There comes a point when all great athletes know it’s time to let go. That time is now for our longtime DiG columnist, who is calling it a career and moving on to the next chapter.
By Canyon Ceman
My 15-year professional beach volleyball career ended abruptly at 12:10 p.m. on September 18th when the lining of my right testicle exploded. My final partner, Jonathan Acosta, and I were playing Brent Doble and Jesse Rambis in a qualifying match for the Manhattan Open. On the first play, I dove to my left to pick up a Rambis left side cut shot and squashed the jewel like a grape. Despite the pain, adrenaline and stupidity allowed me to play out the rest of the match in some vain attempt at salvaging my manhood. But I couldn’t dive, could barely run, and my mental focus was lost in a swirl of apocalyptic scenarios. It seems God – or whoever it is that makes the big plans and sends out the signs – wanted to make sure I got the message loud and clear:
Game over, career over. Time to move on.
In these last few years, as I lamented the decline of both my performance and my athleticism, my mom and wife frequently asked: “How do you think it will end?” Well, not like this! I knew retirement was coming. All the signs had been screaming it for months, maybe years. Because this was my last year, I chose to play out the season despite an uncomfortable condition called a hydrocele that has hampered me since June. (I’ll spare you the details, but you can google it if you want. It’s tangentially related to my lymphedema, a longstanding left leg swelling problem that hastened the demise of my athleticism in a variety of ways.)
I postponed corrective surgery and its month-long recovery until after my intended retirement at the Manhattan Beach Open. But that was supposed to happen after a few matches, a few nostalgic plays, one last run at Sunday. It was not to be. As abruptly as the final blow came, the process of my retirement, and the general diminution of my athletic prowess, has been a painful and slow fall from the top of the beach volleyball world.
I was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 2000 and 2001.
I was ranked No. 39 on September 18th when my ball busted.
The Beginning of the End
In 2000, I was 28. My skills and shoulder were peaking. My jump serve was potent. My sideout game was diverse. And the competitive fire was raging. I saw a five-year run at the top of the game in my future.
But then, in 2001, the AVP changed the rules to match the FIVB rules, which meant a smaller court, looser setting standards and rally scoring. While I’ve written way too many times about the unintended consequences of these changes to our sport, its most personal effects were to weaken my game dramatically. The rules made good serving less relevant, at least temporarily. Passing nasty jump serves and setting spinny passes became irrelevant, and shots became less available, especially my cutty. Translation: my biggest strengths were emasculated, and I became one of many right-side defenders fighting for his life.
Luckily for me, I had Mike Whitmarsh as a partner from 2000 to 2004. And just as my strengths were minimized, his huge block became even more of a factor. We put together a great four and a half year run ranked in the top three.
My final tournament win came in Tempe, Arizona in May of 2003. While I look back on my first win (Hermosa, 1997, with Dain Blanton) and a second underdog redemptive win at Grand Haven in 1998 with Mark Kerins as my two favorites, I think the best volleyball I ever played was in Tempe, 2003. My sideout game was powerful and diverse, and we beat Blanton-Nygaard, 15-12, in the third for my eighth and final victory.
It was all downhill from there.
“How did you think it would end?” I hear my mom asking. One could argue that I should have hung it up at that point. I was 32, had enjoyed an 11-year career beyond my expectation, had just met my future wife, was finishing my MBA at UCLA in winter with a quarter abroad in Melbourne, Australia, and I came back to an interesting business opportunity. Perfect time for transition, right? Go out on top, or darn near it. Like Jordan’s jump shot against Utah. Just walk into the sunset.
Not so much. Remember, Jordan came back to play two uninspired seasons for the Wizards. When you love your sport as much as I do, as much as most elite athletes do, it’s hard to let go. Even if it seems obvious to the outsider that the best years are past. Ask Brett Favre. If your passion for the sport still burns bright, if you feel most alive during the competition, if your life makes sense when focused around your sport, parting is such sweet sorrow.
