Moms in beach volleyball

Beach Volleyball Motherhood: The Trying, Testing, Challenging, ‘Best Heaven on Earth Scenario’

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Kim DiCello can already feel the change, which swept her life abruptly, unexpectedly, perfectly. It will be impossible to say who’s the most surprised by it. Could be her those she’s played in beach volleyball for so many years, the recipients of, DiCello says, some accidental staredowns here and there. She never really meant to do it. They just kinda came out. Competitive, you know?

Could be her co-workers, with whom she had been more than a bit of a Type A. Could be her own husband, Mark, an Italian with a playful demeanor that their child, Luca, has already recognized as the parent to go to when it’s fun time.

Or, perhaps, it’s DiCello herself. She didn’t expect any of this, the sweeping changes that inevitably occur when one becomes a mother. And, to a greater extent, nobody can.

“You can’t predict it,” said DiCello, one of the many new mothers on the AVP and FIVB Tours this season. “You can’t plan it. There’s no way you can know what changes you’re going to go through but it’s so cool to discover this whole new dimension of yourself.”

She’s only just scratching the surface, DiCello. Luca is less than a year old. She’s only just returning to the sport in which she never expected to hold membership of the winner’s circle. And when she did, just last weekend in Huntington Beach, what she found was that her love of competing wasn’t lost, but amplified. Her edge may have been softened, but she had discovered within herself a different sense of self, of what it means to be on the court and the bigger purpose off of it.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking through recently. You change and these changes happen and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to process how you’ve changed and to understand. What I’ve realized is, since the baby was born, it’s been 10 and a half months, before the baby I was a really intense, fierce competitor, and not angry, but maybe a little feisty,” DiCello said. “After having the baby, oh my gosh this flipped. All of a sudden I have this softness and sweetness and tenderness that I had no idea was in me. I don’t think anything could have pulled this out other than the experience of having a baby.

“It’s been so interesting for me to get back on the court. All of a sudden there’s this gentleness, this patience, this calmness. I firmly believe that those qualities are things that make me a better person, and in being a better person I can leverage those into being a better teammate and an athlete, competing at a higher level, but I think it’s gonna require kinda reworking and figuring out how these pieces work together now.”

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That, more than anything, is a task no other athlete can understand other than mothers in professional sports. Starting a family is a big enough decision, one in which so much is unknown, uncertain. But for women in professional sports, this means months of sitting out while pregnant, months of sitting out while nursing the child, months of getting back into shape – and still not knowing if it will come back or, perhaps more uncertain, if you’ll even want to.

“It’s such a big decision as a pro athlete because you have to step away,” said Kerri Walsh Jennings, who has managed to pull off the remarkable feat of winning as many gold medals as she has children.

Like DiCello, Walsh Jennings didn’t know. Didn’t know how her body would respond. Didn’t know how her mind would respond. For a decade, she had been playing volleyball at the highest level. Already been to three Olympics and won two golds, with Misty May Treanor. It was all beginning to feel a bit trivial.

“I had been playing ten years and I was ready and then I had these two boys back to back and I was like ‘Watch out. I love this,’” Walsh Jennings said, and on the weekend she discovered she was pregnant with her third, she won her third gold medal, in London.

“It was a breath,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh my God I can cut the tension of this gnarly tournament!’ It was after our first or second match, and I kind of put the timing together and some signs started showing up. It was amazing for sure, and it just made an amazing story that much better. It was very special.”

What timing, too. Joey and Sundance were born back to back, in 2009 and 2010. Had to, really, if Walsh Jennings wanted to make a run at London. It’s a bit funny, the two years following an Olympic Games: two years of beach volleyball baby booms. Laura Ludwig of Germany won a gold medal in 2016 and, not so coincidentally, announced that she was pregnant shortly after.

“You just have to be fertile at the right moment,” Walsh Jennings said, laughing. For some athletes, the timing is everything. They need the points to freeze just so, and enter back into their prime at just the right time. For others, starting a family could mean a timing of something different altogether: The end of one life, the beach volleyball life, and the beginning of another, the maternal life.

Katie Jameson – formerly Katie Lindquist, as she’s more commonly known in beach volleyball circles – knew her beach volleyball clock was just about up. Her and her sister, Tracy, had competed for 10 years. They’d done the traveling, hit the beach after to train every day after work. They had done the grind. It was time.

