Travis Mewhirter, and a 2022 beach volleyball season unlike any other

Travis Mewhirter stretches out at the 2022 Manhattan Beach Open/Rick Atwood photo

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It’s a funny thing, how emotions change over the course of a year. I write these annual recap stories progressively, in little chunks throughout the season: On a balcony in Australia; a flight to Switzerland; jetlagged on a 12-hour layover in Istanbul; surrounded by snoring, bleary-eyed travelers; a hotel room in Florida; my couch in Hermosa Beach.

Each little passage reflects the feelings of the time in which I am writing about them. Some of them are triumphant, others melodramatically sad, some wistful, others nostalgic. Then, when the final ball has landed, and the sand of some 20-plus tournaments has washed down the drain, I attempt to weave them together in a somewhat coherent reflection, allowing the passage of time to smooth the raw edges of those emotions, both the highs and the lows.

Most years, there is no single feeling that can underscore an entire season. It’s as volatile as you might expect from an athlete whose happiness largely hinges on the whims of wins and losses, both of which come in abundance when playing as much as I do most seasons.

But this year was different, in ways that a year may never be different for me again.

There was a sense of finality to this season.

That sense of finality left me with a single descriptor: Pure.

I knew, with every serve, every practice, every win, every loss, every error, every swing, that this season was going to be the last one in which Delaney and I could live the way we do, the way we have since the day we met in Austin, Texas, in May of 2018. Buying plane tickets without a second thought. Playing anything we wanted. Traveling internationally and domestically, on the road nearly as much as we were home.

Many of you reading this might assume that this finality of sorts came in mid-August, when Delaney sidled up next to me on our couch in Hermosa and asked if there were room for two more.

She was pregnant. More than halfway there now, too. Due April 17.

But that assumption would be, while not totally incorrect, not entirely right, either.

This is not the first time Delaney has been pregnant. And it was, in actuality, that first pregnancy that changed our worlds forever.

Quite a shock, that first pregnancy was. Found out on October 29 of 2021, the night after Tim Brewster and I upset Billy Allen and Andy Benesh in a country quota that would send us to Itapema, Brazil, a few weeks later. Three straight tests confirmed that, indeed, Delaney was carrying a child. (A fourth test, taken by me, a dash of humor thrown into an otherwise humorless night, confirmed that the tests were legitimate.)

Travis Mewhirter-Delaney Mewhirter
Delaney and Travis Mewhirter at the Itapema country quota, the day before they found out Delaney was pregnant the first time/Stephen Fitzgerald photo

We’d always wanted kids, but were we ready? Is anyone ever ready? Delaney was still in her prime as a player. I was, I felt, nearing mine. But for a kid? My kid? My son or daughter? I would, I glumly decided, have to get a real job, like the ones I used to have, with dependable pay, benefits, the standard stuff human beings do when living a standard life. We could move, as we always planned to do when we began having kids, to a cheaper area, somewhere quiet, somewhere south. Maybe Tennessee. North Carolina. Montana had a brief moment, as did Wyoming. Somewhere with land. We could stay in California, too, and maybe we’d scramble a bit, figure it out as we went.

The moment I saw those two lines appear on three straight pregnancy tests altered the lens through which I view this globetrotting beach volleyball life. For 99 percent of us, playing beach volleyball is a hobby, something we pay money to do in exchange for pleasure, stories, and a line on our resume that reads “Professional Beach Volleyball Player.” If Delaney and I were to start a family, that hobby isn’t as reasonable — not that it’s ever really reasonable, in a logical sense — as it was since I began pursuing it at a professional level when I moved to California in the fall of 2015.

There have been brief glimmers of hope that I could cross the chasm of hobbyist to professional: making main draw in Austin of 2018, briefly jumping into the top 12 of the USA Volleyball rankings, which technically makes you a member of the National Team, stunning Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner in Russia in 2021.

