Sarah Sponcil recently moved into my apartment. I barely knew her before but had heard from trusted friends that she was a keeper. Fortunately, I agree. We have a lot in common—beach volleyball, a love of Mendocino Farms, and the Bachelor (though we’re not feeling Pilot Pete’s season). You know, the important stuff. She’s also really funny, laid back, a great writer, and a clean roommate (thank God, or we would’ve had a problem).
Through getting to know her, I realized she has a unique perspective. Sarah and her partner Kelly Claes are the only Olympic hopefuls that both competed as NCAA beach volleyball athletes. They’re young—23 and 24 respectively—crazy athletic and full of potential. So when I thought about interviewing Sarah, I just wanted to have a conversation about her volleyball career, specifically the journey from NCAA to FIVB and AVP. That’s a lot of acronyms.
When did you start playing indoor? And when did you get introduced to beach?
Indoor was my first passion. I started on my first club team at the ripe age of 6 years old on the 12-4 F-5 Tornadoes coached by my dad (definitely one of the best team names I played for). I ended up falling in love with the game and played twelve years of club right up until graduation.
On the beach, however (or shall I say “a box of dirt in Phoenix”), I got into the sport around 8 years old. While fall, winter, and spring were full of school ball and club ball, the summers were wide open for activities. There were small tournaments on weekdays in the summertime that my partner and I would play, without fail, every Tuesday and Thursday. Though we were by far the youngest kids competing, I remember just signing up to play in all the divisions—12’s 14’s, 16’s, and even 18’s. We just wanted to play. While there were lots of tears, small tantrums, and quiet car rides home after tough losses, it was cool to be going up against some of the ASU girls I looked up to. Just to say I played them was an amazing night for me.
Okay, so going to college you were familiar with both sports. So did you play beach and indoor in your first year at LMU?
Yeah, I did. After twelve years of indoor club, I made the 6-hour car ride to California to settle into my new home for the next three years, Loyola Marymount University. I verbally committed to Loyola Marymount at the end of my freshman year of high school. Looking back I had no idea what college was about. All I knew was my favorite childhood coach Tom Black and volleyball idol Betsi Flint were at that school. That pretty much was enough to lock me down at LMU.
I played Outside Hitter for the next three years on the indoor squad and played a total of two years of beach, my freshman and junior years. When I transferred to UCLA before my senior year, I had one year of eligibility left on the indoor side. Having sat out my sophomore year of beach at LMU, I was able to play two more years of beach with the Bruins.
How did your first year on LMU’s beach team differ from your first year of beach at UCLA?
I had great but very different experiences between my first year at LMU and my first year at UCLA. As I mentioned earlier, Betsi Flint was my idol. We played at the same club growing up. As I went into my first beach season that January of 2015, it was Betsi’s fifth year. Knowing we were both defenders, the first couple of weeks we were going neck and neck, not talking in practice, fighting over who had more points than the other, just wholeheartedly trying to beat the other out for the #1 spot. Then to our surprise, while calling out pairs for practice, our coach announced “Bets & Sponce.” A two-woman defensive team was formed.
From that day on, we got a total of four blocks on the season, and we earned a spot in the National Championship. Though we lost in the finals, that season has a special place in my heart. I had a great partner to look up to. Not sure how much I taught her, but I did make her laugh A LOT, so I say that counts for something.
My freshman year at UCLA was a completely different story. I was a senior entering a new team, a new atmosphere with new goals. My mindset going into my first beach season as a Bruin was, “I’ll do anything to get my team its first National Title.” I kept thinking, This is such an amazing opportunity and cool culture to be a part of.
As I look at college beach volleyball from the outside, the greatest part is how it is a full team sport. That season, it wasn’t about just my partner and me securing a win; it was about pushing each and every one of my teammates to make sure we were ALL prepared to secure a W on our respective courts. It was to make sure there was no DOUBT in the finals on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Gulf Shores (which there was not). That day, we brought UCLA back its 116th National Title and UCLA Beach Volleyball its first.
That’s so amazing. And I know your last year at UCLA was a little different and crazy busy. You were trying to win a second National Championship with the Bruins but also preparing for a professional career with Kelly Claes. What did that spring semester look like for you?
My final semester as a Bruin was one of the most demanding I had in my college career. Though I was taking only one class in my winter quarter, I was being pulled between UCLA practices and lifting, while also practicing and training with Kelly for my first year on the pro tour.
One thing that helped tremendously was the flexibility my UCLA coaches gave me. Some days were great. But other days included driving to Huntington (1.5 hours) early in the morning to practice with Kelly, then driving back to UCLA to get a quick lift in before heading up to Sunset Recreation Center for UCLA’s afternoon practice. It was hectic, but man did I have some amazingly supportive teammates and coaches surrounding me that helped keep me on track. And can I tell you that it was well worth it securing our second National Title last May.
Unbelievable dedication. And it paid off in your success with Kelly at your first AVP in NYC when you won second place. So how does the level of play differ between amateur and pro?
There are a lot of differences, but the two that stick with me are attention to detail and the mental aspect of the game. The athletes I’ve played with at the highest level are not only fast and strong (which lots of college players are, too), but the biggest thing is that they live and breathe “details.” Many times the score will be back and forth ’til the last two points of a match, and wins come down to detail at those crucial moments.
Are there any aspects of college that are harder than pro?
Honestly, looking back, being a student-athlete is really hard. We have to balance classes, homework, social life, and sport. The thing I absolutely love about being a professional beach volleyball player is focusing on learning, growing, and getting stronger in solely the areas that mean the most to me. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck taking a class or having a group project that you have no clue how it will apply in any stage of your life.
It sounds like you were ready to move on when it was time to graduate. Since then, what has been the most significant lifestyle change? Besides not dealing with class and driving three hours every day to accommodate multiple practices.
There’ve been a lot of changes post college, but a significant change from college to the real world is managing relationships and friendships. College life is the best. You have your closest friends and teammates a hop, skip, and a jump away to watch Netflix, talk drama (yes, drama), and just enjoy each other’s company.
I quickly learned that very few people have that luxury after college to live directly down the hall or the next dorm away from their best friends. Some of my friends moved away, some moved home to save money, and others are still luckily in college. Friendships are hard!
After starting this new chapter, you definitely start to realize who your close friends are—who will reach out and invest the time to keep that friendship alive. In college, we are so used to interpreting friendship as spending every second together. But the truth is life hits hard and, though you might not be able to sit on the couch next to them every night and talk Bachelor drama, you will find little bits of time or weekend trips that keep that friendship alive. And when you do find those friends—hold them tight.
With that being said, I’m definitely still figuring it all out. But who isn’t?
To learn more about how Sarah Sponcil and her teammate Kelly Claes feel about leaving college, watch their full music video here. Also, visit www.sarahsponcil.com.