From My Perspective: Dain Blanton

All good love stories evolve and grow and can be marked in distinct phases. Such is my love story with volleyball. First, a fan. Next, a player battling against some of the players I idolized as a fan to find success as an AVP Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist. Now, coach and commentator. My love for volleyball shaped my life at every turn since I was a kid. With each step, I’ve approached and experienced volleyball differently and with each new relationship to the sport, my perspective shifted. 

My first exposure to the AVP was in my hometown of Laguna Beach in the ’80s. We lived for the tournament to arrive on the last weekend of June each year. We had just finished school for the year, and to say the AVP’s arrival was a big deal doesn’t fully explain the experience. At that time, they didn’t build a stadium, so fans packed the courts’ edges 15 rows deep. We would camp out the night before to secure good seats for the next day. It was a massive party with literal couches set up and kegs buried in the sand. Mind you, I was only 10 years old, but my older brothers Kurt and Everett had eyes on me.

Jose Cuervo Laguna Beach Open 1982

We’d wake up early, covered in sand, with only a few hours of sleep – but we had the opportunity to watch Sinjin Smith, Randy Stoklos, Mike Dodd, and Tim Hovland. They were already legends in this pretty new, cutting-edge sport. In hindsight, it reminds me of the X-Games when they came out; niche and very cool. Beach volleyball was authentic, a bunch of diehards playing a game they loved surrounded by fans that would sleep in the sand under the stars for prime watching position. 

I knew then that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I also wanted an education. So, like many others, I had to shelf beach in lieu of other sports. A few schools recruited me for both basketball and indoor volleyball. Eventually, I landed on Pepperdine and settled on indoor. Pepperdine had everything I wanted – incredible location, top-notch education, and the coach Marv Dunphy had just come back from winning the ’88 Gold Medal. 

My time at Pepperdine did not disappoint. Our team won a National Championship in ’92, and I graduated with a degree in Communications and Public Relations. As much as I loved my time playing indoor, I missed the beach. I craved that Laguna AVP feeling. As soon as I graduated, I began competing on the AVP Tour. Qualifying was a rough go back then – you’d have one qualifier for three events. If you didn’t do well in that one qualifier, you had to wait a whole month to try and qualify again. And only two teams got in. Brutal. 

My partner Lee LeGrande and I struggled to qualify, but once we did, we earned 7th place. At the time, that was the best finish from a Qualifier, and those big points secured our spot in the Main Draw. Over the next few years, I played with different partners and continued to improve. Canyon Ceman and I got together and played most of the 1997 season together, winning our first tournament at the Hermosa Beach Grand Slam. I was the first African American to win a major beach volleyball tournament. 

Winning a tournament was such an impactful milestone that it gave me the confidence to aim for the Olympics. Ironically, Canyon dumped me a month after our win. Label that as an auspicious turn because it led me to Eric Fonoimoana. Eric and I had similar goals and work ethics. We played the next few seasons together, and in 1999 we decided to focus our attention on the Olympics. Kevin Wong and Rob Heidger had the top spot. It was between Karch Kiraly/Adam Johnson and us for the second quota spot. Against all odds, we secured that spot in the very last qualification tournament in Belgium. 

Going into the Games, we were seeded 9th. We’d never won an international tournament. No one really gave us a shot to do well. Friends and family tried to allay our future disappointment, saying, “Take a lot of pictures!” or “Just enjoy the experience; soak up every moment.” We understood what they were trying to do, but it irked Eric and me. A chip nestled securely on our shoulders every time someone obviously doubted us. 

Brazil’s Ricardo Santos and Ze Marco were the favorites to win Gold. As we racked up wins, so did Ricardo and Ze Marco. The 2000 Olympics were the last with sideout scoring, playing one set to 15. The Gold Medal match was the best two of three, playing to 12 and winning by one. Along the way, we met the other American team – Wong and Heidger – in the Quarterfinals. We came out guns blazing. That chip on our shoulder fueled us to a 15-3 win followed by a roller coaster Semifinal against Portugal that we pulled out 15-12. 

As Eric and I knew would happen, we faced Ze Marco and Ricardo in the Gold Medal match. They were easily the best team in the world. That year alone, they’d won six FIVB tournaments and had beaten us four times. We were down 11-8 in the first set, and I’m sure they thought they had it in the bag. But we sided out for what felt like forever and won the first set 12-11. We put a massive amount of pressure on them, using our previous losses as lessons. We were always taking notes, and we knew we could beat them if we got rid of some of the errors. We were right. We won 12-9 in the second to earn our Gold Medals. 

