Around the world with ‘The Beard Bros,’ the former USC volleyball players now on ‘Amazing Race’

Brothers Riley and Maddison McKibbin are photographed at Riley's home in Hermosa Beach.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

For Riley and Maddison McKibbin, a passport is as critical to their beach volleyball careers as the sand.

Since teaming up on the AVP tour in 2015, the brothers estimate the cumulative miles from their work travels are enough to circumnavigate the globe three or four times. That total doesn’t include their stint on “The Amazing Race,” where the former USC indoor players compete for a $1-million prize. The 32nd season of the CBS show, which is airing this fall, began in L.A. and took teams to Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Paraguay and beyond.

In total, the McKibbin brothers, who can’t disclose yet exactly how far they advanced on the show , have visited nearly 50 countries with plans for more.

Here’s a look at their past itinerary:

San Giustino, Italy, 2011-13: A new Riley

After capping his college career in 2011 with first-team All-American honors, Riley, a 6-foot-3 setter, pursued a professional indoor career in Europe.

He went from L.A. to a small town in central Italy with about 10,000 people. Volleyball was a staple. Fans packed Altotevere Volley’s small gym, unfurling large banners before matches, lighting smoke bombs and waving flares as the team played in Italy’s top league. It was Riley’s first time outside of North America.


“I looked at it as a time to reinvent myself,” Riley, 32, said recently on a patio outside his Hermosa Beach home.

He started by learning the language. There were no English-speaking players or coaches on the team. Instead, Riley studied Italian for about 30 minutes a day then sat at the town’s only coffee bar. He sipped coffee and talked to locals all day. In about two months, he was speaking fluent Italian.

When Maddison, three years younger than Riley, visited his brother, he met a new person. His once introverted brother was speaking to everyone on the street.

“I like the person I am when I’m in Italy,” Riley said.

Lamia, Greece, 2014: Brotherhood interrupted by replacement

Maddison, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter, searched for a similar overhaul to his volleyball career after graduating from USC in 2014. Injuries plagued his college tenure, which began with him entering as a top recruit in the country but ended without much fanfare for the part-time starter.

“I wanted to play overseas to kind of find that love again,” Maddison said.

Lamia, in central Greece, wasn’t exactly the best place for that, but Maddison could play with Riley there. Their team, G.S. Lamia, consistently finished toward the bottom of Greek’s top league. Payments sometimes didn’t make it to players.

Fed up with the dysfunction, Riley left and returned to Italy to play for another team. Maddison soon followed when he found a new player sleeping in his bed one morning. That’s how he found out he was getting replaced.

Before Maddison left, teammates surprised him with a homemade cake and a party in a local wine bar. They frequently spent nights there, ordering wine by the liter and drinking out of tin cups. On this night, they had a food fight in the restaurant as part of Maddison’s goodbye.

While their pro indoor careers were short, the McKibbins still keep in touch with friends from Europe. The experience opened their eyes to how much Europeans value friendship. Their Greek teammates ate lentils every night to save money and had maybe $100 in their bank accounts. Yet they always paid for dinner. The McKibbins were visitors in their country, the teammates said. It wouldn’t have been right for them to pay.

“How they treat friendship has had a lasting impact on us by the way we treat people here but also the way we treat people everywhere we’ve gone,” said Maddison, who went to live with his brother in Italy, where they decided to transition to beach volleyball together and grow their beards that would soon become their signature.

Riley McKibbin and his brother Maddison speak to a vendor.
Riley McKibbin, center,and his brother Maddison, back right, speak to a vendor while helping a fellow contestant in Manaus, Brazil.

Manaus, Brazil, November 2018: Embrace the Race

Maddison and Riley steeled their nerves while playing for national championships at USC and battling on the AVP tour, but it all pales in comparison to “The Amazing Race.” The frantic relay race, which was filmed in fall 2018, pits pairs against each other as they travel to different countries to complete tasks.

Some of the McKibbins’ travel experiences made them ideal competitors. Riley, after driving a stick shift in Italy and damaging one brand new BMW in the learning process, was able to drive in Paris for the show.

While waiting in a Colombian airport to advance to Brazil for the race’s third leg, Riley taught himself basic phrases in Portuguese, which he treated as a combination of Italian and Spanish. He asked a local woman for help in Portuguese as teams shopped for 11 items in a busy market in Manaus, Brazil, a city in the heart of the Amazon rain forest.

