Emily Stockman and Kelley Larsen Are All In
It is a long way from Los Angeles to Ostrava. More than 6,000 miles to play, possibly, a single match. And when that single match is over, and you’re at the wrong end of it, those 6,000 miles home seem even longer.
Emily Stockman and Kelley Larsen were on that flight out of the Czech Republic. Thousands of dollars were spent. None earned. Questions creeped, as they do on soul-searching flights across the world.
“Is it all,” Stockman wondered, “really worth it?”
She thought of the hours spent on the beach, just her and Larsen and their coach, Evie Matthews. She thought of the grinding workouts with their new trainer in the Valley, the ones that leave even Stockman, who is as fit as they come, crawling out of the gym.
She sat back, taking inventory of all those hours, all those dollars, all the effort and pain and emotional toll, and looked at the bottom line.
“I have sacrificed so much,” she said, “And, we both have and our team has, and we worked so hard and put in so much time in the off-season to be this dominant team, and to start out the season the way we did, it was kind of a kick in the face.
“That was a mindset switch where: It’s absolutely worth it. We are good enough.”
Good enough would have been to qualify in their next event, in Warsaw, Poland, less than two weeks later. Good enough would have been to pick up enough points to get back out of those country quotas.
What Stockman and Larsen have done in the month since losing that country quota was take that kick in the face and apply the most basic rule of physics: Providing an equal and opposite reaction.
First came another flight across the world. Warsaw, Poland, this time. Another country quota. A win, 15-11 in the third set over Americans Betsi Flint and Emily Day. Then another, vanquishing Russia by 18 over two sets in the qualifier. And another, over the Netherlands. And another, over Canada. And another, over Laura Ludwig. And another, over Alix Klineman and April Ross. And another, over Brazilians Agatha and Duda.
“Jesus,” Matthews said, recalling that stretch that put them into the finals in Warsaw. “Murderer’s row.”
“There was nothing that could affect us: the environment or any outside factors,” Stockman said. “It felt like we were so locked in, every match, every point.”
Surreal is often mentioned by athletes in moments like that, when everything begins coalescing at once and dreams are suddenly becoming a tangible thing you can touch and wear around your neck. In that week, Stockman was living the vision she had of her career when she first began playing beach.
“Ever since I started beach volleyball,” she said, “my end goal was the Olympics.”
A silver in Warsaw was the tangible manifestation of it. There is no medal equivalent to the mindset shift that can come from strolling through murderer’s row without a single dropped set. There is no value placed on the points boost that silver gave Stockman and Larsen, jumping them to No. 3 in the U.S. and pushing them out of country quotas for the time being.
Amazing, the things that can happen in three weeks.
One Tuesday afternoon, you’re flying home from the Czech Republic, your tournament over five days premature.
The next, you’ve proven you belong in the conversation of best team in the world.
The loss in Czech and the current stretch are inextricably linked now. Losing in Ostrava “lit a fire under me,” Stockman said. “That’s not who we are. That’s not who I am as a player, because I know our potential and when we’re playing our best it’s proven we can beat anyone in the world. That set in, just ‘Ok, no more. We can’t play that type of volleyball because it’s not good enough, and we know we’re good enough.’”
Larsen knew. She’s always known. She knew when Stockman gave her the call two off-seasons ago. By then, Larsen had established herself on the AVP Tour with Flint. They made their first main draws together. They won their first tournament together. By any measurement, they were an excellent team, and Larsen knew it.
“We had a lot of success but I think for me, personally, we weren’t having as much success on the international level and that’s what my goal was: Win on the international level and make the Olympics,” she said.
In Stockman, she found a kindred spirit, someone whose goals mirrored hers and with whom, in a reverse of her partnership with Flint, international success came first. A fifth at the Gstaad Major preceded another fifth at the Vienna Major, two enormous results that staked their positions as Olympic contenders.
A full off-season followed. Working with Matthews. Working with the trainer.
“We hadn’t lost going into China,” Matthews said of the Xiamen four-star in April. “We hadn’t lost going into Brazil. Everyone we practiced with, we just didn’t lose.”
The line between success and disaster in beach volleyball is a razor’s edge. One off day, coupled with an unusually good one from the team on the other side of the net, can be the difference between a 17th and a second. It can be the difference between going home on a Tuesday and winning a silver medal.
For the first three events of the 2019 season, Stockman and Larsen teetered on the wrong side of the razor. They lost to Austria, 15-12 in the third set, to take 17th in Xiamen. In Itapema, 15-11 to Spain.
Coaches from China and Finland approached Matthews.
“I thought they looked pretty good,” the Chinese coach told Matthews in Xiamen, and Matthews shrugged and said, ‘Yeah, we lost to Agatha and Duda, the 2018 World Champs.’”
In Itapema, the Finnish coach said “‘Even that Austrian team, they played really well, it’s not like they played bad,’” Matthews recalled. “We just didn’t play as well as we should have. You just have to suck it up and deal with it, it’s not like ‘Oh shit, Evie changed these things and what are we doing?’ It’s not like we were losing to teams from South Africa and Nigeria. We weren’t losing to bad teams… You just need to be all in.”
And so they bought in. Completely. Fully. No more questioning if it was worth it. No questioning whether they were good enough. Now that razor’s edge has tipped. A three-set win in the country quota in Warsaw preceded that silver medal, their best finish on the world tour. Three three-set comebacks, a week later, fueled an undefeated run through AVP Seattle, their first domestic win as a team.
“I’ve seen teams go from last to first,” Matthews said, citing the blink-and-you-missed-it rise of Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, whom he coached in 2018. “Heather and Brandie lost in China then went to No. 1 in the world. I’m just trying to critique and make things a little better. That was murderer’s row, what we went through in Poland. To go through those teams, Jesus, it just wasn’t easy.”
It will not get easier, and they know that. They recognized as much in a loss to Australians Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho in the gold medal match in Warsaw.
“There’s still levels to the game,” Matthews said. “What’s awesome about those two girls is they accepted it, and there’s still another level.”
Now they know, with full conviction, they’re good enough to get to that level, that all of it – the thousands of miles and dollars, the workouts that leave even Stockman crawling out of the gym, the dark moments after country quota losses – is worth it.
They’re all in.
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