I have played volleyball all of these years because I love the game. Lord knows it hasn’t been for the money. I love the lifestyle it has provided. I love the travel, the competition, the camaraderie, the sound of an admiring crowd as I hit or serve, the joy of exerting myself to total fatigue but being completely in the moment, a closely fought victory, the vulnerability of an emotional loss. I love the autonomy, the glorious freedom and flexibility of the off-season. I love the aesthetic beauty of a clean hand set, the energy of a center court match, the cathartic feeling of hitting the ball as hard as I possibly can. I love it all.
It’s hard to watch that love fade. It feels like falling out of love with a first love. Luckily, I’m able to fill the void with my growing love as a husband to Kim and father to Cayenne. Without them, I’d be even more of a head case than I currently am.
The Five Stages of Grief
Before 2004, when people asked when I would retire, my common answer would be: “When I don’t feel like I can win anymore.” There was a time I could have probably grabbed on to a rising young blocker. Mike Lambert, maybe. Or Matt Fuerbringer, Sean Scott or Jeff Nygaard. But by late in the 2004 season, my stock had fallen. I never again played with a top-flight player at the peak of his game, and I never again felt like I had a real chance to win a tournament. I’ll always wonder if I could have won a few more times or at least gotten some consistent top-eight finishes with the right partner.
Still, the passion and joy remained. So my answer changed to: “I’ll retire when I don’t feel like I can compete with the top teams.” And that feeling came this season.
The “Five Stages of Grief,” introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” are most suited to dealing with terminal illness or the death of a loved one, but they can also apply to athletic mortality or any meaningful life transition. In essence, I have been grieving the loss of my volleyball prowess since 2005.
Stage I: Denial
My diminished athleticism and defensive skills were revealed. I missed Whitty. My sideout game suffered as I adjusted from shooting bump sets, which suited my quick arm, to handsets, which revealed my dead legs. I played with Jason Lee and Chad Turner and thought we could compete for a Top 8 spot. I was wrong. I was in denial.
Stage II: Anger
In 2005 and 2006, my trademark emotional intensity took an ugly turn toward anger.
Anger at my lowered performance expectations, anger at a perceived lack of respect that left me without a Top 8 blocker. There was more yelling at refs, more visor throws, guttural yells of disapproval at my own play, banner kicking.
Stage III: Bargaining
Going into 2007, my mindset was: “Just give me one more season in the Top 8.” Matt Olson and I, both passed over by the Top 8 big men, put together a solid and fun season in 2006. We slowly worked our way up from the 16th to the 9th seed by playing the kind of volleyball I enjoy; ball control, mental toughness, strategic use of our strengths. We played a gazillion competitive matches against top teams, and we won our fair share, but we could never quite crack the Top 8. This was the last year that I felt physically good on the court.
Stage IV: Depression
An aging body, combined with diminishing respect and partner options, left me depressed in 2007. I became sad that this was what had become of a great career. A late-season shuffle put me back in the mix with Billy Strickland. We had some good wins and finishes but ended the season poorly. I felt apathy, like these events were no longer in my control or as important to me.
Stage V: Acceptance
In 2008, despite miserable and inconsistent performances, I’ve tried to enjoy my experiences. The last center court games, the last trips to Chicago and Boulder and New York. I have become reflective and enjoyed advising younger players. I would often say, “It doesn’t hurt as much. I am on the morphine.”
“He’s Lost A Step”
When an athlete slides down the backside of his physical abilities, we often say, “He’s lost a step.” But what does that mean, and what does it feel like?
In my case, as with many aging athletes, it wasn’t so much a single, catastrophic injury that brought the end but an accumulation of health issues that slowed me down just enough to take away my edge. A sprained ankle, a dislocated toe, arthritic and sore wrists or elbows, a constantly tight neck, inflexible hips, a hydrocele. And the real culprit, the tightness in the back that results from long-term training and biomechanical flaws, starts to steal your athleticism. This tightness comes in myriad forms, and from many sources, but it’s never a good thing. For me, it was my leg. For others, it could be a shoulder, knee, ankle, foot or neck.
