The journey back to the sport I love
I had always dreamed of being an Olympian ever since I was a little girl. It was my number one goal in life, something that I had decided I was going to achieve – and then spent the next decade trying to do it.
Fast forward to 2011, eight months out from the London Olympics, my dream was on track to come true. My beach volleyball partner Louise Bawden and I were looking very likely to qualify. But something didn’t feel quite right for me. My dream was going to come true, and yet here I was, nine months out from London, knocking on the head coach’s office door telling him I wanted to quit the sport entirely.
I had become a shell of myself. I was in a team and training environment that didn’t bring out the best in me. In fact, it brought out my worst. I had anxiety every morning waking up. I would feel sick to my stomach driving to training every day. I couldn’t sleep, I was on diets that kept me starving and I was stressed out of my mind. Was it any wonder that I started to shut down?
I say this all now, of course, with complete clarity on what I was putting myself through every day – but back then, I was on autopilot. And there was nothing to distract me. All I did was eat, sleep and breathe beach volleyball. Full-time. If I wasn’t overseas playing competitions, I was home training.
London came and went for me. I don’t remember much of it, I think I blocked a lot of it out. We didn’t have a great tournament, and the version of myself that rocked up to the London games was hanging on by a very tiny thread. I was depressed.
When I got back to Australia we were expected to get back into full-time training, which was my breaking point. I knew that as soon as my feet hit the training sand, I was done. Not with the sport, and not with Lou. I was done with feeling the way that I was feeling. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Great story huh?
I promise it gets better, but before it did – it got a little worse. A little strange. And very, very quiet.
Taking control of who I was
After London ended, I flew to Byron Bay to do a ten-day meditation course recommended to me by fellow Aussie Olympian Nat Cook. I must have had a “please help me” neon sign flashing on my forehead in London, because I barely remember the conversation with Nat and yet somehow two months later I had arrived in Byron ready for my ‘retreat’ that I thought I had been promised.
Turns out, not so much a retreat as it was an entire overhaul of my life. I had signed up for a ten-day Vipassana Retreat. Google it.
It set me on my path to change, and take control of who I was and how I felt.
It was ten days of silence and ten hours of meditation per day. You literally cannot hear anything except your own thoughts – and wow, did I get a front-row seat of what was really going on upstairs. It was the first time in my life I had actually stopped to really pay attention to myself and how I was really feeling and processing the way I was living.
Vipassana was a massive turning point for me in my life. Sure, I cried solidly for the first four days of the course, but by Day 5, I started to see things differently. I started to hear things within myself coming up to the surface. Things that I never would have addressed previously. By Day 6, my chronic shoulder pain disappeared (and has never returned), by Day 7 I was in the meditation zone, feeling a level of energy and confidence I hadn’t experienced before in my life.
Don’t get me wrong. Vipassana is hard work. But so worth it. It set me on my path to change, and take control of who I was and how I felt – and it ultimately was the first step I took in returning back to the game I love, and the dream I wanted to fulfil again, but consciously this time.
A left turn no one saw coming
After London, I came back to beach volleyball off and on. Tried to figure out new ways of playing and training, and with different partners. It really was a process of me trying my best to do something I had never done before – be in charge of how I wanted to feel. Sometimes I nailed it, and sometimes I didn’t. But all in all, it taught me how to figure myself out. What I like and don’t like, and how to speak my truth despite never feeling comfortable ever doing that before.
Part of figuring out my happy place on the court also meant that I wasn’t part of the Olympic program for Rio. I was named first reserve, but the teams going were fit and had fought hard to earn their spots. I wasn’t needed.
Post-Rio, and in the midst of me still trying to figure out how beach volleyball, the joy of my life, worked best for me and vice versa, representing my country again started to feel out of reach. It was heartbreaking to process potentially never playing again because the time I took to get myself mentally, emotionally and energetically on track to become the best player I possibly could be was also the time where other partnerships were formed in my absence – and where the window of opportunities for me started to close.
