I was recently stopped on the Strand (which is a new experience I hope will happen more regularly in the future) by an older guy who recognized me as “The guy who plays with Sinjin Smith’s son.”
I smiled and walked over because I had gotten used to being called “Hagen’s partner,” similar to how Hagen had gotten used to being called “Sinjin’s son.”
The first thing he said was, “You guys are so fun to watch!” It’s what I’ve heard all season since the Hermosa Beach Open, and I will never get tired of hearing that.
The second thing might sit with me forever. He said, “I have a son, and when we watched you guys on TV, he said to me, ‘That the Jake guy is a really good dad.’” I was completely taken aback by that because I have always assumed that no one knows who I am and that no one would even know I was a dad – much less a good one.
For so long, I had just been an athlete. I played basketball and indoor volleyball in high school and then indoor volleyball in college at the University of California Santa Cruz. Athletics, especially volleyball, shaped my identity and self-worth throughout my life. It always defined me.
When I moved from Santa Cruz down to Southern California, I knew what I wanted to do and who I was as a person. I was a volleyball player, going down to the beach every day or hitting the gym. I was always working towards the goal of getting onto Stadium Court against a one-seed and showing everyone that I could be successful.
We almost didn’t make it to Stadium Court. The second CBVA Wildcard event in Manhattan, to lock in Hagen’s and my bid into the Hermosa Beach Open, took place two days after the birth of my daughter, Zephyr. Every dad I talked to about my experience has said the same thing, “Your wife let you play!?!?!?!? She is a champion!” They are correct. She did send me with the caveat that if I didn’t win the event, I would have to sleep on the couch that night. I didn’t need the extra motivation, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
I have the unique opportunity to see what it looks like to be both a professional beach volleyball player and a great dad because I get to see one of the best in the world do it daily. Theo Brunner (I don’t think he reads these, so he probably won’t even see this) is my next-door neighbor. Since we live side-by-side, I pass by his front door to get to mine. He is constantly showing me that playing at a high level, as well as being a good dad, is attainable.
None of that is doable without a lot of help. Theo and I both have absolute champions in our wives. Others have family or friends that help them out. I don’t know anyone who will tell you that parenting is easy.
Community lessens the load of parenting, which is why we value ours so much. Theo’s daughter Izzie and our son Quest often play in the yard together, and we’ve had several dinners with our two families. It was extra fun to play him on Championship Sunday in Hermosa Beach, and then watching him win the Hermosa Open later that day was awesome. My wife Lisa and I make it a point to watch Theo’s international matches and cheer him on.
Shortly after the Hermosa Open, on my way in from grabbing dinner for my family, I passed by Theo’s door and said hello. Izzie greeted me with a confident, “My daddy is better at volleyball than you are.” I have never heard a bigger laugh come from inside Theo’s house.
For weeks, I have been trying to get my son to tell Theo, “My daddy finished higher than you in Chicago.” Unfortunately, my son’s focus is what you would expect of a 5-year-old, so the message hasn’t quite made it yet. If you are reading this, Theo, it’s coming!
I love to see so many good dad examples on the AVP Tour as well. I was excited to watch the Hermosa vlog from Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb on the Sandcast. Obviously, when you beat the #1 seed as the #16 seed, you want to see the reaction.
Interestingly, my biggest takeaway was actually the last 15 seconds of the video. As a dad of an almost 6-month-old baby girl myself, I enjoyed watching the adorable moment of Tri’s daughter saying, “I want to go get ice cream with you,” after he had just expressed his disappointment in their finish. Sometimes volley can be rough, but kids seem to say things that snap you back to reality.
The best part of playing in Hermosa was having my family there to watch and celebrate with. Taking a 5th in my first AVP Main Draw wasn’t bad, either. My dad came down to watch me play, which was one of the few times he had seen me play in person. He would watch me play online, but having family there in person just hits different. Winning the first match, going over to hug him, and giving my wife a kiss is a special moment that I will hold with me forever. I don’t know how Lisa did it, but she made sure that my son and two-month-old daughter were there for our second match of the day.
My son was in school for our first match, and frankly, my wife and I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to have him there for that game. The 1 seed doesn’t lose to the 16 seed often. But after we won, he was able to come watch his dad play on Stadium Court. Having my son there for our second match against Jeremy Casebeer and Billy Allen was amazing.
Playing with a guy like Hagen is a blast. He is fast and smart and the type of player who thunder bounces a ball on match point like an absolute animal. Also, having Sinjin at our matches in Hermosa and Manhattan was surreal. Hagen has traveled to different parts of the world to watch his dad play and in turn, has now had the opportunity to have his dad watch him play.
The thought of being able to watch your dad play a sport, or do anything at a high level, as a kid is cool. Every kid believes their dad is the best in the world at everything they do, and when we won those matches on Friday, for a brief moment, I got to see myself the way Quest sees me. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to watch Quest and Zephyr do whatever they love at a high level. Even if it is art or field hockey, which I know very little about.
People have told me, “I bet Quest is proud of you for what you have been able to accomplish this season.” My son doesn’t have any clue what is going on regarding the AVP season, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. He doesn’t know that his dad started the season ranked 250th in the AVP and got to the top 20 after Chicago. He doesn’t need to. He is a little kid, and I hope that he stays that way for as long as possible.
After winning our second match on Friday in Hermosa and guaranteeing a 5th, I went to kiss my wife and hug my son. The first thing he said was, “Dadda, can you play with me and my trucks?” When I say I am going to the beach, he asks if I am going to play volleyball and if he can come down with me to play with his toys on the sand. Every time I went down to the beach for MBO, he asked if I was going to the beach to train. Someday he may know how special those tournaments were for me, but that doesn’t have to be today.
I love that I get to take him with me to train and that he plays with his toys, interacts with the guys that I am training with, or plays with other sons or daughters of other high-level volleyball players. There are so many examples of good dads playing at a high level in the AVP. Guys who are in the dad game, like Theo, Tri, Jeremy Casebeer, Avery Drost, Billy Allen, Tim Bomgren, Casey Patterson, Phil Dalhausser, and Paul Lotman (as well as some new names, like Chase Budinger and Seain Cook) are crushing the high-level dad game. Clearly, all of those guys are pretty decent at volleyball as well.
When I started my journey, my sole identity was as a volleyball player. Young Jake thought that would always be my primary identity. Getting recognized as the guy with a big beard and long hair or “Hagen’s partner” is cool, but that once-important identity as a volleyball player takes a back seat to my identity as a father and husband.