‘It’s like high school dating’: Beach volleyball partners are the best at breaking up
Each time he introduced a beach volleyball partner to a friend, Patrick Powers used the same preface.
“Hey,” Powers would say, “here’s my new ex-partner.”
It was a reminder that nothing lasts in beach volleyball, especially partnerships. Players get hurt. They retire. They start to begrudge each other. Maybe one realizes he or she can do better with somebody else.
That’s all it takes for an allegiance to fray and a courtship to begin, resulting in a new pairing. Over one’s career, the process repeats itself multiple times, partners discarding each other as easily as a badly ripped tank top.
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“All partnerships are doomed to die,” said Karch Kiraly, the legendary beach player from UCLA who now coaches the U.S. women’s indoor team at the Tokyo Olympics. “Almost no partnership ever ended with neutrality and both people retiring at the same time.”
The pairings at these Games reflect the volatility. Only two of 24 women’s teams — none of the medalists — and six men’s teams returned intact from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. April Ross, the former USC star who won bronze five years ago alongside Kerri Walsh Jennings, now plays with Alix Klineman, after cycling through other partners on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour.
Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are among the rare returners from the last Summer Games, though Dalhausser’s greatest success came in 2008 when he won a gold medal with Todd Rogers at the Beijing Olympics. Rogers and Dalhausser failed to defend their title in 2012 at the London Olympics, and Rogers’ retirement in 2016 left Dalhausser in need of a new partner.
“As a professional, you just have to handle it, move on, and, you know, get better and say, ‘Hey, why doesn’t this person want to play with me?’”
— Patrick Powers, former beach volleyball player
He turned out to be an old one as well. Dalhausser and Lucena had teamed up earlier in their careers before splitting up, giving them insight into the fickle nature of partnerships.
“It’s like high school dating,” said Dalhausser, 41. “Players are always looking for the next better partner.”
Though Dalhausser announced his retirement Sunday after losing in the round of 16, he and Lucena each had a lot to offer one another. At 6-foot-9, Dalhausser is a shot-blocking maven whose skills are seemingly the perfect complement to Lucena’s quickness as a defender who roams the sand behind him.
It also helps that they get along. The players travel together and often share the same hotel room, which would lead to a bummer of a summer if they were less cordial.
“I spend more time probably with Phil than I do with anyone other than my wife,” Lucena said. Cracked Dalhausser, standing nearby: “Unfortunate, yeah.”
The courting of new partners can be done in secrecy these days, wooing conducted via text messages or phone calls. Remaining covert was more of an undertaking in the age before cellphones, when breakup calls often were made on Monday mornings after a tournament.
“You would keep calling until you got their answering machine,” Powers said with a laugh, “because of course you didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
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The message would be short and predictable. You know, we had a great weekend, but I just think we’re better off playing with other partners. I’m going to play with Louie this weekend.
Of course, that only heightened the intrigue for the next match pitting Louie against the castaway. Other players would gather to watch. The outcome usually was unsurprising.
“Nine out of 10 times,” Powers said, “the guy who got dumped would beat the guy who dumped him.”
Ross and Klineman connected through mutual friends, leading the more seasoned Ross, 39, to approach Klineman, 31, and ask if she might be interested in becoming a team. They cemented their partnership after a training session revealed how they might make a winning combination, Klineman dominating at the net and Ross reaching just about every ball that drifted into the backcourt.
It’s the third pairing for Ross in as many Olympics. She teamed with Jennifer Kessy to win silver at the 2012 Summer Games and with Walsh Jennings for that bronze in 2016. This is Klineman’s Olympic debut.
“I wanted to focus on potential,” Ross said, “and I wanted to play with somebody who I could grow with and who I felt like we could become a better team than when we started. Obviously, Alix was new and only had an upside, so I felt like that played into her appeal as a partner for me.”
Powers, a onetime USC standout who joined Kiraly and Ricci Luyties as the only players to win an indoor and a beach world championship, said he partnered with everybody on the tour at one point in his career.
All the player movement curbed any hard feelings. Even top players occasionally got dumped.
“As a professional, you just have to handle it, move on, and, you know, get better and say, ‘Hey, why doesn’t this person want to play with me?’ ” said Powers, 63. “Well, it’s because you’re not playing well. Play better.”
Finding a partner wasn’t always a major undertaking. All Kiraly had to do was walk into the living room.
His father, Laszlo, had been a member of the Hungarian junior national team before emigrating to the United States in 1956 amid the failed revolution in his homeland. Years later, father and son read an article in Sports Illustrated about Larry Rundle competing in an adult tournament as an 11-year-old and agreed that it would be wild fun if Karch, then also 11, did the same.
So they entered a novice tournament at Corona del Mar and perhaps the greatest career in beach volleyball was born.
“I’m just this tiny, scrawny nothing,” Karch remembered, “and the other team is a couple of grown men and we barely lost and — I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it right now — I saw fear in their eyes across the net because they did not want to go back to their friends and say that they lost to an 11-year-old kid in an adult tournament and it was incredibly empowering.”
The Kiralys played together for four years, notching several second- and third-place finishes, before Laszlo helped Kiraly take the next big step in his development.
Dad dumped himself as his son’s partner.
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Rich Payne had asked Kiraly to team with him for a tournament in Santa Barbara, and Laszlo pushed his son to make the move because he already had outgrown their partnership. The new duo finished in a four-way tie for ninth place, creating a buzz on the beach by winning game after game before losing in the quarterfinals to the legendary tandem of Greg Lee and Jim Menges.
Before his career ended in 2007 with a record 148 tournament victories, Kiraly would total 26 partners, claiming titles with 13 of them. He also dumped himself once, telling partner Mike Lambert that he was letting him down because his shoulder wasn’t responding quickly to surgery.
Naturally, given the way things work in the sport, they ended up getting back together once Kiraly fully recovered.
Just like in dating, it’s usually less excruciating to dump than to be dumped. Kiraly said his only request when getting ditched was that his partner be upfront about his intentions rather than sneaking around in search of someone else.
“Most of us would rather just know,” said Kiraly, 60. “If somebody doesn’t want to play with me, tell me. Don’t send me a text; give me a call, let me know. I might be a little upset, I might not, but I’ll understand.”
He certainly would, having delivered the same spiel himself.
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