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2018-10-04 13:39:00 CEST

Golden return for Tri Bourne

Illness kept Tri Bourne off the sand for two years – but he marked his comeback to the World Tour with a gold medal in China

Tri (facing the camera) and Trevor celebrate in ChinaTri (facing the camera) and Trevor celebrate in China

After the victorious high fives, hugs and handshakes, Tri Bourne crouched low on the hot sand, took a deep breath and had a moment to himself to realize what he’d just done.

In the searing Chinese heat of the Qinzhou center court, this was a special, poignant moment for the American.

After all, it had been a while.

Seven hundred and forty-six days to be precise.

It had been over two years since Tri’s feet had scampered upon World Tour sand. On that occasion, at the World Tour Finals in Toronto, he and then-teammate John Hyden beamed with bronze medals around their necks.

The beach world was seemingly at his feet.

But nobody, not least Tri, anticipated what would happen next, and why it would take so long for him to make a return to the beach. Having been diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory muscle disease, dermatomyositis, he was unsure whether he would even ever compete again.

Therefore, moments of comprehension and contemplation were high on Bourne’s internal checklist when he and Hawaiian childhood friend Trevor Crabb saw off all challengers to top the podium in Qinzhou and take the three-star gold medal on Thursday.

Talk about a comeback. When you’ve missed the feeling of that sand between your toes, nobody could blame Tri for taking his time on his first international tournament after the completing the long road of recovery.

“I didn’t want to leave the court so soon,” says the 29-year-old, who watched the stars and stripes rise highest in Qinzhou after he and Crabb had defeated Russians Valeriy Samoday and Taras Myskiv in two sets. “I wanted to take it all in, appreciate what had happened.

“I was trying to recap all of those 700-odd days, to comprehend everything that had happened in between. It feels, obviously, really great to be back, period. But to win? Well, it feels really, really good.

“It’s a real team effort. There’s family and friends back home watching, the game started at 1am in the morning. I never thought they’d watch it live. Everyone has been so supportive, it’s been so heartening. Unbelievable, really.”

Tri (right) pictured with former teammate John Hyden after winning bronze at the World Tour Finals in 2016Tri (right) pictured with former teammate John Hyden after winning bronze at the World Tour Finals in 2016

As the illness denied Tri the chance to play the sport he grew to love and excel at on Hawaii, the 2014 Rookie of the Year began to focus on the importance of a strong mindset during his time on the sidelines. “Well, it was the only thing I could concentrate on,” he says. “But I surprised how familiar it was to be back, but I felt comfortable and it felt as though I hadn’t missed any time at all.

“I’d put a lot of focus on the mental side of things and I feel as though all that work I put in paid off.”

Time can so often be a healer. Without competitive beach volleyball, Tri worked tirelessly on shaping his own mentality as an athlete. There’s no longer a never-ending anxiety to chase constant improvement in results or performance. After all he’s been through, he can afford to be philosophical.

“I’ve come back after two years stronger mentally and emotionally with what I’ve been through,” he says. “My goal throughout this process has been staying present in the moment, not searching through moments of the past or dreaming of the future. I’ll enjoy this moment for sure, but that’s the biggest difference I’ve noticed in myself now. I’m not worrying about the last tournament or the next tournament, this is a journey and I’m grateful to play this sport.”

Bourne admits the plan to return with Trevor was not the first choice for either player. However, he says he could not have chosen a more perfect partner to line-up alongside for his return to action.

“He’s one of my closest friends,” says Tri. “He’s supported me the entire time. For me to come back and play with him, at a time when he’s playing the best ball of his career, is even more special.

“We grew up together, I’ve known him since I was five, we learned to play together. It wasn’t the plan to come back with him, but when the options came up he was the first guy I asked. Turns out it was the perfect time for him too, and now we’re happy.”

Tri in typical celebratory mode during the Beach Majors Toronto Finals in 2016Tri in typical celebratory mode during the Beach Majors Toronto Finals in 2016

The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are definitely at the forefront of the minds of both Bourne and Crabb – but Tri freely admits a crack at qualification as a team is not set in stone.

Yet, with qualification already under way, the pair have got off the best possible start. 600 points in the bag and a little head-start on other American teams who will soon be on their tails.

For Tri, a ticket to Tokyo would represent the mother of all comebacks.

But if it doesn’t materialize, it doesn’t materialize. The new Tri Bourne is comfortable with that. Two years ago, that might not have been the case.

“I like the situation because the odds of me reaching Tokyo were stacked against me,” he smiles. “There’s no pressure on me. I don’t qualify then I don’t. If I do, then the pressure’s on the others. I like that.”

When you’ve beaten an illness that has dominated and frustrated your life and career, dealing with Chinese heat, humidity, food and travel seems like a walk in the park in comparison.

“It was fun to see how my body handled it all,” says Tri, as his bus ride nears his hotel and our conversation draws to a congratulatory close. “That’s the first hurdle overcome.

“But now it’s time for to continue on this road.”

That particular road will now lead to the bright lights of Las Vegas in just took weeks’ time.

It’s not quite a wait of 700 days, but Tri knows how to play the waiting game. For him, patience is a virtue that has paid off.

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