Fort Lauderdale, Fla., September 30, 2015 - Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai were lost.
Stuck on foreign soil, trying to learn a new language and culture and add some beach volleyball to the mix, the Italian duo weren’t faring so well. They were frustrated, and so was their American coach, Mike Dodd.
Contracted by the Italian volleyball federation, Dodd was called upon to strengthen a team that had potential, if little else. So in December of 2011, Nicolai and Lupo spent four months in Manhattan Beach, Calif., learning the ropes under a beach legend and Olympic silver medalist.
It wasn’t easy for either party.
“The first two weeks they were struggling,” Dodd said. “We were working them pretty hard and I was kind of busting their chops a little. I sent a little note and copied all the players to the (Italian) federation and said ‘Send me eight more guys with heart, these guys are giving up on me.’ They were really upset.”
Fortunately Dodd had patience and a good memory. Growing up in Manhattan Beach, he remembered how he and his brothers would tie a string from wall to wall in the house and that was the net for their indoor volleyball games.
One day, Dodd arrived at the Nicolai-Lupo house and found the Italians had strung a net across the room and were reenacting the Dodd family fun house.
“It was pretty far into (the four-month trial),” Dodd said. “We were less than a month away from our first competition. Seeing them doing that hit such a chord.
“That’s when I knew these are my guys.”
Dodd turned Nicolai and Lupo loose and all they’ve done since is climb the ranks to become one of the best teams on the FIVB World Tour, and why they were able to qualify for the SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals in Florida.
They haven’t been coached by Dodd until this weekend – when they reached out to him to take the coaching duties for the World Tour Finals, since the federation did not want to send a coach along.
“For us he’s like our dad,” Nicolai said. “It’s great because every single word that he says is very important for us. It’s not the same if the same words are spoken by other people. For us, it’s great he is here. Now we are playing more confident.”
In 2012, Nicolai became the Most Improved Player on the FIVB World Tour and in 2014 was the Best Offensive Player. The duo reached the London Olympics in 2012.
In 2014, they won twice on the FIVB World Tour and added a third-place finish to their season. This year hasn’t been as successful, but they have two fifth-place finishes and arrived in Florida having taken third in Sochi, Russia.
It didn’t help that Lupo had to battle testicular cancer, but through surgery that has cleared and the duo has battled back from a slow start to the season.
“Now he’s fine, he doesn’t like to talk about it a lot,” Dodd said. “They had a rough start to the season and that had a lot to do with it.
“I was watching them early this season and I didn’t even know about this. I would see them fight and lose these games that I knew they could win. I knew there was something wrong. They struggled a little bit at the beginning and even in the middle of the season.
“They’re healthy now and they’ve proven they can be one of the best teams. Once you get to that level, all you have to do is improve your brain and your mind.”
They’ve got the right coach for that this weekend.
“Yeah, I am like their dad in a lot of ways,” Dodd said. “And like their brother in a lot of ways, too, so it’s a good relationship.”