While volleyball is the sole job of many AVP pros, there are quite a handful of top players that balance another occupation. Whether it’s to supplement income or because they really love both, athletes like Sheila Shaw and Jess Sykora show us that a double professional life is challenging yet rewarding.
Megan Rice is no exception. She had her breakout year on the AVP in 2019, reaching the Finals of Hermosa. THE FINALS! So impressive. But knowing that she’s flying into tournaments from Florida where she works as a mechanical engineer just adds to her wow factor.
Megan’s story has a lot of twists and turns, as do so many who are led by passion. She’s an inspiration to those who are both wildly athletic and wicked smart. Both dreams are attainable, even though you’ll get a little less sleep and free time.
Megan Rice – Ironically, I think a big part of the reason I entered the beach volleyball world is that my priorities were always my education and career. That may sound odd – how can your job lead you to beach volleyball (unless, of course, beach volleyball was your job)? But, when I sat down and really gave some thought to my entire path, I realized that an emphasis on my career was an important theme that kept leading me back to the beach.
I played high school and club indoor as a teenager, and I worked hard to get good. Not like: “Amazing, top tier school, any choice I wanted good.” It was more like: “try a smaller D1 school and maybe get a starting spot good.” I wanted to be scholarship-worthy, but didn’t expect a full ride to a volleyball powerhouse university.
But even through my hard work, two factors deterred me from following the college volleyball route:
- I wanted a premier education from a larger university, where I’d be an indoor volleyball walk-on at best.
- My major, mechanical engineering, was very time intensive with projects and dense material. The time required for college athletics probably would not have allowed me academic success in that field. Mad props to those who do both – it’s tough!
I pursued education over volleyball. I chose the University of Florida and was fortunate to receive enough academic scholarships to pay for my tuition.
Even though I didn’t play college ball, I still loved the game and wanted to play recreationally. It’s tough to organize people for “fun” indoor volleyball that doesn’t resemble a family reunion. So, I looked instead to beach volleyball. My mom plays, so I learned the game through her. Even though I didn’t play much growing up, I started joining her “old ladies” group on Saturday mornings during my senior year of college. Didn’t take long before I caught the beach volleyball bug. Looking back, I doubt I’d have discovered beach until much later had I chosen the college athletics route. Through a twist of fate, prioritizing my education led me down the path to get started in beach volleyball.
But make no mistake – I wasn’t any good. I was playing in AA tournaments and getting my butt kicked by anyone and everyone. Beach was all just for fun while I went to college. I played club indoor and pickup games on the sand courts at UF. Eventually, I started to get better. I competed in Open tournaments during the summer, actually placing in some of them. At that time (2014), I still didn’t even know what the AVP was – what comprised a professional beach volleyball event, or the level of world-class athletes competing on tour.
While squeezing training and pickup games between classes at UF and a little summer help from some veterans, I kept improving. Eventually, I started winning local tournaments and playing on the NVL. Then I won an NVL.
In 2016, I earned a coveted spot to the MBO through the AVPNext series. We took 9th, but that trip made me realize the AVP’s prestige. I realized I could play on the Tour as more than just a hobby. That same year, I graduated cum laude from UF with a Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. Because most tournaments were during the summer, I didn’t have to worry about classes interfering. But I had a taste of the work-play balance during summer internships, from which I’d request time off to go to events.
After graduation, I had the opportunity to use my fifth year of eligibility to play beach volleyball for FAU. That was a no-brainer – the school was in my hometown, I knew the coaches, and I could start a master’s program. It was a great experience. While there, I started toying with the idea of pursuing beach volleyball full-time once my eligibility ran out.
Unfortunately, I injured my right wrist but played with the injury through most of the NCAA season. This forced me to take the entire next year off to rehab (for reference, it was to the point that I couldn’t wash my hair in the shower or use a fork with my right/dominant hand because I was in so much pain). The healing process took so long that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to compete again. I decided, heck, I’m going to get a job; I have to stay busy. So, in another twist of fate, just as pursuing education led me to beach volleyball, beach volleyball sent me back to a career in engineering.
I accepted a job at an engineering company close to home. After about a year, my wrist healed enough to start playing righty again (I’d been working on my southpaw in the meantime). It wound up being a blessing in disguise – I was able to get situated, figure out my life a little, and I could play lefty, too.
I decided to use vacation days to play in some AVP qualifiers. My boss knew that I played but didn’t understand the amount of time it takes to commit to a professional sport. The biggest problem was my company didn’t allow me to use my already accrued vacation time. I only weaseled enough days to go to three events in 2018 and did not qualify for any.
I remember thinking how close I was to making this AVP Main Draw dream happen (losing a tight three-setter in the round to get in) even with circumstances that weren’t in my favor. I needed to make a change.
I was unhappy at my first job for many reasons, but the lack of work-life balance was a major one. I actually like working; I love mechanical engineering. It’s simultaneously challenging and creative and intriguing. But after I was denied my accrued vacation time again, I decided not to settle for a job that didn’t allow me to chase beach volleyball. I stayed at my first job one year and eight months before I resigned.
Before accepting my current job, I requested all the vacation days for AVP 2019 upfront, offering to do leave without pay or work the weekend if necessary. Fortunately, all were granted sans stipulations. So I took the offer at Johnson Controls, and it wound up being the BEST decision. I had more interesting work, more vacation time, and a better work-life balance.
I also had a boss who cared. Last year in Hermosa, I texted him on Sunday that we were in the Semifinals. He not only watched every single Sunday match, but he also sent the Amazon Prime link to our division director to watch as well. He knew nothing about the AVP before, but now he’s invested and tells everyone about my beach volleyball endeavors with genuine excitement. It’s essential to have a job that understands what you are doing when you work full time and play professionally. It’s even more amazing to have such support from my colleagues.
That leads me to today. A typical day for me starts around 7am (I need my sleep!). I eat breakfast, pack up a lunch, and head to work (though right now, I’m working from home). My workday is typically from 8am until 4-5, depending on my workload for the week. I work in a test/development group, where we design new products, then put them through their paces to make sure they are ready for the consumer. I get to play with machines that pull, slam, tumble, shock, and utterly destroy whatever is inside.
After work, I dig into my bag of snacks on the way to either practice (4x a week, including weekends) or the gym (2x a week). For practice, it’s about 50/50 of having a group of girls to train with vs. just me and my boyfriend. In Florida, the quality of the ball is not much different than in California, barring the top 5ish AVP teams, but there are fewer players of that caliber. So it’s harder to consistently get a training group. After practice or a lift, I’ll head home, have dinner, rehab and stretch, and hang out with my boyfriend before heading to bed.
During tournament weeks: I fly out Wednesday night after work, which for the California tournaments puts me in LA at 2 am Florida time (I just hope extra hard we don’t have the 8 am qualifier match). I usually try to fly back on a Sunday midday flight. But that doesn’t always work if you make a deep tournament run. After the 2019 Hermosa finals, I literally ate, showered, and hopped on a red-eye back to Florida. I arrived Monday morning just in time to take a cat nap and head to work.
Balancing work and play comes naturally because of my ambition and drive to keep improving. Despite the challenges, it’s what I’ve found as my norm. I may continuously bite off more than I can chew, but I have the greatest adventures because of that. And who knows, maybe in the future, my career will lead me wholly towards the beach. And then back again.