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2018-02-13 10:00:00 CEST

Ageless wonders of the beach

The beach volleyball elite are continuing to roll back the years – and they’re showing no signs of stopping

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain

At next month’s Fort Lauderdale Major, American beach volleyball star John Hyden will be eight months short of celebrating his 46th birthday. His fellow compatriots, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, will both be 38. Last season, Phil and Nick won the bronze medal at the most prestigious beach volleyball tournament in the US. Twelve months ago, Larissa Maestrini and Talita Antunes won the women’s gold. The Brazilians ended 2017 proudly perched on top of the World Rankings. Not bad for two 35-year-olds.

Welcome to world of beach volleyball, where age is no barrier. The more you play, the better you become. The younger you are, the tougher it is to push the masters off the podium.

“At the moment I feel I could go on forever,” proclaims Hyden. He’s not kidding. At 45, he’s the oldest player digging and diving on the sand of the Beach Major Series, the highest level of beach volleyball competition on the planet. He’s also the oldest ever player to compete on the world stage.

In Fort Lauderdale last season Hyden and former teammate Ryan Doherty, a spring chicken in comparison at 33, lost in the bronze medal match against Dalhausser and Lucena. Earlier in the competition, the duo beat Brazilian team Evandro Gonçalves and André Loyola Stein. At the time, Stein was just 22 – half Hyden’s age. 

“There are times when I’m playing against teams whose combined age doesn’t even equal mine – which is nuts,” laughs father-of-two Hyden, who only began playing beach in 2001, aged 29. “Did I really think I could play into my 40s? Hell no. There were guys retiring at 35, 36 – but I don’t think I hit my stride until I as 37, 38, 39.”

The 2017 campaign drew to a close with Hyden scoring the FIVB’s Most Inspirational Player award. After a year that saw him scoop a silver medal at the four-star event in Poland in July, the 2018 season swings into action with the evergreen defender showing no signs of putting down the Mikasa.

45 and still going strong: John Hyden45 and still going strong: John Hyden

Masters rule the roost

And why should he stop? As the statistics show, it’s the so-called older generation that are reaching the podium most at the major tournaments. Indeed, since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996, the average age of every gold medalist is exactly 30. In London 2012, legendary American duo Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May Treanor were 34 and 35 years old respectively. “It helps we’re able to train and play on a surface that’s friendly to us!” jokes three-time Olympic champion Walsh. “The older you get the more grounded you get. The Olympic cycle helps – four years fly by.”

At the World Tour Finals in Hamburg last year, Dalhausser and Lucena – combined age 75 – took gold, and with it a check for a cool 100,000 US Dollars.

“The most important skill in the game for me is, and always will be ball control – and Nick and I did that pretty well last season,” enthuses Phil. Last season no men’s team took home more prize money on the World Tour than this American duo.

But behind the obvious appeal of playing your hobby around the world into your 40s, lies the difficulties in continually maintaining your body to cope with the rigors of a demanding professional sport. 

“There are definitely days when I’m on court, or in the gym, when I say to myself ‘I don’t feel like sweating or breathing heavy today’,” jokes Dalhausser, whose nickname on the Tour is the Thin Beast. With Todd Rogers, Phil won Olympic Gold in Beijing in 2008 at the age of 28. “It’s most difficult at the end of a season where now I can’t have too much time off otherwise my body will hurt and I’ll feel out of shape,” he says. “Now I need to stay loose to avoid that in the off-season. You just have to look after your body. The good thing is when you’re winning, you’re confident to say to the competition ‘I might be 37 but I’ve still got it and I’m still going to beat you’.”

Hyden acknowledges, too, that the physical demands can be harsh on athletes performing at the highest level, but believes the mental aspect of the game is even tougher for older players to deal with.

“The daily grind gets harder and harder the older you get – you need to get your body ready again and again and it’s not easy,” Hyden reflects. “It takes its toll but you push through it. Mentally, however, it is hard. You begin asking yourself ‘can I do this for another year, every day?’ It’s a fight.”

Phil Dalhausser is 38, loves chocolate and remains one of beach volleyball's most feared playersPhil Dalhausser is 38, loves chocolate and remains one of beach volleyball's most feared players

Use your head

But the big question is, fitness apart, how else do these ‘golden oldies’ manage to keep coming back year after year and winning medals? How can they compete against rising stars such as Andre – the Brazilian, who at 22 was crowned the youngest ever men’s world champion, last year – or 19-year-old Eduarda Santos Lisboa, another Brazilian, known as Duda, who won her first gold medal on the World Tour at 17 and scooped silver at last year’s World Tour Finals in Hamburg?