But all of that was viewed through the prism of an individual. And with no other responsibilities to which to attend, maybe I could do it, and continue investing in it over the next few years, maybe all the way through the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 2028. But as a husband, and soon to be father, it seemed an even sillier dream than it did before. Two-thousand dollar flights, which once seemed, impossibly, reasonable investments, opportunities to earn points to get into more events in which I’d spend $2,000 on flights for more points, had their shifty guise lifted from them: I wouldn’t be able, nor would I want, to do that as the main financial provider of a family of three.

Now, I’d still play the 2022 season. I’d just choose my tournaments with a little more care.

As December of 2021 approached, Delaney and I quietly began assuming the roles of new parents. We bought a tiny Christmas stocking to hang by the tree. Zana Muno was already the de facto aunt, and it was Zana who permanently altered Delaney’s perspective on the matter of an unexpected pregnancy. So excited was she the evening Delaney told her — the only person we told — that she FaceTimed us twice that night. She cried. Delaney cried. It was contagious, that excitement. Delaney’s reservations about being a young mom were washed away by Zana’s enthusiasm.

She was ready.

We were ready.

We fully embraced the fact that we were going to be parents.

And then the kid stopped growing.

We didn’t find out until the 10-week mark, but an ultrasound showed that, three weeks prior, the heart stopped beating. There would be no baby. Strange day, that. Strange 10 minutes. Never before had I felt such an odd mix of conflicting emotions. I looked first to the doctor, confirming that, yes, there would be no baby. I looked to my wife, who was as confused as I was: What did she mean there was no baby? A hollow sadness began forming, and then, I must admit, a sense of relief. Then came an overwhelming sense of guilt about that sense of relief. This was followed by an unfamiliar, profound emptiness. Somewhere along the lines, I had accepted this new life and buried the old. I was fine mostly leaving beach volleyball among the other irresponsible hobbies I had largely abandoned in college and in the immediate wake of it.

Now what?

Now there was that impending sense of finality to this 2022 season, a sort of second — and likely final — chance to fully pursue life as a professional beach volleyball player. We both knew, from the moment we saw the ultrasound and didn’t hear a heartbeat, that we’d try again as soon as we could. Delaney didn’t care to play another point of a beach volleyball match: She just wanted to be pregnant again. I went the other direction, figuring I’d play as many points as I could before the responsibilities of a child would limit both my ability and desire to do so. It made for a good laugh when, this fall, we told the world that Delaney was pregnant, and both Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb texted me, informing me of what I already knew: It’s time to stop taking trips to Cape Town, South Africa, on a whim.

Travis Mewhirter
Travis Mewhirter at the Cape Town Elite 16/Volleyball World photo

Oh, yes, I knew. Which is why I hit the road as I did this season, jetting to Tlaxcala, Mexico, on two days’ notice with Tim Brewster, despite being the 31-seed in a Challenge event, severe underdogs. It’s why, one week later, I hopped on another flight to Australia, for a Futures event, and it’s also why, despite losing in heart-wrenching fashion, blowing a 17-13 second-set lead in the final round of the qualifier, it didn’t hurt so bad. I cared. Truly, I did. But not in the same manner I once did.

When you lose a child, even at just 10 weeks, what is losing a beach volleyball match?

Tragic as that day may have been, it gifted me a permanent reframing to how I viewed this sport, and the incredible life it has given me.

I shrugged off that loss and immediately looked to the sunny side of the predicament. For two days, I had stared longingly from our balcony at the waves breaking, consistently and perfectly, on the shores of Kirra Beach. Without a beach tournament to play anymore, I could grab a board and surf.

When would I ever have the freedom to go surfing in Australia again?

Cody Caldwell, Adam Roberts and I picked up a few rentals and we surfed and surfed and surfed. It was sublime. I remember walking off the beach that day, neurochemicals washing through my veins, wondering if I’d ever had that much fun doing anything in my entire life.

It was a different sort of high than winning a beach volleyball match, or standing on a podium, or qualifying. There is something undeniably spiritual about surfing, or backpacking. Fulfilling, in a deeper way than winning is. Long lasting. I don’t think primal would be the wrong word to use. It’s a calmer rush, more serene, as if you’re seeing the world in high definition, in all of its beauty for the first time. Psychedelic, in a sense, but even better than that, because it’s so very real.