Your warm up slows down to the point where you’re just waiting for the game to start to get the adrenaline surge that will allow you to overcome the pain. For a while, your mental powers and understanding of the game compensate for your loss of quickness and jumping ability, but when the body stops being able to do what the mind tells it to do, frustration and anger surge. Defensive plays that were once easy now seem impossible, and hitting angles that were once obvious are no longer available. You simply become less effective, and that makes the game less fun. So you practice less, because windy Tuesday mornings in February just aren’t what they used to be. (How did Karch do it until he was 46?) And sometimes you go through the motions. Then your precision fades, and you start losing to teams you don’t respect, and then you realize that they are better than you. Rankings and seedings fall. Finally, you become aware that other teams want it more than you do.
As emotional attachment fades, losses don’t hurt as much. It’s a lot harder to motivate to play for a 13th in a Friday afternoon match on Court 11 when you’re on the way down from the mountaintop than it is when you’re on the way up.
And then you’re in the qualifier.
And then your right ball explodes and it’s over.
Lymphedema: Blessing or Curse?
Finally, I’ll remind you that Lymphedema, the lymphatic deficiency that causes my left leg to swell 20% and weigh 10 to 15 pounds more than my right leg, makes me susceptible to debilitating infections and causes fluctuations in my strength and mobility. Over time, my jumping ability and quickness have decreased, and that has slowed my defense and limited my offensive options. That means I hit lower and get blocked more, my shots are in the air longer, and I pick up fewer shots on defense. By definition, I’ve lost a step each year. But I realize now that lymphedema is exactly the reason I’ve played as long as I have. While pure results suggested I retire a few years ago, I’ve been driven to see how long I could compete professionally despite this disease. When I look back on my career and my life, 15 years as a pro despite lymphedema is an achievement I’ll always cherish.
A Change in Priorities
In the past few years, my focus has broadened to more than just volleyball. Most important, of course, has been marriage and fatherhood. But I also went to business school at UCLA Anderson, lived and studied in Australia, traveled the world for six months with Kim and worked part-time as a turnaround and strategic/financial consultant.
Unfortunately, pursuing all these endeavors is inextricably linked to a decline in time and energy devoted to volleyball. Add that to the physical process I described, and the writing was on the wall.
When my daughter, Cayenne, was born earlier this year, everything in my life changed. My priorities. My decision-making processes. My time management. My entire view of what’s important in the world. And, certainly, my perception of my income needs. The paternal instinct to provide for your family doesn’t mesh well with the financial reality of being ranked below the Top 10 on the AVP. How easily I transition into this post-athletic retirement phase will depend on me finding a job that I can be passionate about, and hopefully that will happen before next March, when I might be tempted to start thinking about volleyball again. My search is now narrowly focused on strategy, finance, and business development roles in the sports industry. I hope to contribute in some way to sports in America and see where that leads.
As the end looms, an athlete can’t help but think about his legacy.
Did I leave it all on the court?
Hell, yes. I’ve given every last ounce of energy, physically, emotionally and intellectually to the sport of beach volleyball, and that gives me peace and closure.
What did I accomplish?
• Eight career victories and 10 years in the Top 10.
• I made the most of my talent and took advantage of all opportunities to lead a rich life.
• NCAA Player of the Year and Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.
And my regrets?
• No titles at the Manhattan Beach Open or King of the Beach. No Olympics. No NCAA Championship.
I feel amazingly fortunate to have had such a great 15-year run. I think fondly about the partners, competitors, friends, the experiences on and off the court, the family reunions, the adventures near and far, and the hours of practice and work at the best office in the world. I feel gratitude to those who made it possible: my parents and extended family and friends, my wife, the AVP staff, those who came before me in the sport.
As for beach volleyball itself, I always hoped, as every athlete does, that I would leave it in better shape than I found it. While the sport finds itself in the familiar position of financial flux due to business challenges, the spirit of the sport is alive and well in the U.S. and flourishing around the world. We have Olympic momentum, the gold medalists, a meaningful brand and a young and passionate group of players, most of whom you would genuinely like if you met. It may be a bumpy road, but I believe the best years of our sport both domestically and internationally lie ahead, and I will help that future develop in any way I can.