Fort Lauderdale, Fla., September 29, 2015 - By their estimation, it took 36 hours for Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser to travel from China to reach South Florida just in time for the SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals.
It might as well have been 36 days by their body clocks. But when they stepped off the plane upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, it was like stepping back in time.
This is the beach where they grew up crafting their sport, playing in local Beach Volleyball tournaments. They had no illusions on the sport being in their future other than having something fun to look forward to after they graduated from college.
Lucena, on the cusp of graduating from Florida State, and Dalhausser, who was finishing his studies at Central Florida, had found they clicked as a team and they caught the eye of American player Adam Roberts.
“He came up to Phil and I and asked us if we wanted to come up and train at his house in Myrtle Beach, S.C.,” Lucena said. “I had to convince Phil to do it because he had a job interview, and he had to skip the interview. He had just graduated, too.
“We planned to go for two weeks and we stayed for almost two years. Once we realized maybe we could make some money doing this, we decided to go out to California.
“Best time of my life, for sure.”
It’s not too bad now, either. After a dozen years of playing with other partners, Dalhausser and Lucena are back together and it’s not out of the question that they could be major players in deciding the gold medal winners at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
That is if they don’t run out of time in reaching the Olympiad. It’s only been a month since they reunited, but they’re already making some noise. The captured the Xiamen Open, which helps as they inch their way up the FIVB World Tour points table.
That came after a second-place in Sochi, Russia and a third-place finish in Olsztyn, Poland.
“It’s good. It’s a progression, it’s been getting better and better,” Dalhausser said. “The first two tournaments were like a honeymoon, we were just excited. But now we’re grinding it out.”
Because they’re so far down the points table in Olympic qualifying points, their season won’t end in Florida. They’ll travel to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, plus Turkey and Qatar to close out the year.
Then they’ll have time to assess their progress for real, have an offseason they haven’t been afforded for a couple of years and step back onto the sand after the New Year.
“All I’m really thinking about is when the season’s over, I really am,” Lucena said. “The last two years I played all the way through December with Theo (Brunner) and we played South Africa and started training right away because we had to get Theo up to speed. I’ve kind of had no offseason the last couple years, so I’m looking forward to doing nothing for a couple of weeks.”
Dalhausser has played in the past two Olympiads, winning gold in Beijing with Todd Rogers in 2008. Lucena, playing with Matt Fuerbringer, lost out in qualifying in the final event before the 2012 London Games.
So the veterans of the chase know as well as anyone what awaits them in the coming months.
“If we keep playing the way we are, just kind of grinding it out – we’re not smashing teams by any means – we’ll have a good match here and there and that’s nice, because it shows the level we can play but it’s keeping the level up there,” Dalhausser said.
Dalhausser’s last two partners, Rogers and Sean Rosenthal, have been low-key types. With the 36-year-old Lucena, he’s reminded of the fire and passion that brought them success as they learned the sport.
“I do need that,” said Dalhausser, 35. “Now volleyball is more of a job to me so some days I say ‘I just don’t feel like sweating today.’ It’s good to have someone who will push you.”
And does the soft-spoken Dalhausser ever push back?
“I’ll neck-chop him,” he said, laughing. “I can bring a calming influence to him a little bit, I try to anyway, and he brings me up a little bit. It’s a good energy right now.