“I wasn’t ready to give up my career, so once you have kids, you can’t have a full-time career, have kids, and play volleyball, because you’d never see your kids,” Katie said. “Even when we were on the tour, it was for fun. We weren’t making a living off of it. We had jobs so we could still support ourselves, so the beach volleyball was kind of on the side. So once we had kids, we were like ‘Well we’re not going to keep working and then train until 6 or 7 at night and not see our kids all day.’ It was a no brainer for me to not play volleyball seriously anymore. You just can’t have allll of it.”

Now you can find them playing for two hours on Sundays. Queen of the Court. Just for fun. They’re neighbors with the Gibbs, Jake and Jane, so beach volleyball is still very much a part of their lives, only the role has been lessened. They’ll play the Huntington Beach qualifier every year, or maybe they won’t.

“Sometimes it’s pretty,” Katie said, laughing. “Sometimes it’s not.”

It’s always worth it. Doesn’t matter the level. Whether it be Kim DiCello, who won New Orleans of 2016 with Kendra Van Zwieten; or Walsh Jennings, who founded a start up business while making a run at Tokyo 2020; or the Lindquists, who played for fun while holding a full-time job teaching; or Janelle Allen, who’s a regular top-10 finisher and thought she’d have retired altogether when her son, the affable and gregarious Ketch, came along.

“I didn’t actually plan on playing,” she said. “I thought volleyball would be over once we had Ketch.”

Not that volleyball would have been forgotten. It’s role simply would have changed. Her and Ketch would be cheerleaders for dad, Billy Allen. Maybe she’d play for fun or, like the Lindquists, pop in a tournament here and there, just to see. But they decided to give it a shot, bring Ketch on tour, see how it goes.

In their first tournament as parents, at AVP New Orleans, “literally Billy was looking for someone to hand him off to,” Janelle said, laughing. “I was still playing and he had to warm up and he found some friendly faces and was like ‘Hey, do you mind watching our kid? My wife’s gonna be done in 10 minutes.’”

It’s four years later, and Ketch is now well-known enough amongst families on tour that friendly faces abound. People are happy to watch him. And anyway, Ketch is happy to watch mom and dad.  

“Ketch is really funny. He’s cheering for us at practices, like ‘Go momma go!’ He’s at that stage where he’s cheering, and he’s getting competitive himself,” Allen said. “He doesn’t like to lose.”

Ironically, Ketch – and the rest of the children on tour – make losing that much more bearable, more miniscule. Priorities change when children come along. No longer can one retreat to the ocean, dwell on the loss, sulk. There are mouths to feed. Children to entertain.  

“It is interesting to be in a space where something is far more important than your sport, but I firmly believe that this sport is making me a better mom,” DiCello said. “That’s your number one priority and nothing else comes even close. You don’t really want to give your attention to much else. When is there going to be a period in your life when you’re going to be able to put aside three or four months and just focus on that?”

Moments after winning a country quota match to earn a spot in a four-star FIVB qualifier, in Jinjiang, China, Walsh Jennings grew emotional talking about exactly that. Soon, she’ll be on a flight, to Itapema, Brazil, for another country quota, another qualifier, another – maybe – main draw. Then it’s China. And Czech. She’ll catch first communion but miss a birthday. She’ll get closer to the Olympics but will be thousands of miles from home.

“It’s the best heaven on earth scenario, because I have my two biggest passions in life – my family and my career in volleyball,” Walsh Jennings said. “I will cry if I tell you how hard it is. I don’t want that energy in my life because it’s not a sad thing. It’s so amazing to love so much but it’s gnarly. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder. Ninety-nine percent of my job is amazing, but missing my family is the worst.”

DiCello isn’t there yet. Isn’t ready to do international travel again. She didn’t expect it, either. She thought she’d be ready. Mark is great with kids. Just pass Luca off to Mark, hit the road, play ball. It’ll be fine. Only, when she went to buy the flights, she couldn’t do it.

“That surprised me,” she said. So Austin will be the first time she travels without Luca. She’ll miss him, but she can also feel his effects on the court, and she can feel what the court has taught her about being a mother.

“My journey in the sport already has and will make me a better mom,” she said. “I’m really interested in how I can use the sport to be a better person. I really think the sport can be a platform for growing as a person, and as I’m working through that process, I’m becoming a better mom.”