People often search for a place or a person that feels like home. In so many ways, for me, that home has been, and always will be, the beach.
I grew up tucked away on South Florida’s intracoastal waterway, only 10 minutes away from Fort Lauderdale Beach. My family and I were immersed in a marine ecosystem that was basically our backyard; we spent countless hours on the water, whether that was fishing, jumping off the rope swing my dad built in the canal out back, wakeboarding, kayaking, or snorkeling. This closeness to nature, which I was so lucky to be connected to at a young age and still to this day, instills in me a sense of calm, curiosity, and gratitude.
My parents are very athletic. My mom played basketball at the University of Miami, and my dad played multiple sports before injuring his knee and shoulder pretty permanently. My mom even considered going on to play basketball professionally. But perhaps the most special sport in my family was, and still is, beach volleyball. Why, you might ask? Well, our family actually started because of the sport. Here’s how.
My parents are both from up north. My dad is from Wisconsin, and my mom is from Ohio. My mom grew up with her three siblings, raised solely by her mother in a small town on the outskirts of Columbus called London. Through tough times my mom turned to sports. She played multiple sports in high school but had a special affinity for basketball. She didn’t have access to a hoop to practice on, so she would draw chalk line targets on a wall outside her home and shoot all day long. My mom was dedicated and became so fun to watch that the London town newspaper dubbed her “Deadeye Dana” because she never missed a shot.
Without her knowing, my mom’s coach cut out a newspaper clip reporting on one of her latest performances and mailed it to the University of Miami. In somewhat of a miracle, the U called her up a few weeks later. This small-town girl from London, Ohio, who had once come to terms with the fact that college might not be possible, now had the opportunity to go to college because of the game of basketball. That was the catalyst that brought my mom to South Florida.
My Dad grew up in Wisconsin, raised similarly, solely by his mother, who is one of my biggest role models to this day. My dad also grew up playing multiple sports up north, including baseball, ice hockey, football, and more. Sadly, multiple injuries made his chances of pursuing collegiate athletics almost impossible. After a few trips to Florida, his next move, after attending Auburn for a few years, seemed like it should be to the Florida sunshine.
My mom played a great four years of basketball at UM, but decided not to pursue it professionally afterward. That being said, my mom is a competitor – she wasn’t about to leave the world of sports; even if that meant taking on the difficult feat of breaking into the banking industry during that time, she’d find a way to be active and fulfill her competitive nature.
My dad loved Florida. In so many ways, it filled his longing for adventure. He saved up and bought a little boat (before a house, I believe) and cruised Florida’s canals and oceans fishing and exploring every day after work. In the evenings, he particularly loved to anchor out just past the buoy and swim in to meet friends to play beach volleyball.
Turns out beach volleyball was perfect to fulfill my mom’s competitive nature and love for sports, as well. After closing up at the bank, she’d hit the beach almost every day. The beach quickly became a new home for both of them.
One day, in typical fashion, my dad took the boat out, cruising the shoreline in Fort Lauderdale, looking for a game to call. He swam in, and not only would he find his next beach volleyball game, but he would also find his future wife. That day is a big reason beach volleyball is the sport for which I will be forever most grateful.
After years of exploring, adventuring, and building a life together, I finally came into the picture! But this didn’t keep my parents from the beach. My mom brought me everywhere she went, including to the beach every weeknight and weekend, where I’d watch her play from a playpen in the sand. The beach became the place I grew up – where I made friends, laughed, and got to watch and eventually learn the sport of beach volleyball from my parents. The sand quickly and naturally became my favorite place.
For years I watched until finally, I was old enough to try out a little bump set spike myself. Once I was coordinated enough to at least get the ball back to her (in probably less than graceful fashion), my mom let me pepper with her in warmups. She taught me all the basics. When I turned ten, she said, “Brookie, let’s play in a tournament!” To say I was nervous was an understatement – I mean, my mom was GOOD. And I was, well, about ten. But she encouraged me to just have fun, and we went out and played in my first-ever beach volleyball tournament in Hollywood Beach, Florida. It’s a memory I’ll never forget; after the day finished up, we both signed the tournament shirt. My brother and dad watched the whole day and shagged balls for us. We all had so much fun. A day at the beach, but there was something so special about it. All I could think about was how cool my mom was and also how cool the sport of beach volleyball was. I got to spend the day playing a sport situated right next to the ocean, on the beach, surrounded by my family. I mean, how could it get better than that?
