“Perception is Reality.”
That’s a quote that I’ve really come to believe over the last few years.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had countless people tell me how lucky I am. That I’m the luckiest person they’ve ever met. That everything just seems to fall into my lap.
I grew up in Hawaii and had the type of childhood you could only dream about. Since I left high school, I got a degree from USC where I met my beautiful, kind-hearted, actress wife, all before I became a professional athlete, getting paid for the first time in my life to live in Puerto Rico playing indoor volleyball and surfing five days a week.
When I was ready for a change from my life overseas, I started playing my favorite childhood sport, beach volleyball. It was just for fun, until arguably the most knowledgable and capable player in the world asked me if I wanted to play beach full time… with him!
I don’t think I even said yes to John Hyden when he asked me to play with him. I said, “Are you serious!?!”
So let’s get this straight. Everything I accidentally learned growing up playing beach volleyball in my free time at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki, Hawai’i, was going to be my ticket to being a pro athlete who works at the beach?? My favorite place in the world? Playing with a future Hall-Of-Famer (he’s got my vote!), earning the Rookie of the Year on both the AVP and FIVB, having a few titles, while being sponsored by big corporations?
Yup, I’m lucky as shit!
But then when I got diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, dermatomyositis, in early 2017, it seemed that all of a sudden my luck had changed. Or had it?
Life dealt me a completely crappy hand, and after two years I somehow came out of it better off than before. My massive problem seemed to point me in the direction that I needed to go. Now, for whatever reason, looking back I’m extremely grateful for the time that I had to take a step back and learn more about myself.
Here’s how it all went down and how I came to find this perspective…
After a great 4 year start to my beach volleyball career, I was very confident and inspired to take the next step in my career. We had ended the 2016 season on the podium at the Toronto World Tour finals. At that moment I believed it was my time to lead the American men by winning tournaments and getting a top spot in the world & domestic rankings. I was excited, inspired, and willing to do whatever it took to make this a reality.
That journey began with a surgery to remove a small cyst that was causing an impingement in the back of my ankle. Surgery went well, rehab went well, and just 6 weeks later I was on my way. However, when I started to workout again I noticed that I couldn’t quite get myself back into shape. I pushed myself even harder for about a month or so but things just kept getting worse. As we got within a few days of the first event of the year, John and our trainer, Mykel Jenkins, separately pulled me aside and told me that they could see that something was clearly wrong with me. Up until that moment, I had been in complete denial. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious, but at the time I was used to being tired and hurting. I’m a professional athlete after all.
So I went to get a blood test and sure enough, something was wrong. The Team USA doctor told me not to get on the plane to the first FIVB event of the year. I hadn’t missed a single practice during that offseason and I couldn’t go put that work to the test. But it was just going to be one tournament, until it turned into two, three… the whole season. Almost two full seasons.
I went to watch John play in the Finals of the AVP Huntington Beach Open and that’s when it hit me all at once. As he got introduced with Ryan [Doherty] instead of me, I literally had to turn around and walk to the outside edge of the DJ booth so I wouldn’t break down in front of the staff. I felt incredibly sad knowing that the opportunities that I had been working for were passing me by.
It took five months just to get a diagnosis, and over that time I learned what depression felt like and how to identify when anxiety was present. I was forced into a depression because of the lack of energy, the loss of the ability to do activities I once enjoyed, and the lack of sleep from the anxiety. It was a foreign feeling of having nothing to strive towards when I woke up.
Then something clicked. What if, instead of falling behind during this time away from the sport, I could use it to get ahead? I had never bought into the idea that I wouldn’t be able to make a comeback, so that was a huge help. Me being in denial may have worked in my favor. I thought that while I was out, I might as well try to master all the things that I never had the time to practice while playing full time.
So I went down this rabbit hole! First I decided that I needed to figure out what exactly were these things hiding in the back of my mind that I really wanted in my life. Then I needed to figure out how I was going to attack them with my current limitations.
I wanted to understand the game of beach volley on a deeper level and I wanted to become more media savvy so that I could bring more value to myself as a brand, so I came up with the idea of broadcasting. I text AVP’s Creative Director Josh Glazebrook and we split a ticket for me to go the AVP New York City Open, on our personal credit cards, where I would completely wing announcing and commentating the tournament coverage live for 3 days straight. The rest is history.
