Professional beach volleyball is the greatest job.
You travel the world and are paid to play volleyball. While that alone is enough to be considered the best, I have more evidence. High-level coaches challenge you every day to improve on and off the court. Sponsors help you accomplish your dreams by footing the bill. The opportunity to make it to the Olympics is an actual reality, a chance to represent your country on the world stage. You routinely visit the most beautiful beaches and cities in the world— places like Tokyo, Rome, Gstaad, Vienna, and Honolulu.
I’m a professional volleyball player. But that is not what my life looks like.
My name is Kim Smith. I’ve been playing beach volleyball for 4.5 years. This is my third full season on the AVP. You may not know my name (unless you really know the sport or are related to me), but I’m okay with that. Though I identify as a professional beach volleyball player, I’ve realized there are tiers to that title. I’d venture to argue that, in the US at least, there are four tiers of pro beach volleyball players.
First, you’ve got your Olympic hopefuls, the ones that live the life I laid out above. Travel, coaches, rehab, film, sponsors, stipends, etc. They’ve worked insanely hard and are the best the sport has to offer. If you couldn’t tell, they’re living my dream life. But they’re also next level, some of the coolest people I know, and true role models. They’ve earned every bit of their success and support, and I proudly cheer them on whenever and wherever they play.
Then you’ve got the second tier made up of the AVP studs, the players that have been hanging Main Draw for years and blissfully avoid the dreaded Qualifier. Some of these players play a bit overseas, but their cup of tea is the domestic tour. Most of them have made it deep into Saturday or on to Championship Sunday. Top ten finishes are the norm, so many of them keep it consistent and stick with the same partner all year. They may have a few sponsors helping them with coaching or providing them with gear, but for the most part, these athletes need a little supplemental income (more on this later).
The second tier is where I realistically see myself in the next year (for the last two years, I’ve said I’ll be there “next year.” But alas, such is life). I’m good enough to be Main Draw every tournament of the year (humble brag). Even though the sport is getting harder and players are ridiculously good, I’m getting better every day, too. I can get there. I will get there.
But, we’re talking about now.
Before I explain my tier (the third), I’m gonna lay out the fourth really quick. Because these players are often overlooked even though they’re some of the most admirable on tour. These are the ones that work their tails off daily and just haven’t qualified yet. These players’ skills are almost as good as any, but breaching the Main Draw is tough. I lived in the fourth tier for a long time; it’s so hard to travel to the tournaments and not make it in. It feels impossible to make it, but one day you do, and it all feels worth it. I love the fourth tier; you guys are my heroes.
But this is From My Perspective, and I’m in the third tier. So here we go.
My tier lives on the edge of the Main Draw. We’re never sure if we’re in or out. Most of my tier has enough points to be in the Main Draw if we play with someone who has more than we do, but God forbid if we pick up someone with less, then we are FOR SURE gonna have to hoof it through a gnarly, three or four-match Qualifier.
My tier doesn’t wait for the entry list to come out. We’re point calculators. A couple of weeks before every tournament, we’re madly texting other players to see who they’re playing with and subsequently adding them to “The List.” Our math and Excel skills are on point— we add up team totals and make a spreadsheet of who’s in and who’s out. It’s insane, mildly embarrassing, and downright hilarious. If you’re in my tier, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You either do this too (Kenzie Ponnet), or you text me for my own List so that you can also be in the know (Jess Sykora).
A note about the Qualifier: it’s insanely hard, but that’s a whole other essay. I’ve learned to love playing on Thursday this year. It just feels soooo good to make it through. And I’ve earned my best finishes after having qualified. Getting to the Main Draw after a Thursday grind feels way different than getting in automatically; though the peace of the Main Draw is deliciously sweet, winning three single-elimination matches makes you feel invincible, like no matter what, it was a successful tournament. I play freer on Friday after having qualified on Thursday.
I used to hate the Quali. I dreaded it and pouted when I had to play. But embracing it has made all the difference. I recently read in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, a phenomenal book about ultrarunning (a sport that reminds me a lot of beach volleyball), that, “You can’t hate the Beast and expect to beat it. The only way to truly conquer something is to love it.” Bring it on, Quali Beast.
I’ve made it to the money in five of seven tournaments so far this year. Three times I was auto-Main Draw (deliciously sweet), twice I got through the Quali (felt so good), twice I lost in the Quali (ughhhh). Five of seven is respectable. But I’m unsatisfied; I want them all.
Even though I’m striving for a higher tier, I have to admit I’m insanely proud to be in this one. We’re grinders— we play because we deeply adore this sport. We balance practice, gym time, living in expensive Southern California (most of us), having some semblance of a life, and working a side job (or three). The fact that most of us have to work is maybe the craziest thing about being a professional beach volleyball player. Typically, professional athletes are among the highest earners in the world.
Among American beach volleyball pros, there are maybe 5-6 teams per gender that solely play the game for a living. The rest of us, some 300 athletes, both play and have a job. Most people coach, nanny, or tutor— these are flexible jobs that complement life on the road. Some people have legit, grown-up occupations like Sheila Shaw (marketing) and Jake Rosener (chemist). I’m a writer, which, for me, is ideal. I relish the creative outlet, make my own schedule, and can work from anywhere (occasionally on airplanes on the way to AVPs).
I fought hard to get out of the fourth tier to get here. Frankly, I didn’t even know what the AVP was until October 2014, three months before I moved here to play in the AVP. Yikes. It took me two full years to get my sand legs and almost three even to consider calling myself a pro. In addition to playing and writing, I’ve been a coach, a nanny, a chef, and a personal assistant. I’ve lived in the same cheap (miracle) Hermosa apartment for four years, cook all my meals at home, and opt for board game evenings in rather than costly nights out to save money. I’ve had ten different coaches and 15 different partners. I’ve put in thousands of hours of practice, analyzed hundreds of film, gone to the gym for countless hours, missed my nephews and niece being born, and quit a dream job all in the name of volleyball.
I have to admit, every year I wonder if it will be my last season. Volleyball is equally the most frustrating and rewarding part of my life; I never smile bigger or cry harder because of the game. But every offseason, when I weigh my options and think about the next year, I can’t imagine life without volleyball. I love it too much. It’s worth the early mornings, visits to the chiropractor, articles written on a plane, losses in the Qualifier, and sleepless nights in hotels.
Because, in return, I get the AVP. I get to compete against some of the best players in the world. I get to travel to the best cities in America and play volleyball. I get to see friends every day at practice, in the athletes’ tent at tournaments, and at the routine player’s party (thanks McKibbins). I get to hang in the DJ Booth with Mark and DJ Roueche and Producer Kelly and the Brand Knew team and Donald and Steph and John Walter. If this were an essay about the four “Quality of People” tiers, it’s safe to say all the people who play and work for the AVP would be in the first tier.
I have a lot of work left to get to the top level of professional beach volleyball, but knowing that the journey there is this sweet makes all the struggles worth it. Even though the grass may be greener in the first tier, the sand of the third still feels pretty good.