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McNamara twins continue beach dominance at UCLA but hope Olympic journey follows

2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship
UCLA’s Megan and Nicole McNamara take on USC during the Division I Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship held at Gulf Beach Place on May 5, 2018 in Gulf Shores, Ala.
(Jamie Schwaberow / Getty Images)

Once the match had ended and they slapped hands with their opponents, Megan and Nicole McNamara took off running.

They had just won the World University Classic Beach Volleyball Championship in Munich, Germany, last year — their first gold medal in international play — but this journey was not complete.

The twins darted through an opening in the metal fence surrounding the court, bolted up the metal stairs through the crowd and traded high-fives with fans as they weaved their way toward the destination — the back-left corner of the bleachers.

There, they found parents Sean and Kristina McNamara, and their coach since they were teenagers, Kyra Iannone. When tears flowed and all embraced, this odyssey was complete.

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“They always knew that we could do it, even when we didn’t believe in ourselves,” Megan said. “So just being able to share that moment with them, it was something that I’ll never forget.”

Their UCLA careers also have been unforgettable.

Three-time All-Americans and last year’s Pac-12 pair of the year, Nicole and Megan set a school record last season with 35 wins as the Bruins won an NCAA-record 40 matches and the national championship.

The seniors have won all their matches in their fourth season, boosting the Bruins to a 5-0 record entering a Wednesday match against No. 2 USC.

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2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship
UCLA's Megan and Nicole McNamara take on Louisiana State University during the Division I Women's Beach Volleyball Championship held at Gulf Beach Place on May 4, 2018 in Gulf Shores, Ala.
(Justin Tafoya / Getty Images)

Underdogs they are not, but undersized was once a debate.

Most beach pairs feature a shorter player in a defensive role and a 6-foot-something partner to attack and block. Identical twins Nicole and Megan are 5 feet 9. For the bulk of their careers, it was suggested they’d be better off splitting up.

“That’s the common theme that people say about us ...” Megan said. “That we’re good, we’re fun to watch, but we can’t be super successful together.”

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Nicole and Megan compensate with a different advantage — speed. As they sprint across the sand in opposite directions, they almost appear to be dancing as they blanket the court in perfect synchronization.

It happens too fast for UCLA senior Sarah Sponcil to break down with words. A dig, a tap with a loose hand, and before you know it one of the McNamaras is slamming the ball across the net.

“It’s like a pinball machine,” Sponcil said. “It’s so quick that it’s like, what just happened? How did that even possibly go over the net?”

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That machine had to go through some fine-tuning.

When they were 15, the Vancouver, Canada, residents traveled cross country to try out for the FIBV U19 World Championship in Toronto. Dreams dashed, they sat on a log in the sand and looked out at Ashbridge’s Bay when a Canadian coach offered an opinion they grew to hate — and later embrace. They needed to split up.

At first, they were crushed. But Megan said those words quickly became motivation. And there was more motivation to digest.

Doubts followed them in social media comments, blog posts and even college recruitment. Coaches wouldn’t explicitly say they would break up Megan and Nicole, but at most of the schools they were considering it felt implied.

2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Beach Volleyball Championship
UCLA's Megan and Nicole McNamara take on USC during the Division I Women's Beach Volleyball Championship held at Gulf Beach Place on May 5, 2018 in Gulf Shores, Ala.
(Jamie Schwaberow / Getty Images)

“You could just tell by their reactions,” Nicole said. “ ‘Oh, you guys are not tall. You’re both short.’ So, you know, we just kind of assumed.”

UCLA coach Stein Metzger had a different reaction. He was intrigued by their speedy play style and another advantage — the identical twins were not quite interchangeable. Nicole is left-handed and Megan is right-handed.

Beach volleyball teams tend to structure game plans around attacking an opponent’s nondominant side, but against Nicole and Megan that became essentially impossible.

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Since Metzger had difficulty telling them apart, he figured it would be an advantage to add to the illusion. He suggested they wear mirroring numbers — 31 for Megan and 13 for Nicole — so they would be more indiscernible.

So ... which one was the lefty?

“When they start clicking and going, they get into the groove, they’re a freight train,” Metzger said. “They’re hard to stop, despite their smaller stature.”

It helped that they are not only sisters but also ...

“There’s no better feeling than being out there with your twin sister and best friend,” said Megan, “and I think I’m a better player when I have her by my side and vice-versa.”

Metzger describes their relationship as “very much like sisters.” In other words, they sometimes fight.

Their parents recall Nicole and Megan competing over who could earn the highest grades and who could draw the better picture as kids.

They spent the majority of their first volleyball tournament as preteens arguing. On one occasion, when one made a mistake and stooped to pick up the ball, the other kicked sand at her sister.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Nicole said, laughing.

With the help of a sports psychologist, they have learned to avoid butting heads during matches. And despite their differences — Megan’s dimples and sensitivity versus Nicole’s slightly more ovular face and spontaneity — they “get” each other.

While being interviewed, they finished each other’s sentences. When playing at their best, they only need to say “yep” between hits to know their next move.

Their ascension has continued behind a work ethic that Metzger and Iannone compares to the standards of professional athletes.

But the work is not done. After graduation, they aim to trade Bruin blue for Canadian red at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. It’s a good bet those Canadian coaches won’t be splitting up this dynamic duo.

“It’s always been our journey together, not my personal beach volleyball path,” Megan said. “We’ve always just been going through it together.”

The journey continues ...

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blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_


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