketa and Simon’s relationship is on hold… for now.
“We want to wait until after the Tokyo Olympics to have children,” she says, smiling. “At the moment we’re enjoying competing too much. We love our team, our vision and I still want to play. This is sport and this is life. It’s not easy when you’re in such a small team. It’s not like indoor volleyball where you can just substitute a player.”
That’s the next challenge the beach elite face. Starting a family. And naturally, if you’re a woman on the World Tour, once a bump appears it’s a little more difficult to keep throwing yourself onto the sand.
So far this year, reigning Olympic champion Laura Ludwig and 2017 World Number 1 Talita Antunes have revealed they are expecting their first children. Subsequently they will miss the busy 2018 season.
Like anything in life, timing is important. As a beach volleyball professional, whose body-clock seem to evolve around four-year Olympic cycles, making an important life decision such as this can be tricky.
Marketa will wait until after Tokyo, but for both Laura and Talita, two hugely driven legends of the sport, the time is now.
“At first the plan was to start a family after the Rio Olympics in 2016,” explains German superstar Laura, who with Kira Walkenhorst has enjoyed an unstoppable golden run of form over the past two seasons. “Then I felt that I wanted to keep competing, keep playing, keep winning. I wanted another challenge, so the priorities changed. We wanted to go for the World Championships and wait until after that tournament to have a baby.”
What happened? Laura and Kira claimed the World Championship title in Vienna, and with that box ticked, Ludwig’s attention turned to achieving a more personal goal.
But there can be some risk attached in having a baby and putting your career on hold for the women of the beach. Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volleyball player of all-time, won three successive Olympic titles between 2004 and 2012. She was six weeks pregnant when she and Misty May-Treanor took the Olympic title in London in 2012. Before she had her first child, Kerri was told that she had to face up to losing sponsorship, endorsements and prize money while out of the game. Fortunately for the legend of the sand, that did not happen.
That’s a fact not lost on Ludwig, who remains in training and has maintained her sponsors. Together with Walkenhorst, the Germans have battled their way to the top of the beach volleyball world by putting in the hard graft. Their coach, Jürgen Wagner – recently named Coach of the Year by his fellow peers on the tour – doesn’t allow the pair to be away from the sand for more than 48 hours at a time.
That will change now. With a baby boy due in June, Laura will now be able to spend some rare quality time with her family. “I’m already organizing long weekends in my parents’ caravan on the North German coast,” she says. “It’ll be nice and normal for a while. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Olympic and World Champion isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, player to take a so-called ‘baby break’. This season, Spain’s Liliana Fernandez and Sanne Keizer of the Netherlands both returned to the tour having started families back home. Sanne put her beach career on hold in 2014, gave birth to twins, Puk and Kees, in 2016, and made her five-star tournament debut at the Fort Lauderdale Major last month. She juggled parenthood with studying for her Masters and working for the Police.
In beach volleyball family ties are everywhere you look.
Norway, however, might not be the first place that immediately springs to mind when you think of beach volleyball, but it’s the home of a family who are forming a fearsome reputation on the sand.
Step forward the Mol family, the brainchild behind the Beachvolley Vikings project. The team consists of last year’s FIVB Rookie of the Year Anders Mol, his brother Hendrik, their cousin Mathias Bernsten and a friend of the family, Christian Sørum. Last season, the four players interchanged as teammates as they searched for the ultimate chemistry.
However, it doesn’t stop there. The quartet are trained and supported by husband-and-wife team Kåre and Merita Mol, parents of Anders and Hendrik, plus Mathias’ father Jetmund. The collective dream of the Beachvolley Vikings is to take two teams to the Tokyo Olympics.
For Anders, having his mother and father around him all the time on tour, pushing him to do better, is something the 20-year-old relishes. “It’s so natural having them with me, it’s great to know they’re always there for me,” he says.
However, if anything, it’s the parents who face the daily battle of what’s right and what’s wrong when coaching players so close to their hearts.
“It can be hard to strike a balance,” says Kåre, who met Merita while playing for the Norwegian national indoor team. “You have to be pushy at times but you need to know your limits, be patient and supportive. It can be tough to hear from your father that you have to do something better when you also need love and support.”
A home from home
On the other side of the world, 19-year-old Brazilian Eduarda Santos Lisboa faces the complete opposite: a life away from her family – all for the good of her career.
At the end of 2016, a year in which Duda, as she is known, won both the Under-19 and the Under-21 World Championships and two senior World Tour tournaments, the South American got a call from Agatha Bednarczuk, who won the silver medal at Rio Olympics with Barbara Seixas.
In the pursuit of her dream to reach Tokyo 2020, the teenager upped sticks from her family home in São Cristovão, in the northeast of Brazil, and made the 2,000km move south to Rio de Janeiro to train with new teammate Agatha.
“It was very hard at first leaving my family behind,” says Duda. “I missed them so much. I’d spent my entire life with them and it’s tough for us to be separated. I cried a lot in the first weeks. I tried my best not to think too much about it, but it was hard.
“My mom was with me for the first two weeks, but when she left it was a blow. Not having her around was a new experience and it scared me. I had to do everything by myself and it was tough. It was a huge change for me, one that made me an adult very quickly.
“But the entire team has been very supportive. Agatha has been through the same as she also moved to Rio at a very young age to play with Sandra Pires, so they knew it would be tough for me and that I would need some time to adjust. They understood the moment I was going through and they did all they could to help me settle.”
Duda’s experience is just one example where the beach community have become family, helping the talented teenager deal with her big move when she needed it.
Around the world, home or away; husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters are not only helping each other live the beach volleyball dream, but helping them live their lives with smiles on their faces.