On some days, Tri Bourne would wander down to Hermosa Beach to watch pick-up volleyball games. Sometimes he’d study surfers.
Bourne grew up on the beach. It’s what he knows best. But for more than a year he was reduced to a spectator, an inconspicuous one at 6 feet 5, although his tanned skin and blonde hair blended him into the coastal tableau.
What stirred inside Bourne was not idyllic. One of volleyball’s most promising beach players, Bourne, 29, was specifically instructed not to exercise after he was diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory muscle disease called dermatomyositis. For someone whose life was based on sports and whose name is a play off his triathlete parents, Bourne was stuck in the sand.
“Most of it was mental,” Bourne said, “because it was difficult for me not to have that outlet. The way I relieve stress and go find happiness is to find activity. I kind of internalized it all. I learned mindfulness and meditation and I read a lot. I learned as much as I could. My way of filling the void was being around the sport.”
With new perspective and a more sound body, Bourne returns to the court Friday at the Manhattan Beach Open. It’s his first tournament since he and then-partner John Hyden won bronze in the FIVB World Tour Finals in September 2016. He’s expecting about a dozen family members to come out in a kind of homecoming for the Redondo Beach resident and USC alum, who will partner with childhood friend Trevor Crabb.
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” Bourne said. “I think it’s going to hit me all at once. I think at some point it will be emotional ... the main thing is I want to enjoy the court.”
Bourne’s nearly two-year ordeal began when he had surgery to remove a cyst in his ankle. He soon developed stiffness and swelling in other parts of his body that became so pronounced that he withdrew from the 2017 FIVB season opener.
Blood tests revealed that his liver enzymes were 10 times higher than normal. Bourne saw several specialists before he was sent to Utah, where doctors diagnosed dermatomyositis. The disease has no known cause and has traits of an auto-immune disorder, which is often hereditary, but Bourne said there is no history of it in his family.
He went on steroids and at one point lost 12 pounds. Perhaps most severe was not being physically active.
“The less I did, the better, which is the opposite of what I do,” said Bourne, who became a commentator on beach volleyball webcasts and podcasts during his hiatus.
Crabb said it was “pretty tough” watching Bourne go through stretches of doubt and rehabilitation for 18 months. The two grew up together in Honolulu, and Bourne’s approach reflected the positive attitude both were ingrained with in Hawaii.
“We’re laid-back kind of guys,” Crabb said. “We’re both from Honolulu. I thought he did a great job handling it. Once you go through something like that, you don’t take anything for granted.
“I’m stoked that he’s back.”
Bourne basically re-learned the game. He set volleyballs on the couch or against a wall at the local park. Then he did it on sand, just standing in one place, before he graduated to jumping and blocking.
It wasn’t until last week that Bourne decided to enter this weekend’s event. Not only is it local, it’s the last California stop on the AVP tour. His partnership with Crabb is an X-factor, given that both are left-side players. They plan to wing it and employ the “Hawaiian style” in which they’ll each play both sides.
It was natural for Bourne and Crabb to team up. Their mothers paddled outrigger canoes together before the boys were born, and Bourne and Crabb were on the same youth soccer teams. Crabb said they played volleyball a lot against each other while growing up.
Asked who came out on top, Crabb joked, “We’d both say we did.”
Bourne and Crabb have had only a handful of practices together and need to work through the kinks of a new partnership. Both have unfinished business at Manhattan Beach because Bourne lost in the final in 2015 and 2016, and Crabb lost in last year’s final.
“It’s definitely going to be a long one and tough one,” Crabb said. “But we’re out to have a lot of fun, and hopefully we can make some magic.”
Bourne has modest expectations but allowed that winning is “not off the table.” He and Crabb are seeded 11th in a field that features defending champions Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser. Last year’s women’s champions, Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar, are also back, although each has a new partner.
Bourne dreams of getting his name on a plaque on the Manhattan Beach Pier. He also is aiming for the 2020 Olympics, after he and Hyden missed out in 2016 despite qualifying third (only two teams are allowed per country).
It’s a long way from when Bourne allowed himself to think that his career could be over. But “for some reason, I never bought into it,” he said. “I just never really believed. The thought was there. Your mind goes to crazy places. You go into a funk. But I never really believed it.”