The high after winning, on the other hand, is often compared to a drug, and justifiably so: It’s an immediate rush, the highest of highs — and then a freefall back to Earth. For 32 years, I’ve loved the rush of winning. Felt it every time I beat my brothers in H-O-R-S-E in our hoop in the driveway. Every time I rolled in a birdie putt and closed out a match. Every time I beat someone to the wall in a pool. Every time I won a set, a match, a tournament. Like any drug, it’s dreadfully addicting, requiring more and more and more of it. You crave it. Winning becomes a sort of false idol, hot air to blow up your ego. It makes you feel important. Superior. I don’t find it a coincidence that gold medalists suffer from bouts of depression in improbably high percentages. When you reach the mountaintop, when you tap that drug for all it’s worth, getting the highest of rushes straight to the veins, and then you return to the same world as the rest of the mortals, what else is there?

I can recall, as if I watched it yesterday, a 60 Minutes segment with Tom Brady in 2005. This was after he won his third Super Bowl. He had achieved all he could achieve in the sport of football. What more was he seeking?

“There’s got to be more than this,” he said.

“What’s the answer?” he was asked.

The question left an amused sort of look on Brady’s face that was both dark and searching and genuinely curious, until he shook his head and gave a simple response:

“I don’t know. I wish I knew.”

Even after you win a Super Bowl, or a gold medal, or the Manhattan Beach Open, the world moves on, and you’re left the same person you were before. But being the same person you were before no longer seems to be enough. And so goes the cycle.

I love winning. Still do. But the role that the chase for the brief rush of winning was playing in my life reversed itself the moment I knew Delaney was pregnant, swapping positions with experiences of deeper satisfaction — building relationships, writing meaningful stories, exploring deeper and sometimes darker facets of cultures and peoples and countries. I traveled to Cuba in search not only of the silver medal that Tim and I would eventually win, but to scratch a deep itch I had about the country, its people, and its extraordinarily talented volleyball players. In the days that followed, I wrote what I think is one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. Losing in the gold0medal match was a disappointment, but the sweet satisfaction of exhausting every ounce of mental energy to write that story, to get to know its complicated country and people just a bit better, was no match for the blip of a high that winning a gold medal would have provided.

Travis Mewhirter-Tim Brewster-Cuba
NORCECA medal stand in Varadero, Cuba. Mewhirter and Brewster are on the left/NORECECA photo

I re-evaluated my schedule, picking and choosing my events with more care. I didn’t play an AVPNext in San Antonio, which served as the AVP New Orleans qualifier, for no other reason than because I didn’t want to. There was nothing there for me. Instead, I used the time to write a monstrous and long-overdue piece on the history of beach volleyball in Louisiana, another that provided a deep sense of fulfillment. I went to New Orleans with Delaney and felt, surprisingly, no FOMO when I sat there and watched all of my friends play beach volleyball on the stage to which I aspire. I golfed with my good friend Matt Blanke instead of watching the semis and finals and didn’t think for a second what would have happened had I competed in San Antonio and maybe qualified.

Travis Mewhirter
“Coach” Travis Mewhirter/Rick Atwood photo

I no longer played events that “I should play” if I were truly pursuing this sport as a bona fide professional; I played what I wanted, when I wanted. I dropped out of a Challenge in Espinho, Portugal, an event with considerable implications for points — it was the lightest field for a Challenge I had seen yet — and chose instead to use that money to play a tournament on the Swiss Tour with my good friend Jake MacNeil.

There was nothing for me to gain from that trip to Kloten, Switzerland, a teeny little commuter town outside of Zurich, other than the simple pleasure of playing with a good friend in a new country I hadn’t yet explored. There were no points on the line, and barely any money.

I was playing beach volleyball simply for beach volleyball’s sake.