In short, as the saying goes, there’s no substitute for experience.

“In my opinion there are so many little nuances in the game which you learn the longer you play,” explains Dalhausser, a veteran of three Olympic Games. “The longer you play, the more you pick up these things. You can play a team that are 10 years younger than you, who are physically bigger and stronger, but that isn’t always an advantage. My previous teammate Todd was a good example: mentally he was tough and smart – with him it was definitely a case of ‘work smarter, not harder’ – and I guess that’s how all the older guys work – even if the younger players are jumping higher.”

Hyden agrees. “The game has changed as I have got older but never underestimate mental toughness – it knows no bounds,” he says. “Obviously I don’t move as quick as I used to, but the mental game takes over: knowing how to control a game.”

Current world number one Talita believes the opportunity to play with more experienced players earlier in her career aided her development. The Brazilian star, who with Larissa last season triumphed at three tournaments and won bronze at the World Championships, once played alongside Jackie Silva – a beach legend who won Olympic gold in 1996 aged 34. 

“Several factors helped me and one of them was the opportunity of playing with older athletes in the beginning of my career,” recalls the 35-year-old, who will miss the 2018 season to give birth to her first child. “When I started competing on the World Tour I realized how important some details were, such as being in a good physical shape as often there are times you are required to play back-to-back tournaments.”

At 19, Duda has the beach volleyball world at her feetAt 19, Duda has the beach volleyball world at her feet

An old head on young shoulders

Record-breaking Andre echoes Talita’s thoughts. He might be 23 years Hyden’s junior, but the importance of experience is not lost on the youngest ever World Champion, who has benefitted learning from some of the best in the business.  

“Experience plays a key role in beach volleyball so it’s pretty important that you mature well,” says the talented young Brazilian, who in the 2016 season played alongside Ricardo Santos, the 2004 Olympic champion, and 20 years older than him, and a beach legend in South America.

“Experiencing as many situations as possible ultimately makes the difference in close games. I’ve been trying to mature since I started playing and I was very lucky to have the opportunity of training with players like Alison, Bruno and Fabio Luiz, who were seasoned on the World Tour and in the Olympics.

“Playing with Ricardo was amazing. I learned a lot on blocking and he pushed me to play in the World Tour and I could feel that being by his side was different, it looked like people were paying more attention. What I learned in six months with him, especially on the mental side, I’d have probably taken much longer if I was with someone else. I can tell that my understanding of the game improved a lot because of him.”

As the sand in the hourglass trickles tantalizingly down towards the start of the Fort Lauderdale Major, another problem arises. While you can be sure Hyden is busy preparing his body in anticipation for another busy season, he also has a young family – wife, Robyn, and two children Samantha, 11, and Jackson, four – to keep happy.

“The off-season becomes more and more important with every year,” confesses John. “You want to spend time with your family but you still need to look after yourself, eat the right things and train properly – I call it ‘preventative rehab’. It’ll soon be time to go away and play again so this time is special. This is another thing that doesn’t get any easier with age because you’re missing your children grow up.”

Last season Andre Loyola made history by becoming beach volleyball's youngest world championLast season Andre Loyola made history by becoming beach volleyball's youngest world champion

Young at heart

Not only that, the beach volleyball season schedule can be so demanding on players that Dalhausser, so exhausted after a hectic Olympic season of 2016, admitted he considered walking away from the beach had the right coaching job come along.

Now, though, after a successful season last year, Phil’s only issue is a domestic one at home that threatens to add a couple of pounds to the Thin Beast’s lean 6ft 9in frame.

“I have a big sweet tooth and that’s a struggle,” he sighs. He’s serious. “We still have a whole bunch of candy left over from Halloween and it’s a struggle every day to avoid it. But it’s not too crazy – I still allow myself one treat a day because, well, I still want to be able to live a little…”

As long as he keeps himself fit, Hyden – who has exciting plans to move his family from California to Nashville this year to set-up a beach volleyball foundation, beach360 – says he’ll still be living the dream on the beach for as long as his body will allow.

He has the final say on the matter. “I think the phrase ‘age is just a number’ takes away a lot of the s*** I actually do,” counters the Californian. “Age is a number yes, but go out there, be healthy and then you can say that. Try going to the gym, dealing with the mental aspect and traveling around the world at my age. It’s tough.”

And, with all those boxes ticked, and with his mind, body and soul ready for the season ahead, Hyden will head to Fort Lauderdale, alongside Dalhausser and Lucena, with as much drive and desire as players half his age. And you wouldn’t bet against the old guard coming out on top… again. 

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