It is at the end, with just eight or so months left in a brilliant career, the number of tournaments remaining to be counted on a single hand, that we must wonder about the beginning. That we must ask the haunting, shudder-inducing question: what if Phil Dalhausser had just listened to his parents?
What if he had been an obedient son and followed the path recommended my Peter and Marianne Dalhausser? What if he had pursued the degree at UCF he had paid so much money to attain, and become the pharmacist he had planned to become?
Fate is a funny thing.
It is easy to take inventory of Dalhausser’s sublime career, and to focus on the macro: the Olympic gold in 2008, the World Championship medals in Gstaad and Stavanger, the 100 career wins. Yet it boils down to the small coincidences, destiny intervening at just the right moments, that made those indelible moments possible.
It comes down to a beach volleyball enthusiast named Adam Roberts, running into Dalhausser and Nick Lucena at a tournament in Florida in the early 2000s, and that enthusiast seeing the potential all over the 6-foot-9 thin beast’s frame.
Construction. That’s what Dalhausser was doing at the time. Putting lines down on the roads. Can’t blame the guy for thinking deeply about Roberts’ offer: come live with me in South Carolina. Rent free. Professional level court in the backyard. Train all day, party at night. Summer is for barnstorming up and down the coast, playing any tournament we can.
“Maybe,” Dalhausser said, “I’ll give this volleyball thing a shot.”
A moonshot is what he would become, a once in a lifetime talent, inarguably the greatest American blocker to ever play this game, with a strong case as the greatest blocker in any country. Seven times, the man has been named the world’s best blocker, a devastating honorific when considering that it came coupled with the world’s best setter seven times as well.
How often do you get a 6-foot-9 blocker so dominant at the net, supplemented with the hands to transition set his partners – Todd Rogers, Sean Rosenthal, Nick Lucena – better than any other player on the planet?
Never, actually. Never before had a player been awarded that combination of superlatives in such quantity. It’s possible no blocker ever will, either, though Anders Mol could certainly get there one day. He is the rare man without precedent, Dalhausser, a generational talent so huge, with a head so cool that, prior to his gold medal match in the Beijing Games, he was pondering not Brazilians and opponents Marcio and Fabio on the other side of the net, but the lovely weather they got that day.
That’s a favourite story of Roberts, who remains one of Dalhausser’s closest friends. He held a party celebrating Dalhausser’s Olympic gold in 2008, and Roberts couldn’t help himself: he had to watch that match with Dalhausser, had to pick his brain, to know what the big man was thinking throughout the biggest match of his career.
“Phil runs out of his booth, and he runs out of the sky, looking around,” Roberts recalled. “I pause it, saying ‘What’s going through your mind?’ And he says ‘I remember thinking it sure is nice out, they said it wasn’t going to be nice out. But it’s really nice outside.’
“This is what he’s thinking as he’s about to start game three of the gold medal match.”
You cannot teach a cool such as that, an ability to take a moment so huge and boil it down to something so normal and innocuous as the weather. That, right there, could sum up the essence of Dalhausser’s greatness: there is no moment too huge for him to lose sight of himself, and what’s real.
He’d rather spend the night with his family, or playing video games with his good friend and partner, Nick Lucena, than go out on the town. He’d rather read a book by Eckhart Tolle than scroll through social media or, God forbid, put up a self-indulgent highlight.
There is no shortage of those highlights, either, nor is there a dearth of victories. Dalhausser has eclipsed the threshold of the athlete so elite that it is bigger news when he loses than when he wins. Indeed, many look to his partnership with Sean Rosenthal as one of the biggest failures of both players’ careers, and here it is worth remembering that their partnership was awarded the USA Volleyball Team of the Year in 2014, won more gold medals on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour than any other team for two consecutive years, and took home titles in Stavanger, Gstaad, and Manhattan Beach in a two-month period.
Most players, most fans, would consider that success worthy of an entire career. Some, even Rosenthal, look to it as one that never lived up to its potential.
“For two years, we were the best team in the world,” Rosenthal said of his partnership with Dalhausser. “I think a little bit of it is because we didn’t win as many tournaments on the AVP as we were expected, but we won a lot on the World Tour. Leaving Jake [Gibb] for Phil was the worst volleyball decision of my career. It’s crazy, it’s hard to say, but I think it might be true.
“If your boss comes up to you and asks you, ‘Do you want a raise?’ It’s not like, ‘No, I’m good where I’m at.’ It’s kind of one of those things, not only from prize money but sponsor money, which went way up, too. Got Red Bull and UnderArmour and a couple others, like Smart Car, which were basically through Phil.”
But he’d do it again. Because when Phil Dalhausser calls, you answer. You play with the man.
“Before I started playing with Phil I lost a lot of times, and a lot of times to Phil in the final,” said Lucena, who was Dalhausser’s first partner, and will be his last as well. “You have this unique opportunity to play with him, and I said ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure I’m not slowing us down or letting an opportunity go.’ Any time you play with Phil, that’s an opportunity, and one I take seriously.”
Because there may never be another one like him.
There may never be another Thin Beast.
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