Growing up, literally all I did was play sports – soccer, softball, gymnastics – kind of anything I could get my hands on. When I started playing volleyball, my mom also vetoed it. “You have 50 other things going on, Jennifer. You’re not adding another one.” Obviously, I wore her down.
I have played volleyball almost every day since.
It became my new thing almost immediately. I played for Rod Cutting’s indoor and beach clubs. San Clemente beach was within biking distance of my house, so I’d go early in the morning, bring a lunch, and play all day with my friends. We had one ball, stayed from dawn til dusk, played endlessly, and then hopped in the water before sunset. The courts next to us held Karch, Adam Johnson, Janice Opalinski – all these pros were having their practices and we got to absorb all of it by osmosis. It was the typical best day ever every single day.
My days on the beach gave me enough experience to make my JV team. Still very raw and jump serving to the back of the gym, I wasn’t our star player on day one. I hadn’t grown into my six-foot frame and was balancing other sports and homework (well, sometimes homework). But volleyball was quickly dominating my focus.
Which led to me scholarship opportunities. After a few visits, I landed on USC. I loved my experience playing indoor there, but I was at the beach anytime I could be. Jerry Elliot, our grad assistant, took notice and started nudging me toward beach volleyball. He could tell beach was what I really wanted to do. And he was right.
Before indoor practices – I mean really grueling, top-level Division 1 practices – I’d wake up early and drive to the beach to play doubles. My boyfriend and his baseball teammates played with me on weekends in Manhattan Beach. Anyone who’d play with me, I was there.
But after I graduated, I needed a little break. I still played in CBVAs, but the AVP wasn’t running. So I moved to San Diego and supported myself bartending and waitressing at MoonDoggies; I partied like the 22-year-old that I was and had a great time. I’d work till 2 am and be down at the beach (a little worse for wear) by 10 am. Dianne Denecochea, Linda Hanley, and other greats became my training partners. I wasn’t making much money, but it was enough to support my beach volleyball habit.
Eventually, I was ready to get back to volleyball. I began on the AVP Tour with a couple of different partners like Jen Pavley and Heather Lowe, and played indoor during the winters in Chicago and Puerto Rico.
In PR, there was this untouched, unsoiled beach right below my condo. So I set up a beach court and practiced in the morning with Puerto Rican locals and legends alike. I couldn’t stay away from the game; I knew it’s where I’d end up. So when Barb Fontana asked me to play the 2004 season with her, I couldn’t refuse. I moved back to Southern California and pursued beach full time.
And I played for the next twelve years.
Being a professional back then is a little different than it is today. But I don’t think I even fit the bill of a “pro” until April and I missed out on the 2008 Olympics. I was making money, which is the technical definition of a pro athlete. But I neglected to grow my mental side of the game – my volleyball IQ and knowledge.
In 2008, April and I were in the Top 10 in the world, but we didn’t beat out the American teams qualify for the Games in Beijing. The devastation of that loss turned me into a professional. I lost 20 pounds, refocused myself, hired Jeff Conover as our coach, and got back to the grind.
To get where I ultimately wanted to go, I had to change from the happy-go-lucky Jen I’d always been, spending all day at the beach just goofing around and spending my nights out with friends. I became a 9-5 volleyball player.
The ups and downs of trying to qualify for London made me into the player and us into the team we needed to be to be successful. In 2009, we won the World Champs. That win proved a lot to us and the world.
Plus, April’s and my chemistry was evident from day one. She’d always had the work ethic and mentality down, and once I caught up, we realized we were similar in those ways, too. We both wanted to do fun, quick sets which everyone told us we couldn’t do bump setting. That made us want to do them even more. We had the same work ethic and liked similar coaching styles and communication patterns.
We had an Us-Against-the-World mentality. And it just worked. It’s hard to put into words. I just feel lucky to have experienced something like that, one of those magical opportunities that are so rare.