I was heartbroken, and incredibly lost at the prospect of having to walk away again because there wasn’t room for me as a top competitor.
I called the head coach to discuss how I could get back to the top, and within a matter of minutes, my time in the program was over.
But of course, life has a funny way of surprising you and reminding you that everything happens as it is supposed to – and just because I felt like my life was over, doesn’t mean it was anywhere even close to being so. Because I was about to take a left turn that I never saw coming. Until I had coffee with Bec Goddard, that is.
The very next day after leaving volleyball Australia, I was offered an AFLW contract with the Adelaide Crows. I was extremely fortunate. The sport was in its second season and female athletes from various codes were being signed to teams for their athleticism, professionalism and experience they could bring to clubs.
It was a crazy and incredibly different and exciting year for me. I hadn’t played AFL since high school, and yet there I was just a few short weeks later running around Footy Park with Erin Phillips, Chelsea Randall and, every now and then, Andrew McLeod! I was also running more than I ever had. I’m pretty sure that year of AFLW clocked up more kilometres of running than I had done in my entire life. Hats off to all AFLW players – some of the fittest, toughest and kindest people I have ever met in sport.
As my time at the Crows, and playing with Sturt in the SAWFL, came to an end, I decided to move to Sydney where my partner lived on the Northern Beaches – which has a huge beach volleyball community. I dabbled a little in it here and there, playing just socially of course. Alice Rohkamper, who I won the Junior Beach Volleyball Champs with in Bermuda in 2009, was in Manly, as were so many other great players to have a hit with from time to time. If I’m honest, I struggled to step back on the court, even for a fun game or two, because I knew deep down I missed competing.
Instead, I had managed to find some kind of rhythm outside of being a full-time professional beach volleyball player in Sydney. We lived in North Curl Curl which was absolutely beautiful, I had a good job in the city at a tech company and an adopted greyhound called Sterling. I was grateful.
Getting back in the game
Enter Nikki Laird. Also a former Junior Beach Volleyball Champion, and a Rio Olympian, I had known Nikki for years training and travelling together within the Australian Volleyball Program. We had always got along really well, both had a share of injuries throughout our careers, and had even tried to team up together before I left to go the Crows – but unfortunately at that time it wasn’t permitted to be.
So, when I saw Nikki at a friend’s hen’s party in November 2018, we naturally started chatting and comparing notes. Like me, Nikki felt she wasn’t done with the sport yet. She still had so much to give – maybe even still the best of herself to give and, also like me, she didn’t see the opportunities in front of her to do that. So, Nikki did what she does best: said what she was thinking:
“You should come and play with me”.
I think I might have laughed at her suggestion initially, especially because Nikki is a bit of a comedian – if you give her a microphone today, she’ll tell you I’ve had more comebacks than John Farnham. But this time, she was serious. So, we started talking about the ‘ifs’. If we did it, what would it look like? And what would be our motivation for coming back? We were aligned on everything almost instantly because, while it happened at different times, Nikki and I had been through a pretty similar experience – we just didn’t know that about each other until having that conversation mid-hen’s party.
We made a commitment soon after to each other to officially form our partnership and not aim for specific results or outcomes, but instead focus on playing the sport we both loved, for the love of it, and perhaps the opportunity to give back in some way shape or form one day. The rest, we figured, would fall where it may, as long as we were happy and healthy.
I had barely touched a beach volleyball in 12 months and I hadn’t competed in over two or three years. So, hats off to Nikki for assuming old Johnny Farnham had another tour left in her.
Because even I wasn’t sure – until I hit Manhattan Beach in November, just a few weeks after the hen’s party. Kerri Walsh, the superstar of our sport, needed another defender to play in her P1440 Beach Volleyball Series in US, and Nikki put me forward.
Nikki will say I’ve had more comebacks than John Farnham.
So I went – and I can say now, because it ended up working out okay for me, that I honestly wasn’t sure whether my body was going to remember what to do, or even hold up, until I hit the first play in the very first match I played.