Just to add to the overload of volleyball knowledge that I was trying to absorb, I also started the SANDCAST podcast with my buddy and beach volleyball’s finest journalist, Travis Mewhirter. I’ve probably learned more talking with my fellow players about their stories and experiences than anything else.
The sadness and anxiousness never really got better, but I was living off the excitement of the feeling that I was getting better at my passion and I was growing as a person. I started to crave that feeling of excitement. Eventually, this plight turned into inspiration for me. I started to believe that I was moving forward with my dream and eventually I felt grateful that I had the time to place my attention on these things.
I went a full year where I thought I could be potentially playing again in three months. But eventually, it happened. I was still skinny and out of shape, but I was ready to come back. AVP pro and childhood friend, Trevor Crabb wasn’t getting the finishes he wanted so he took a chance on me. We partnered up and I started my comeback at the AVP Manhattan Beach Open. We beat some good teams and took a 7th place finish in the Manhattan Beach Open, so I was happy. We finished the rest of the AVP season with a 5th, then a 3rd, then to China for my first FIVB event in 2 years … and we won Gold.
I don’t think this would have been possible if I hadn’t kept my mind in the game and my body at the games. My mind never left the space of being an athlete. My body was out of commission but my mind got to work over time. And that time that I invested in my mind is the most valuable that I’ve ever spent. I became a better player while I was away from the sport and more importantly, I became a better version of myself. In turn, I became a better person for my family and most importantly my wife who I got to marry with undivided attention.
“Where you place your attention is where you place your energy.”
I can write this story two completely different ways. There’s the story where I had all these bad things happen to me, or the story where I had all these amazing things happen to me.
Looking back, I remember that when I got into USC I was good enough at volleyball to make the team but not to get a scholarship. I barely got through college academics without help from countless tutors and friends. I had the ball in my hands, we were up 8-6 in the 5th set of the national championship … [no ring]. I got fired from my first pro indoor team. I had match point in the AVP Manhattan Beach Open and made a mistake instead … [no name on the pier]. I did qualify for the Olympics, but never got to go because of a country quota rule… [not an Olympian], which was followed up with ankle surgery that led to an auto-immune disease that made me lose my job, 30lbs of muscle and my ability to do any physical activity.
Now I’m finally back on tour but with a compromised immune system, where I’m always tired from jet lag. I give myself a shot in the stomach once a week, take meds every day, and have to get a 4-hour infusion twice a month. My prize money is going towards paying off debt because I blew through my savings when I couldn’t collect a paycheck and I lost health insurance for two years. Not to mention the student loans. Plus, I’ll be paying for diapers and being responsible for another human being’s life before this season is even over. Oh yeah, and I’m supposed to qualify for the Olympics again, but actually become an Olympian this time.
As I write this, I’m wondering …
Am I LUCKY because I’m headed home to my pregnant and healthy wife after 5 weeks on the road where I was playing beach volleyball with the same guy who I played with back in the Outrigger Canoe Club days and a coach [Jose Loiola] who is one of the greatest players of all time?
Or am I UNLUCKY because I took another bad finish, I had to pay to change my flight, I’m aching everywhere because I’m smashed into an economy seat in the back of a plane on a 11-hour flight with a short person reclined into my lap? [I’m writing this with T-rex arms because the tray table is so close to me.]
When I reflect back on where I’ve come from and how my life looks now, I see that I have been through some tough times.
Also, when I reflect back on where I’ve come from and how my life looks now, I see that I have my dream life.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
My perception is my reality. Whether I’m lucky or not lucky – it’s a choice. I’m lucky to have this “plight” because I chose to be lucky: I chose to learn all the things that I always wanted to learn and I found inspiration and contentment in becoming a better person, and detaching my self worth from my goals.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”
What most of us don’t realize is that we grow up and change whether we want to or not. As we evolve as people, we tend to focus our attention on the same old goals and dreams. We think certain things will make us happy because they have made us happy in the past, but we never stop to take a look at our lives from a distance and really OBSERVE where that joy lies.
I challenge you to sacrifice some time away from your goals, take off the blinders (tunnel vision) and see if you benefit from it as much as I did. Ask yourself if you want to be lucky or unlucky. I choose luck.