Prior to last Monday, when Tri Bourne and I recorded a podcast with Geena Urango that came out today, I had seen her probably 100 times but never actually spoken a word to her or introduced myself. She trains in Huntington, typically on the south side courts furthest from the pier, by the bathrooms, the ones my friends and I, who also train on the south side of the Huntington Pier, label, somewhat affectionately, as the courts off in “Siberia.”
The first time I had seen Urango, or even heard her name, was in 2016, in the AVP New Orleans Open finals. She was the really tan defender playing with the local fan favorite, Angela Bensend, an LSU blocker who could peel dig better than any blocker I had seen. I knew very little, at the time, about the landscape of the women’s tour. I hadn’t yet begun writing about volleyball, and I really had hardly begun playing, so, like most casual, non-writing volleyball fans and players, I knew Kerri Walsh and Misty May and April Ross and little more than that. So I didn’t know Urango or Bensend, only that I left incredibly impressed by the both of them, as well as the diminutive Kendra VanZwieten, whom I referred to as the one who looked like the Crossfit Champion of the World, and Kim DiCello, who put on one hell of a blocking display.
When I returned to Huntington the next week, I recognized the tan defender and the really good peel-digging blocker practicing out in Siberia. I meant to congratulate them on making the finals – they lost in an entertaining three-setter to DiCello and the Crossfit Champion of the World – but I was suddenly overcome with the sort of awkwardness that sports fans get when they meet exceptional athletes. They were AVP finalists! So instead I’d simply steal glances at what they were doing in practice, trying to figure out why their passes were so crisp, lines so sharp, hand-digs so soft while my passes ricocheted like racquet balls, lines ballooned out of bounds, hand-digs resembled cannons in the wrong direction.
We do this as sport fans, build up these big giant myths around athletes we admire and wish to emulate. And then we meet them, and they’re the most perfectly normal, genial, fun human beings almost everybody else is. They’re just really good at something we’re not.
Urango provided a unique perspective on SANDCAST. She is not a two-time Olympic medalist, as April Ross is. She’s not fighting an autoimmune disease, like Tri is, or a former MLB pitcher turned FIVB-medalist bocker, like Ryan Doherty is. She’s not solely focused on becoming an Olympian, on being remembered as one of the greats, as Kelly Claes is (and probably will be).
That, above all else, is what made this conversation so fun. Urango, unlike many beach volleyball players I’ve met, isn’t putting on the shiny Olympic façade almost everyone does. Most beach volleyball players, at some point or other, have claimed or will claim the myth that they’ll be an Olympian one day. That’s what they’re striving for. Just you watch. That’s because to anyone who doesn’t play beach volleyball, the Olympics are all there is to the sport, and if you’re not working towards the Olympics, then what, exactly, are you doing? I’d wager the majority of the country doesn’t know that there’s a domestic professional beach volleyball tour.
Urango wants to be great. And she is. You don’t make four AVP finals, the most recent of which came in Hermosa Beach, on accident. You make them by putting in the hours in Siberia, and she has and is. But she’s also here to have fun, to help build the AVP as much as she can until it’s time to do something else. As you’ll learn on SANDCAST, she never intended on playing beach professionally anyway. She wanted to get into digital marketing, a skill she honed at USC while also becoming the first volleyball Trojan Academic All-American in a decade and the first-ever scholarship recipient for the then-fledgling collegiate sport of beach volleyball.
She began playing on the AVP Tour because Donald Sun assumed she was when she was hired in the marketing department, and she’s had a decidedly excellent career since. But unlike what many beach volleyball fans expect of the professionals, her life does not revolve around the AVP Tour and her success on it. She likes to travel, and not in the sense that beach volleyball players typically travel – plane, hotel, practice, hotel, tournament, hotel, plane, repeat. Urango actually likes to enjoy the places she sees and goes, and she does – by not playing beach volleyball on trips during the off-season. Tri has a map in his living room with thumbtacks marking everywhere he’s been in the world, and it’s an impressive little map. But even he admitted to not actually seeing and enjoying nearly any of those places. His honeymoon a few months ago in Bali was the first real vacation he’s enjoyed, where he’s explored and relaxed and enjoyed the culture. The episode before, April Ross mirrored that sentiment, saying that every time she goes to take a vacation, she cancels, because there’s more reps, more lifts, more something to do to get to the level she wants to reach. And that’s great and inspiring and exactly why she’s an Olympian and almost everybody else is not.
But it’s not everything, which is why I loved having Urango on – to explore the other side of this sport, the side that isn’t so focused on making it making it making it that we forget we actually get to enjoy this sport every once in a while. Urango probably gets more enjoyment and life out of this sport than most athletes I’ve spoken to.
She even enjoys it in Siberia.
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