Riley and Maddison finished fourth on that leg of the race. The Brazilian-based episode ends with teams boarding a river boat on the Rio Negro, awaiting the next phase.

What cameras didn’t show was the sunset over the river that night and the local family that prepared meals for the contestants. There was fish and beer as Maddison happened to be celebrating his birthday. Thunderhead clouds rolled in.

It was a moment of calm amid the chaotic race.

“We were so focused on getting everything done,” Riley said, “but then after that point, we started relaxing a little bit and tried to soak it all in. ... When you do stop and take a breath and take in all your surroundings, you actually perform better.”

Brothers Riley and Maddison McKibbin playing indoor volleyball in Greece.
Brothers Riley, left, and Maddison McKibbin playing indoor volleyball in Greece.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Frabosa Sottana, Italy to Kronplatz, Italy, April 2019: No plan, no worries

When Riley got a message on Instagram asking if the brothers wanted to play snow volleyball in Italy, the answer was “the fastest ‘yes,’” Riley said. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know anything about the sport.

Snow volleyball includes three players at a time for each team. The FIVB, volleyball’s international governing body, hosted its inaugural Snow Volleyball World Tour in 2019. The second stop was in Kronplatz, Italy, four days after an event hosted by Matteo Carlon, the president of Snow Volley Italia. The brothers made a two-tournament trip out of it.

“Riley was in charge of planning,” Maddison said, “which consisted of no planning whatsoever.”

They didn’t have hotels booked. They didn’t map a path for how to get from Frabosa Sottana, which is near the French border, to Kronplatz, which is on the other side of the northern edge of Italy in the Dolomite mountains. They didn’t worry.

“It’s good to have a plan,” Riley said, “but staying flexible and open and sometimes not having a plan at all leads to the greatest memories and adventures.”

After playing in Carlon’s tournament, the McKibbins, along with teammate Troy Field and Maddison’s girlfriend, visited the organizer’s hometown and stayed in Carlon’s father’s house. They dined at Carlon’s best friend’s restaurant. The chef, upon learning the Americans were heading to Kronplatz, offered his parents’ home on the way for a night’s stay and gave a recommendation for the best pizza in the area. They spent the next night eating the best pizza of their lives, trying to tell jokes in Italian and splitting a bottle of cognac with the chef’s father.

“It was pretty magical,” Riley said.

When the Americans arrived at the FIVB tournament, they were the No. 2 U.S. team so they didn’t receive federation funding for room and board. A local volleyball fan recognized the brothers from their YouTube channel. The fan’s family owned a hotel at the base of the mountain.

“The medium of volleyball has this connecting effect,” Riley said. “You can go into any volleyball community and you feel accepted even if you can’t communicate.”

The McKibbins and Field fought through a blizzard during the qualifying round and advanced to the final, where they lost the first set and fell behind in the second against a Russian team, but stormed back to win 9-15, 15-13, 22-20.

Doha, Qatar, October 2019: Adventures in volleyball

The McKibbins were confident they assembled the best volleyball roster in the world for the ANOC World Beach Games in Qatar. They had Field, their snow volleyball teammate, AVP stars Casey Patterson and Taylor Crabb, and former Stanford All-American Brian Cook. Despite the star power surrounding him, Maddison noticed how the team’s third-round opponents from Indonesia seemed to pay him extra attention.

The Indonesian opponents recognized him and Riley, with their bushy beards, from YouTube.

“Starting our channel, it’s allowed us to connect to all these people who love playing volleyball around the world,” said Maddison, whose beard is complemented by a mustache that curls up at the ends.

The brothers have more than 75,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel, where they post videos about indoor, snow, four-man and beach volleyball. At the World Beach Games, which they won despite losing their first two matches, teams from Indonesia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Oceania all reached out to the brothers about their content. Some coaches teach off the instructional videos. Players sometimes watch to see what to expect when they enter unfamiliar tournaments.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic halted their once-tireless travels, the McKibbins were starting an “Adventures in Volleyball” series, where they challenge old friends to matches, but to also highlight their travel experiences and the people behind the game.

Every picturesque court they play on reminds them of their sport’s power. They think of dinners with teammates in Europe; that time they met and interviewed Brazilian legend Giba, a three-time Olympic medalist who the McKibbins idolized as the sport’s Michael Jordan; and the locals in the Maldives, who rake and level the beach volleyball courts by hand on the island country off the coast of India.

“All the places that we’ve been to, playing there’s been incredible,” Maddison said, “but the people you meet and see their dedication to beach volleyball [is better].”