Deahna Kraft: Reach the Beach


Beach volleyball and I go WAY back… but not in the way you would expect it.

I didn’t grow up with a ball in my hand like other athletes. I didn’t come from a ‘volleyball family’ where I was indoctrinated into the sport. I never actually really thought of it except for during our summer vacations when we would go to Whidbey Island (a small island off of Washington). We have a small summer house on a single-lane road called Sunlight Beach Road, where beach volleyball started its slow trickle into the back of my mind. Sunlight is on a bay; every day, the bay has a tide, and the tide can stretch for miles exposing the sea floor. You can walk out and see crabs, sand dollars, and many other sea life – which is a big part of its magic.

With the exposure of the sea floor comes lots of room for activities. I grew up going out with my family, digging a hole with two wooden posts, and stringing a net from one side to the other on the biggest sand bar we could find. We would break up into teams and play some HEATED jungle ball for hours, only leaving because the rising tide finally came to our knees, and it became impossible to run after balls without tripping. This was my first introduction to “sand bar” (beach) volleyball. But I never thought much of it because, at this point in my life, I dreamed of being a singer and actress (bet you didn’t see that one coming). So other than my summer fling with beach volleyball, my heart was pretty set on becoming an international superstar (if only TikTok were a thing back then, I might have a couple more $$ in my bank account…).

Fast forward a few years

I wanted to be on stage and act. So in 5th grade, my friend and I decided to go to Pepperdine University for a summer singing and acting camp (this is foreshadowing!!). There’s not much to say here other than I had fun, sang, and acted. I didn’t think anything of the campus or what it would potentially mean for my future (wink wink). I went home happy, singing my little heart out. But then puberty hit, and everything changed (gasp). I no longer wanted to be on stage, I wanted to play soccer! But my mom and dad wanted me to try another sport because they thought soccer hosted an array of injuries, so I was prompted to try anything else. I bet you can guess what happened next… volleyball was introduced to me. And as much as I hated (strong word, but remember I was going through puberty, so I was a bit dramatic) them for forcing me to try volleyball, I now thank them because I instantly fell in love. I was introduced to YMCA volleyball in 8th grade, so by the time I was a freshman in high school, I was ready to go to Club volleyball (dun dun dun).

My first-ever coach Craig Barrow would bring me to an indoor sand facility, and we would do jump training and play. I didn’t think much of this at the time because I had decided I wanted to play indoor volleyball in college. Well, I was a late bloomer with big dreams of going to the top college for volleyball, so you can guess how most college recruiting conversations went: ‘You’re too short’, ‘You need to jump higher’, ‘Your wingspan is well below the other recruits we are looking at’ (ouch). As I kept getting rejected from the Stanfords of the world – some of my club coaches started mentioning how I was a great ‘all-around player’ (I was a six rotation middle), so I should try beach.

So back to Pepperdine – my mom and I went my Junior year of high school to try to do a beach camp because I was going to compete in Seaside Oregon and wanted reps. With their star-studded coaching staff, I shuffled onto the court with no ‘California swagger’ and looked very much like I had never run in the sand before. The first two days sucked… but by the last day, all that training on the tide flats paid off, and I made it to the top recruitment court. I was pretty excited but didn’t think much of it because I still wanted to go to the top schools for indoor. As luck would have it, the University of Wisconsin was actually interested in the undersized late bloomer! But four months later, I got a letter from Pepperdine, took an official visit for their beach program, and made my decision pretty quickly. I would commit to play beach volleyball at Pepperdine.

I finished out my high school years playing indoor (sprinkling in some beach practices and tournaments). Then I showed up at the top division one school for beach volleyball at the time, training under the legendary Nina Matthies, Marcio Sicoli, and Gustavo Rocha. Looking back, I realize I was a pretty gutsy kid walking into this program as a walk-on with virtually no experience but knowing deep down I had what it took to become a starter. In my freshman year, I started on line four and was the NCAA national championship runner-up. The next year I earned a partial scholarship.

I owe everything to my coaches. They are the best coaches in the world PERIOD.

By my junior year of college, I knew I wanted to play professionally but still had that indoor itch, and so I decided I would get my Masters and play for the University of Wisconsin – the top program in the country. I had ‘bloomed’ since then, but I was still undersized by indoor standards. Still, I knew I had the work ethic and passion that could get me looks from a top school. So I texted Kelly Sheffield, the Wisconsin head coach, basically saying, “Remember me? What do you think about taking a chance and letting me come for one year?” Most coaches I was talking to at this time pretty much scoffed at the idea of me being able to make the transfer from beach to indoor. But Kelly Sheffield didn’t. He encouraged me and thought it was more badass than unrealistic. So one official visit later, I was to be a Badger!

This doesn’t have much to do with beach volleyball, so I will give you the Sparks Notes version. I earned a position, played as a defensive specialist in 15/16 of the games, won a BIG10 championship, and was an NCAA Semi-Finalist. This isn’t bragging about me; I mention this to show how hard the coaches worked to get me into playing shape for the BIG10, how much my teammates supported me and pushed me, and how much people’s doubt in me really put a fire under my ass.

Fast forward a few months

I skipped around a little bit in my story and forgot to mention my last year at Pepperdine was cut short due to COVID, and I played at Wisconsin during COVID. So I technically had another year of eligibility where I could have gone back to Wisconsin. It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I realized six years of college was enough for me, and international indoor was definitely not for me. A road trip with my dad lugging all my belongings to California to pursue a professional career in beach volleyball was what I wanted to do.

I was getting some serious whiplash from my career trajectory → indoor to beach to indoor, ok now back to beach?! I seriously thought I was a crazy lady, but every time I’ve bet on myself, no matter how crazy my dream, SOMETHING good has come out of it. So why not this time?

Category: Athlete Stories

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