After our Silver Medal in London 2012, I knew I’d slow down a bit. My husband and I wanted to have kids, and our eventual plan was to move to Maine to be with his family. It felt like a natural ending point, especially after I played during my first pregnancy and miscarried. After that, I needed separation from the sport.
We got pregnant soon after and had my daughter. I’d breastfeed her and watch volleyball and sometimes think – could I still beat these people? I was so out of shape, hadn’t touched a ball in months, probably out of my mind with hormones. But my husband, bless him, said he’d take the brunt of the baby work if I wanted to return to playing. I knew my years of being at the top of my game were limited, so I jumped.
I partnered with Emily Day and we tried for the next Olympics. Though we had many opportunities to seal the deal, we missed out on the Rio 2016 Games. But I don’t regret it one bit. I got to travel the world for another two years. I pushed my body way past what I thought it could handle. And I gained a dear friend in Emily. After we didn’t qualify, though, I needed to be done. Injuries and a second child made my departure from competing easier than I’d ever imagined it would be.
It wasn’t long, however, before the sport drew me back in. Just in a different way. At the end of the 2017 season, April was around my neighborhood and called to stop by. She came over, met my son, and asked me to be her coach. I was shocked at first, but it didn’t take long before our old chemistry returned and we started brainstorming her next partner. All along, I knew it should and would be Alix.
My husband, the absolute saint that he is, postponed our move to Maine once again to facilitate my dream. Coaching April and Alix was so fun, a return to the world of travel and volleyball and excitement that I’ve always loved. But transitioning from player to coach proved challenging, albeit still really fun.
I’d say the biggest difference between playing and coaching is the lack of control. When I was playing, I was always steps ahead of the game in my mind. I was clocking and calculating and predicting. As a coach, I still do that, but I can’t communicate that data to my players.
It’s so hard watching your team struggle and you know what would help them but you’re sequestered and silent in the stands. That’s why I love that the AVP has loosened the coaching rules. It makes all of us better – the coaches aren’t hamstrung and the players can be the best they can be.
My coaching days came to an end before I was wholly ready for it. When Covid hit, I couldn’t hold up our cross-country move any longer. In the spring of 2020, I chose my family over coaching and moved to Maine. And though I miss the girls and wish I could’ve coached them in Tokyo, choosing my family has never been the wrong decision.
Interestingly, the last choice of my volleyball career – to choose life, family, and friends over the game – reflects my mentality throughout the sport. To become a pro, I had to prioritize volleyball. But to remain in the sport, I had to master the balance. I was always looking for other ways to occupy my time. I joined a sorority in college and loved it. When we traveled, I would sightsee and read books and try to distract myself. And I always looked for intellectual and physical pursuits outside the game.
I always needed balance. When I was too focused on the game, I wasn’t my best. Volleyball was a great part of my life, at times the most significant part. I loved it, loved winning and competing and going to the Olympics. But I can honestly say the only regret I have looking back is missing out on important life events. I’ve missed almost all of my friends’ weddings, including my best friend’s. That’s really hard not having those memories.
But I didn’t always choose volleyball. My dad died suddenly just a couple of months before my brother got married. Originally, I was set to play World Championships with April and would miss his wedding. But after Dad passed, there was no way I was missing that wedding. April understood and found a sub. We were number 2 in the world and had a chance to win, but it didn’t matter. Being with my brother at his wedding when our dad couldn’t be was so much more fulfilling than any Gold Medal.
So I guess that’s the lesson, right? The perspective I have on volleyball is it’s just volleyball. I’ve always loved the game – couldn’t stop playing it as a kid when my mom nearly barred me from it, didn’t stop while playing indoor in college and overseas, couldn’t cleanly step away from the game.
But that passion and borderline obsession existed with a crucial truth – a knowledge that there was always something more important than volleyball. My husband, my kids, my family, my friends, pursuits outside of the game – those always meant more. The times that I got those out of whack are my only regret. The Olympic Medal and the accolades are fun, but the times I didn’t lose perspective, the times I went to the wedding and moved to Maine, that’s the stuff I’m really proud of.