That was the beginning of my itch to play this sport. For years, I played basketball, soccer, tennis, softball, and indoor volleyball, with some beach volleyball pretty casually on the side, until I reached high school. It was at Saint Thomas Aquinas that I was told there was no way I was playing two sports in high school. It was fair, considering STA is all in when it comes to sports. This was a tough choice for me because, at the time, soccer was also a big part of my life, but I ended up choosing to pursue volleyball. I chose it, not completely sure if I’d go on to play just beach or both indoor and beach. I still remembered that feeling when I played in my first beach tournament, not to mention the beach was my favorite place, with or without volleyball. At the time, the sport of beach volleyball had pretty recently become an NCAA sport. Deep down, I knew if the opportunity presented itself and I could work hard enough to make it happen, I had to play beach volleyball in college.
I was so lost on the indoor court, to be honest with you. Saint Thomas Aquinas is a powerhouse sports school, as I mentioned. STA volleyball didn’t slack in that category. I tried out for the team, where I brought a few things to the table: questionable form, a one-arm double-arm lift, limited to no knowledge of the rotations (still may or may not have issues with that), a beach pokey since that was more natural to me than tipping, and a lot of nerves; but I did bring a few redeeming qualities in the midst of some chaos, and those were determination, hustle, and the beachy nature to dive anywhere and everywhere to save the ball, no matter how hard the surface.
“You can be on the varsity team,” my coach told me. “But we have a solid older group of girls this year, so your chances of seeing the court are very low, and you definitely need to start playing club volleyball.” I took her advice to heart and joined Tribe, where I went on to play two years of club indoor volleyball. Thanks to Tribe, I added another arm to my double arm lift and started to learn the indoor game. This put me in a position to be able to start for Saint Thomas Aquinas in my sophomore year. Under our legendary coach, Lisa Zielinski, we went on to win three state championships, and I made some of the best memories of my life. Coach Z taught me a lot about life, sports, and the work it takes behind the scenes to achieve something.
At Tribe, I learned more about the indoor game and met some of my best friends. The club often spearheaded the recruiting process for its players, and one day in a meeting with one of the coaches on staff during my first club season, I was going over a list of colleges I had been asked to prepare ahead of time. At the top of my list was #1 ranked (in beach) Pepperdine University, which was also where my close friend and fellow outside hitter at Saint Thomas, Niki Lyons, had committed to play both indoor and beach. We’d visited Pepperdine together and stayed at the overnight camp during my freshman year of high school. After that camp, working with Nina and Marcio at Zuma Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by nature and legendary coaches and players, I knew that Pepperdine was my dream school. “That’s a great goal, but it’s important to have a couple of realistic goals on your list, too,” my indoor club coach told me.
Suddenly I was determined to make Pepperdine the most realistic goal humanly possible. He didn’t believe in me at that point. But I’d learned a few things from Lisa Zielinski in my early years in high school volleyball and a whole lot from the amazing beach coaches I was fortunate enough to work with in high school, who included some of the most amazing coaches I have ever had: Capri and Steve Grotowski, Kaya and Piotr Marciniak, and Kendra and Steve VanZweiten. Capri and Steve were my first official beach volleyball coaches at VB Beach. To this day, I feel so lucky to have worked with Capri. To have had her in my corner, cheering for me throughout the years, has taught me the importance of relationships and just the all-out heart it takes to navigate this life.
These special and revered coaches were so fundamental in the development of my love and passion for the sport throughout my high school years. Some, I’m sure, in ways they’ve never known. I would spend hours at club with Steve and Capri, and later Piotr and Kaya; on separate occasions, I went extra hours with Kendra and Steve VanZweiten. I was so lucky to be surrounded by so many great coaches and role models, cheering for me and pushing me to be better each day.
With them in my corner believing in me, deep down, I believed in me too. Pepperdine could be realistic. Plus, the beach was home. I had to make it happen.
