Phil Burrow: One of Earth’s Two People to Play Beach Volleyball on Every Continent
A man bought a soccer ball in Myanmar.
This, to most Americans, is so mundane and normal you’d never — or rarely, at least — hear anyone claim or write about a single person buying a single soccer ball. Yet that man in Myanmar was not an American at all; he was just a local Burmese gentleman who wanted to buy a soccer ball for an orphanage of more than 300 boys who had one lonely and worn soccer ball. That purchase was the moment the direction of Phil Burrow’s life changed course.
“It was just so moving that this guy was willing to give up so much of the hard-earned money he makes to support his local orphanages and give him joy,” said Burrow, who bought 10 more balls and a volleyball to donate to the orphanage. They played with the boys, peppered around, until it was time for bed and Burrow returned to his hotel, where he promptly broke down.
“I wrote down everything that I felt and saw and from that moment on I knew that I wanted to move my photography into non-profit work the whole time,” Burrow said. “None of that would have been possible without volleyball.”
He points to that moment at the store with the Burmese man as the one that altered his life, but in reality, his life direction had changed four years earlier. He just hadn’t known it. Four years earlier, he had met a young man named Jeffrey Gilbert, a pilot for American Airlines who was good at flying and terrible at beach volleyball.
“You could beat him with a beer in your hand,” Burrow said. But Gilbert wanted to become, not good, per se, just serviceable. Enough of a challenge that guys would have to at least show some effort to beat him.
So Gilbert hired Burrow, a South Carolina native who was living in South Beach, Miami, at the time, to coach him. Up the ranks they went: A the first year, AA the second, AAA and open the third.
“On that fourth year, he was like ‘I want to go play internationally,’” Burrow said. “And I was like ‘(Heck) yeah bro, go do it. You’re a pilot. You can do it. Have fun.’ And he said ‘I want you to come coach and play.’ And I said ‘All right.’”
Thus Burrow’s life changed in a great many directions: They went north and south, east and west, to climates that were unbearably hot and dangerously cold. They did this because their mission was not necessarily to win a bunch of tournaments, but to see where the sport could take them, to see if they could become the first humans to play beach volleyball on all seven continents.
Maybe that was a difficult goal to truly believe, at first, until they took their first trip, in December of 2017. They picked the only spot in the world that can rival Southern California for the sport’s popularity as their launching pad: Rio de Janeiro, the heart of the most formidable beach volleyball country on the planet.
“That trip really opened my eyes to the potential that I could travel the world,” Burrow said, so much so that when he returned to South Beach he packed his bags, decided not to renew his lease and, for the next year, “lived like a nomad.”
On the rare occasion that he was in the United States, he couch-surfed. And when he wasn’t? Take a tack, throw it on a map and there’s a chance it would stick somewhere in the world that Phil Burrow had been.
They went to New Zealand for three weeks, playing on the national tour there, meeting up with Americans Adam Roberts and Eric Zaun, Ian Satterfield and Troy Field, Ryan Meehan. Between tournaments Gilbert would drive all over the country, going seven hours through the night so Burrow, a professional photographer, could capture sunrises, then hauling another seven hours to catch a sunset.
“I’m walking through the woods in the rain, there’s no one else around, but then it starts to clear up, and I get to this lake, and it’s super peaceful and quiet and just me,” he said. “I’m the only person there. Most beautiful places in the world are polluted with photographers. You’re very rarely alone in a beautiful place. I just sat there, and it was miserable conditions, but I was happy and at peace and I just sat there in the South Island of New Zealand. It was just real.”
One of those moments that is so real that it verges on the surreal, as much of the rest of the trip was. While Gilbert returned to the States, Burrow met some friends in Thailand for six weeks. It was there, in Thailand, where he met the Burmese man spending a week’s wages to buy a single soccer ball. It’s there that he’s convinced his life changed directions entirely but really all it did was open his sails, and he was just going to go wherever the world’s winds took him.
It took him and Gilbert to Japan and Poland and down to Cape Town, the southernmost tip of Africa.
Since Burrow had already competed in Australia, and he and Gilbert knocked off North America, it left, then, just one continent remaining: Antarctica. Traveling to Antarctica is, as one might guess, not the easiest thing to do. Burrow and Gilbert decided to go via Ushuaia, which is just south of Argentina. From Ushuaia, you get on a boat, and for three days you do your best to stay afloat through Drake’s Passage, some of the roughest seas in the world, named after the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake in September of 1578.
“We were sitting at dinner one day, and when you walk into the banquet hall, the chairs have chains on them, and there was this stand, and it fell completely over while we were having dinner,” Burrow said. “I took a lot of Dramamine on that trip.”
Not quite enough to knock him out for three days but enough for him and Gilbert to make it to Antarctica in one piece. They didn’t have permits to play volleyball on Antarctica – “You literally need permits to run,” Burrow said, not joking in the least – so Burrow put out a Facebook post and hosted a volleyball tournament on the boat.
“And the World Record states,” he said, “we have played volleyball on all seven continents.”
The record itself is still being legitimized by the Guinness Book of World Records, though whether it does or does not get approved isn’t really the significance of the journey. He didn’t fully realize, as it often goes on epic trips such as this, what it had done to him, how it had changed him, until Christmas of that year. His sister had bought him a map, so he could pin on it all of the places he had been. He thought he’d been to quite a few, and to most, they’d agree with that, seeing as he’s now been to 28 countries.
But then he pinned all of his locations, and he stood back and looked and, “holy crap I have not been anywhere,” he recalled. “I’ve been to 28 countries and it’s nothing. It’s not even a dent. It’s insane how big the world is.
“You start to think bigger and not just about yourself and your problems and ‘Holy crap, there’s a person in Cape Town that has wants and desires and dreams and experiences that I have never had.’
“Traveling just opened my eyes to how you never really know what people are going through because you haven’t lived their life, you don’t know what they’re going through, you don’t know why that person is jaded or the way they are. The only way you get that experience is through traveling. You can’t read it, you can’t watch a movie, you can’t hear someone else say it, you have to do it. You have to go through the airport, you have to wait in the customs line, you have to eat the food, you have to have no WiFi, you have to figure out how to say how much is this, you have to learn how to buy a metro ticket, all of that. It just makes you realize that everyone just wants to be loved.”
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