Switzerland became one of my enduring memories of the season, and I imagine it will be for some time. And so the season went: I sought fulfillment, not climbing the ranks, which once did feel quite fulfilling. Somewhere along the lines, that disappeared. I loved learning a new skillset in commentating, using a new platform to gush about the peers I’ve grown to love and admire so very much.

And then, in life’s lovely manner of irony, a funny thing began to happen: When I, alas, began to play for playing’s sake, and not for the chase of points and whatever else we’re supposed to play for, I reaped more success that I’d ever had.

The first AVP tournament I played after Switzerland was in Denver, with JM Plummer. Some thought this was an odd choice, given the fact that JM hadn’t really accomplished much of note on the professional level. But most don’t know JM like I do. JM is — and this may surprise you — the only person in the sport of beach volleyball who knew me before I had ever played beach volleyball. When I moved from Maryland to Navarre, Florida, in April of 2014, JM was coaching volleyball at Niceville High School, one of the most prominent schools in our coverage area at the Northwest Florida Daily News. Still, eight years later, my contact in JM’s phone reads ‘Travis Daily News.’

I knew, more than anyone, how good JM is at volleyball. We’d lived together for two years, though we only played two tournaments together, winning one, in Salt Lake City, and finishing second in another in Huntington Beach. We’d practiced together with varying frequency, and JM always delivered, against teams of the highest quality. As much as anything, we had fun, riotous fun, on the court. It was a mix of factors that led me to JM, his talent being one, but also his place in my life as a friend of many years.

Immediately, we started winning.

We attempted to qualify for five Pro or Gold Series tournaments — Hermosa Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Manhattan Beach, and Central Florida — and we did so in three of them. Twice, we beat the No. 1 seed in Tour Series tournaments; neither felt like a surprise. We finished the year with a career-high fifth in Central Florida, ending our season on a Championship Sunday and four consecutive top-fives.

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JM Plummer passes a ball at AVP Huntington Beach/Steve Gentry photo

Points, prize money, winning — it all mattered, and I’ll never deny that. But less so than the simple joy of playing did. Any psychologist will tell you that extrinsic rewards pale in comparison to the intrinsic, the joy and satisfaction that comes from within. The thrill of having a child — and that being taken away, and then restored again — returned beach volleyball to its purest form for me: I just played to play. And when you’re doing something for the intrinsic value of doing it, and doing it well, the results invariably improve.

But even with the career-best success we both had, whenever we felt the edges of burnout creeping, we took a break, even if that meant skipping tournaments, as we did in Seaside and, by extension, Chicago. It was tempting, of course, but to play volleyball for something other than the simple pleasure of playing volleyball — for main draw bids or prize money or points or what have you — wasn’t what we had done at any point in the year, and we weren’t about to begin now.

I stayed home and commentated rather than playing Seaside, though Delaney still played, finishing second, taking a secret along with her that she wouldn’t reveal until she’d return. When she did, she found me on the couch, reading, on the cusp of succumbing to a nap.

“Is there room for two more?”

She was pregnant.

There were no tears of sadness this time, no what-are-we-going-to-do moments. It wasn’t stressful for her to navigate the strange waters of such a drastic lifestyle shift. We were ready. She immediately buried herself in books on nutrition during pregnancy, gardening, cooking, puzzling, whatever, thrilled at the prospect of doing and learning something entirely new, outside of the realms of beach volleyball, really for the first time in her life.

Soon, four months from now, we’ll have a child, an extended ripple effect due, in so many ways, to beach volleyball. So yes, I’ll continue to play this game, in hopes that my son or daughter can learn and live as much as I have — more, hopefully — because of it, or maybe not; that will be totally up to them. And the game will continue to fluctuate. Tours will rise and fall, points will be earned and lost, podcasts will feature us bickering about this and that and formats and structures and qualifying systems and stories rich and wild.

But it will always be there, this game, and that, for me, regardless of the points and the prize money, will always be enough.

Travis Mewhirter
Travis Mewhirter prepares to serve at AVP Central Florida/Mpu Dinani photo

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