Pepperdine is situated in Malibu, California, nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains. The second I set foot on campus, I knew it was somewhere I had to be. I was young at the time, but I knew that I am most connected to myself in nature. I love Florida, and I always will, but the west coast mountains present a different world of adventure in my eyes. Pepperdine checked all the boxes: a small school where I could connect with others, my professors, my education, my team, and with the pacific coast nature that surrounded. Not only were the coaches some of the most legendary in the game, but the Waves practiced at Zuma Beach. That was different – they practiced at the beach. That fact itself felt almost surreal to me. Pepperdine was the only school in the country at the time whose home courts were at the beach. I’d have to work so hard to earn a spot at this university, but wow, was it my dream.
Fortunately, I did. During the spring of my sophomore year of high school, my mom and I walked the Pepperdine campus with Nina Matthies. On that day, I committed to play beach volleyball for the Waves. It was a day I’ll never forget.
Pepperdine became the place I studied, competed, and met my best friend and boyfriend of about six years now, Easton Lucas. On our first date, he took me to Spruzzos, now one of our favorite Italian restaurants; the food is amazing, but it also overlooks Zuma Beach – another beach that will always be special to me. Pepperdine and all of whom I was fortunate enough to learn from in my time there taught me so much. I got the opportunity to play full-time defense behind some amazing blockers. I learned a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from Nina, Marcio, Jon, and Delaney, each of whom had a unique impact on me as a player and person. I learned so much about the game and about life at Pepperdine. So much of my world was shaped through my experiences and the great friends and relationships I formed in Malibu. After three great seasons and one year cut short at the expense of the pandemic, I graduated from Pep.
I’m extremely lucky to get to call myself a Pepperdine Wave.
I had the option to complete my fourth year of eligibility in Florida with the Florida State Seminoles – a change of events I couldn’t have predicted years before. But with the help and support of my coaches and those close to me, that chance to go back to my home state and get my Master’s playing another year under yet another lineup of legendary coaches became possible. So, I packed my car and headed back to the east coast. My dad and I drove across the country together, which ended up being one of the most epic weekends of both of our lives. We visited national parks, laughed, explored, celebrated, and created our own meandering path all the way back to the sunshine state. It was the perfect segway into the next chapter.
My final year of collegiate volleyball with Brooke Niles and Nick Lucena was something I will never forget. It was so special, even for a short period of time, to be a part of the amazing program Brooke has built at Florida State. I learned so much from Brooke and Nick in the few months we had together. It is undeniable that they are both so legendary in the sport, but what some may not know is that they are some of the best people you’ll ever know; it’s inspiring just being around them. My desire to play professionally after working with them was extremely heightened. In a movie of a season, through ups and downs, we made it to the NCAA Championship game for the first time in my career. I made friends on that team and on that staff that will be friends for life. That journey was even cooler because I got to go through it with two of my closest friends, Madison and Lexi Fitzpatrick. Madison was my high school beach partner and was also on the beach team with me at FSU. It was so surreal and full circle that we had that last year together at Florida State.
I’m also extremely lucky to be a Florida State Seminole.
Flash forward a little. A year later now. In between, there’s been some dabbling in consulting, the exciting opportunity to go back and work and coach under Brooke at Florida State, and of course, the beginnings of my professional beach journey outside of college. All the while, there has existed a desire to continue to find the beach around every corner.
The beach has been the place I have called home since the beginning. And I think no matter how long I compete as a professional beach volleyball player, or wherever life takes me in the following chapters, it always will be just that – home.
The beach found me – it united my parents, was my cushion when I stumbled and learned how to walk, the place where I said my first word (ball!). It was the setting where I learned to love sports – to embrace wins but equally if not more fundamental, learned to navigate losses. The beach was where I developed important and lifelong relationships, where I love to cherish time with family and friends, and my happy place in nature, where I retreat to navigate life’s twists and turns. Pursuing a professional career in this sport is so special to me for these reasons.
It feels only natural to continue to call the beach my home in this phase of life. As I begin to navigate the AVP Pro Tour, reaching for the beach in a new and exciting way, I can only smile as I reflect on the ways the beach has continually reached for me, again and again, preparing me for this journey, and I can’t wait.