Those Sydney Olympics were an exceptional experience, and not just because of the win. Locals were thrilled to have us there, and the Games were really well run. That experience pushed me to look toward the 2004 Athens Olympics. I qualified with Jeff Nygaard (now the Head Men’s Indoor Coach at USC) for Athens. We didn’t experience the same level of victory as in Sydney, and I still loved the game, but I also felt ready for the next phase of my life. 

I continued playing and started to dabble in broadcasting – indoor Volleyball, AVP, and sideline interviews for high school football. Former AVP announcer Chris McGee “Geeter” was calling games for the same organization. The opportunity that the smaller regional network offered to learn and hone my craft prepared me for bigger opportunities like pre and post-game on-air for the Angels and Dodgers. I was presented an opportunity with the LA Clippers, and being a part of the NBA was a massive accomplishment. Despite the initial nerves, I did well enough that they offered me more work. I eventually became the courtside reporter and for the next five years, traveled for all 82 games. It was a fantastic experience, and I loved it, though I never strayed too far from volleyball. Basketball season runs opposite of volleyball, so I continued broadcasting for the AVP. Once I left the NBA and before I joined AVP’s Amazon Prime Video team, I concentrated on indoor and beach broadcasting, professional and collegiate. 

Former AVP Announce Chris Geeter

In 2015, the Head Coach of USC Anna Collier called me. She asked if I was interested in Misty May’s former role as the Volunteer Assistant for USC’s beach program. Until then, I hadn’t coached much and wasn’t super interested in a full-time position, but I figured if it’s good enough for Misty, I should check it out. I knew Anna well. She’d coached Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson in Sydney – she’s a phenomenal coach and person. I knew, at the least, I’d learn a lot from her. 

Meeting the girls made the decision easy. There was such good energy on the team, very professional and welcoming. Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes were sophomores and just starting to show their brilliance, and all of the women on that team worked hard and had fun. I decided to give it a shot, and a few months later, we won the National Championship after a 28-0 season. Then in 2016 and 2017, when beach volleyball was upgraded to an NCAA sport, we won the National Championships back-to-back. Technically, it was a three-peat! There was something very special happening there.

After those three seasons, I stepped down as Volunteer Assistant. I loved coaching, but it was a lot of time taken away from my broadcasting, and I had a new baby boy in 2018. I took the 2019 season off, and then the unexpected happened. Anna Collier stepped down, and my name was among the mix of potential Head Coaches. When I was volunteering, I was unknowingly paying my dues, getting the needed experience, showcasing what I had to offer and what was possible under my coaching. After a rigorous interview process, I was named head coach of USC Women’s Beach Volleyball in Summer 2019. 

Dain Blanton head coach announcement graphic

So here I am now: one Covid season under my belt and halfway through another. It’s been worth every obstacle. The women I coach are individually incredible and collectively outstanding. We work hard to reach our highest potential as a team and individually help them become a better player than they thought possible. And then mirror that academically. If those boxes are checked, I’ve done my job as a coach. If we get a National Title as well, that’s the ultimate. Our team is remarkably solid. We have impactful freshmen, outstanding returning players, and Tokyo Olympian Tina Graudina balancing her race to the Olympics with her education and our practices. 

I, too, will be headed to the Tokyo Olympics with NBC to do sideline reporting this summer. And, of course, I’ll be returning to the AVP and Amazon Prime this summer. With everything else, that’s still one of my favorite gigs. There’s something so free about it – we have no time constraints, get to interview the players, call the matches, and create stories through lifestyle and behind-the-scenes content. If it looks like we are having a blast, you’re seeing correctly. It’s such a blessing to have the casual environment of Amazon Prime while also being a part of the esteemed finals on NBC. 

People often ask me what’s my favorite role between playing, broadcasting, or coaching. The answer is easy: there’s absolutely nothing better than playing. I miss it. It never felt like work, no matter how much effort I had to put into it. With that said, I’m lucky in that I’ve never viewed any of my jobs as solely work. Segueing from playing into TV was seamless and gave me the opportunity to stay around the sport I love. Plus, getting to analyze it further prepared me for my coaching. Choosing between coaching and broadcasting, it’s a little harder to pick, and they feel pretty equal. OK… coaching might edge slightly ahead. I need to sate my competitive nature somehow!

In the end, my favorite role doesn’t really matter. The beauty is in the balance. Naturally, my perspective on the game shifts in each role I assume, but my perspective on life hasn’t changed since those overnight stays on Laguna Beach. I love this game, and I’m so grateful for the places it’s taken me and the person it’s helped me become.