This particular P1440 format was a round-robin, all 16 female players from around the world individually competing for themselves, swapping partners every game – which is such a fun way to play, especially with some of the best players from the World Tour. I managed to come second, losing the final to Rebecca from Brazil. Not only did I have the time of my life, but I also knew I still had it – and despite edging Kerri Walsh out of the final, she forgave me (eventually) and we forged this new friendship which I am so grateful for.
When I came home, Nikki and I started planning. Despite growing up playing beach volleyball on the Manly Beach, Nikki lived now in Adelaide, and I was of course in Sydney. So our time together was limited, but we also felt like being happy athletes, and living where we both separately wanted to live, was important to both of us – so we kept it that way.
Fast forward to March 2019, and we found ourselves at our first major 3 Star World Tour event, which just so happened to be held on Manly Beach. Here’s where I’m about to get all “Woo Woo” (as Nikki calls it) because something happened during those ten days that I can’t explain. We weren’t given a wildcard into the event, so we had to play a qualifying tournament to make the main draw. We figured, well if we qualify then that’s a good way to prove that we belong in 3 Star main draws, despite being a new team and this being our second tournament back. We were really happy to achieve that – earning our spot as seeds 31 out of 32 teams in the main draw. We then figured, if we could push the other teams in our pool, then that would help our confidence for the rest of the season – remembering of course to prioritise our love for the sport, not results.
Not only did we win our pool, but we won the round of 16, the quarters, the semis (sorry Kerri, again) and found ourselves in the gold medal match against another American team on Super Sunday. We were absolutely exhausted by this point – and probably a little shocked too. We had beaten some incredible teams, and we had played ten days of beach volleyball, and spent double the amount of time on the sand than our gold medal opponents. Whatever happened on that day, I felt like the universe was giving us a big thumbs up to keep going with this whole ‘playing with joy’ thing, and to let the results fall wherever they did.
We won the gold medal. In front of our family and friends, on Australian sand – and with the most fatigued legs I’ve ever felt. I’ll never forget it. It wasn’t about the gold medal or about proving we could do it to this person or that person – it was about how we felt on that sand, playing the sport that we loved and doing it the way that we wanted to do it.
Fast forward to today, and we’re now the number two team in Australia. We’ve spent the last year playing in Switzerland, Canada, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Germany, Poland, Mexico and Vietnam, and continue to focus on learning, growing and having a damn good time on the sand whilst we’re doing it.
Everything works out if you stop and listen
There was a time, not that long ago, where there’s no way I thought I could possibly head to a second Olympics. Tokyo 2020 is now Tokyo 2021, but we’re on track to potentially qualify ourselves. While the world is in lockdown, and with no beach volleyball events scheduled for the foreseeable future, I’ve been fortunate enough to take stock and reflect on how I got here again.
Everything works out if you stop and listen. That is what Vipassana taught me all those years ago after London. Every step you’re supposed to take, every pathway you’re supposed to go down, is there for you if you stop long enough to see it. Because more than anything, I have learnt that silence tells you everything you need to know.
It also helps you define what joy looks like for you. For me, I needed to have other things going on in my life aside from beach volleyball. Having nothing else in my life previously was the reason why I fell into a heap one too many times between London and Rio. I had no other reference point in my life for my own value and purpose. That was incredibly limiting – and put me into a box where I couldn’t be free to do all the other things that I didn’t even know I was good at. Turns out we have more than one purpose in life, we have many.
If Nikki and I make it back to the Olympics together, awesome. It will be the honour of my lifetime to have a chance to do it again, but better. Better for me. I have learnt not to chase what you think you want in life – and whilst I am so thankful to that little girl who set me the task of becoming an Olympian, if I could talk to her now I’d tell her that being an Olympian would absolutely be cool – but living a life where she gets to be and feel and think however she wants, well that’s the stuff worth aiming for.
When you focus on the joy of it all, the results will fall where they may. And I’ve been lucky enough to experience that choosing my own personal joy has gotten me here today. So, Olympics or not, that’s what I’m going to keep choosing every single day.