Reach the Beach: Kim Smith

AVP athletes hail from all over. From Canada to Brazil and across the USA, our tour has attracted incredible athletes from unlikely places. Sure, you have those from Florida, Chicago, Arizona, and Texas—but those places all have bustling beach volleyball communities. I think it’s awesome when someone comes from a beach-free town, like my friends on tour from Rhode Island, Virginia, Michigan, Nashville, Idaho, and Wisconsin. Tim Bomgren lives in Minnesota, for crying out loud. As I write this, it’s 6 degrees and predicted to snow in his hometown. So how did Tim and the rest of us find beach volleyball in such unexpected places? 

Everyone’s stories will vary, but they’re all compelling. So over the next few months, we’ll be highlighting different athletes from around the country. As one of only two AVP athletes from Indianapolis (the other being my man Branden Clemens), I’m telling the Hoosier side of the story: the story of how even though I miss home, the allure of beach volleyball’s culture and history binds me to California. 

Growing up, I was always the tall girl. Exactly one classmate rivaled my height – a boy named Paul that I never much cared for. Competitive and athletic, no sport was off-limits for me. I played soccer, basketball, volleyball, cheerleading (yikes), track and field, even gymnastics (my mom pulled me out around the same time my fourth-grade body exceeded the height of the short uneven bar). At age 13, I dropped everything to focus on volleyball for various reasons, but primarily because no one else in my family played. As the youngest trying to make a name, 8th-grade-Kim needed her own arena to shine. 

While volleyball consumed a decent amount of my life in Indianapolis, it’s not what I picture looking back on my childhood. I picture our family home in the woods with its big, stone fireplace—a safe haven teeming with dogs, a revolving-door of friends, and plenty of snacks to feed the lot (including the dogs). I remember my parents, juggling four very different kids, but instilling a love of books and movies and a deep faith in God in all of us. I remember my brothers challenging me to games and wrestling matches, making me tough and competitive. I see my sister exemplifying kindness and patience, and willingly watching horrible early 2000s television with me. 

Since spending my first 18 years in Indianapolis, I’ve lived in Chicago, Miami, and now Hermosa Beach, CA. In every city, I’ve been proud to claim my hometown. I’m a die-hard Colts and Butler Bulldog fan, I attend the Indiana State Fair whenever possible, and there’s nowhere greater than my childhood home on Christmas morning. I miss it, but I don’t live there for a good reason. 

I bet you can guess the reason. 

Beach volleyball found me in a roundabout way. I spent my first two years of college playing and studying at Robert Morris University in Chicago. After two years of brutally cold and windy winters (and a blizzard we lovingly dubbed Snowpocalypse), I was ready to transfer. Though I had four schools in mind (all in warm, sunny Florida), it took just one afternoon to fall in love with Florida International University’s indoor volleyball team and vibrant campus in Miami. 

I never played for FIU’s beach team. At the time, beach volleyball was still considered a club sport. I was also deeply invested in my indoor game and had no interest in adding beach volleyball to my repertoire. I still would go to South Beach or Morgan Levy Park’s sand court with my indoor teammates and mess around. We didn’t know the intricacies of the game, so it was basically “don’t let the ball drop.” 

After college, I moved back to Indy and got a real job. That didn’t last. Volleyball called to me, a siren I couldn’t ignore. After 12 years of indoor, I was a little burnt out.

But beach offered something new, something unknown and therefore exciting. My brother Andrew was also sick with cancer at the time—I didn’t want to move overseas and be too far from him. So I figured, Why not move to sunny Southern California with a former FIU teammate and try my hand at beach? I’m tall; I’m good at indoor. How hard could it be? 

Hard, Kim. Really hard. 

I packed up my 2001 Honda CRV with the only beach volleyball I owned, some clothes, too many books, and my adventurous dad. We took three days to make the 2,200 mile drive across the country in January of 2015 (thank God for Sarah Koenig and her Serial podcast). I had one month’s rent to my name and no job. But I knew then that I was making the right decision; I felt called to play this unfamiliar game, to start the next chapter of my life in Southern California. 

But it doesn’t mean I was good at beach. I was terrible; truly awful. I’ll spare you the grisly details of my learning the game as a 6’3″ middle blocker who had never serve-received, played defense, or moved in the sand (apart from walking to the shoreline to set up an umbrella). Just know, it took me two years to consistently make the Main Draw. And to be frank, breaching the Main Draw had more to do with my Bronze-Medalist Olympian partner CiCi Zhang who took a chance on me. But we’ll pretend like I had something to do with it. 

Self-deprecation aside, I had actually gotten better. A slew of women (and a few men) took an interest in my volleyball career and helped me join this world. Heather Lowe and Jen Pavley trusted in my potential and poured countless hours of coaching into my development. Holly McPeak and Barb Fontana saw something in me and allotted me a spot in USA’s Elite Development Program. April Ross had dinner with me on the first night I got to California. She spent two hours going over all the basics, things I had never heard of before—like the CBVA and qualifiers. Poor, naive Lil Kim (more on this story in a couple of weeks). Butch and Misty May dedicated mornings of intense practice with me and a few other beginners; Butch has the greatest sense of humor and is a genuinely wonderful person, just like his daughter. 

Yeah—you read those names right. That’s 11 Olympic appearances and 6 medals up there. All people I met within the first couple months in Hermosa, all who gave me more than they expected in return. 

I found myself, a beach volleyball neophyte, in Southern California, walking among my idols. I met more Olympians in my first year than I had in my life (which wasn’t hard; I was previously at zero Olympians). The morning after I began reading Misty’s book, I met her at a CBVA in Malibu. Crazy. (I also saw Seal—the singer, not the animal—stretching by a Porta Potty, which added to the surreal feeling of the day.) But that’s the thing about beach volleyball. It’s not uncommon to practice next to players you’ve been admiring since childhood. And these athletes are accessible. They’re kind and generous and carry a torch for the sport. Growing the game is all of our intention. Investing in a recovering middle from the Midwest came easily to the titans that taught me the game. 

Those first two years were tough; I spent many drives home from practice, frustrated and exhausted, but never defeated. The game is complex and layered; it takes 10,000 reps to master a skill. I was nowhere near that and wasn’t about to give up before I got there. Beach volleyball gave me a life, something to learn about and grow in every day. It helped me get through my brother’s sickness and eventual passing; it kept me in California where I made lifelong friends and met my boyfriend (more on him in the next few weeks, as well); it brought me to the AVP who I now write and play for. I owe so much to the sport. 

So while I miss my childhood home and family in Indianapolis, I’m grateful for the foundation created there and the love felt from afar. Our family group chat is lit—I get plenty of niece and nephew videos, updates on everyone’s lives, and words of wisdom and encouragement. Indiana will always be my home, but my heart is in California. Somewhere on the sand, somewhere with a volleyball, soaking up the lessons of the game and learning from those who left footprints in the sand before me. 


Follow Kim on Instagram @kimesmith21

Read more from Kim:

AVP Athletes and Conditioning

Partner Bonding

Strategy Chat with Sarah Pavan