It has been over 20 years since Nancy Reno has played a competitive beach volleyball event and the American 1996 Olympian is now living in the mountains of southwestern Colorado where she moved on from being a firefighter to being an emergency room nurse.
A collegiate all-American player at Stanford with an 11-season beach volleyball career, Reno is celebrating her 55th birthday on Christmas Eve at home in Durango with her wife (Mariah) and two dogs before working Christmas Day in the emergency room at Mercy Regional Hospital.
“Mariah and I will make amazing food, craft a few special cocktails, and go for a snowy hike with the dogs,” said Reno. “I’ll work in the ER on Christmas Day, so the 24th will be a day of rest. I was lucky enough to receive my COVID-19 vaccine five days ago (December 19). It is a relief to walk into work and not fear for my own health and the health of my ER team.”
As for living in Durango, Reno said “I spent two years designing and building a house in the mountains after I finished playing in 2000. During that time, I began volunteering as a firefighter/medic (one of the only women at that time). I was soon hired and remained with the department for 12 years. I enjoyed the teamwork and the time it afforded me to explore the rivers, deserts, and mountains that surround us.”
Reno added that “after an acute injury while firefighting which earned me a brand new knee, I moved onto being an ER nurse (because it is so much easier, ha!). I work less these days, but I still get a lot out of helping those in need.”
Playing 11 seasons on American domestic tours and eight years internationally, Reno teamed with seven different partners to win 38 titles during her career, including 10 gold medals on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. Reno and Karolyn Kirby captured the first-ever sanctioned FIVB beach volleyball event in August 1992 at Almeria, Spain.
“My biggest memory about the first FIVB event was that of a few countries playing in their shoes on the sand,” said Reno. “Those were the early days of the beach game on an international scale! The top teams in the United States and Brazil were quite good, but the depth of talent was lacking. To see the breadth of talent that exists 25 years later is astounding.”
Although FIVB post-season awards were not initiated until 2005, Reno was considered in the 1990s as the world’s best blocker. “Sure, I seemed to have had a knack for blocking,” said Reno, who was honoured for her play at the net four times on American domestic tours. “The game seemed easier if one could stop a ball from crossing the net in the first place.”
Reno topped FIVB podiums in 10 of her first 28 World Tour events as she and her partners never lost a gold medal match. Seven of those titles for Reno were achieved during the 1995 season when she and Holly McPeak were the top team on the international circuit by winning six gold medals together.
During the 1995 season, Reno and McPeak placed third in the first event of their partnership at an American stop in Florida before reeling off six-straight gold medals together en route to posting a 37-3 match mark. Reno ended the season playing two World Tour events with Karolyn Kirby highlighted by a gold medal finish in Puerto Rico.
Reno and McPeak compiled an 11-3 record in 1995 against the three teams that placed on the podium at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games - 5-2 versus Sandra Pires/Jackie Silva of Brazil, 1-0 against Monica Rodrigues/Adriana Samuel of Brazil and 5-0 versus Natalie Cook/Kerri Pottharst of Australia.
When reflecting on the 1995 season, Reno said “sometimes with a great partner, special chemistry, and momentum, winning seems easy. That being said, my main memory was that of being constantly exhausted. Serving, blocking, and hitting on two (on the big court) was a constant marathon, along with the 25ish tournaments (domestic and internationally) we played in that year.”
Seeded second in the Atlanta Summer Games behind Sandra and Jackie, Reno and McPeak finished fifth after losing to Cook and Pottharst in the finals of the winner’s bracket and being eliminated by American rivals Barbra Fontana and Linda Hanley in the finals of the loser’s bracket.
Injuries hampered Reno in 1996 as she said “I tore the labrum in my right shoulder six months before the Olympics, without enough time to get it surgically repaired. I was maybe half the player that I had been the year before.”
Reno added that she felt “Holly and I would have been difficult to beat had that not occurred. In the same light, injuries are a part of sports, and they are not always conveniently timed. Given how bad the injury was, the fact that we were even able to participate in the Olympics was a gift. Not winning a gold medal was painful, but I always took pride in the fact that I kept that warrior attitude through it all. I remember being so relieved when the Olympics had ended for us, because of the amount of pain I had endured during that season. My shoulder was repaired after the Games, but it was never the same, unfortunately.”
After winning nine World Tour gold medals in her first 10 FIVB events, Reno only topped an international podium once in her final 26 starts as she and McPeak upset reigning world champions Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede of Brazil in the finals of a June 1999 Canadian stop in Toronto.”
“Putting an end to the epic FIVB winning streak of by Adriana and Shelda with Holly in Canada was very memorable,” said Reno as the Brazilian had won eight of the last 10 World Tour events with five-straight gold medal finishes. “That was fun.”
As for the best players she played against, Reno named Jackie, Shelda and Kirby. “They were all complete players - offensively, defensively, mentally tough as hell, and were all innovative students of the game,” said Reno. “I have great respect for versatile players who can do it all. I only overlapped with Misty (May-Treanor) for one year, but I would put her in that category. You would be hard-pressed to find a weakness. It was a privilege to play with and against many of the best athletes in the world.”
As for following the sport today, Reno ended the conversation by saying “I don't really follow volleyball anymore as I have a vastly different life now. In fact, I'm not sure I even followed it all that much while I competed!”
Since the sport has changed since her retirement in 2000, Reno said “I think rally scoring is a vast improvement as games can definitely lag without it. I do regret that I never got to experience the smaller court. I would have enjoyed the subtle differences that the smaller dimensions have brought to the game.”
Reno began playing beach volleyball in 1990 at age 25, while a member of the United States’ National Team as she was lured to the sand to help friends and established players Liz Masakayan and Angela Rock train at Mission Beach in San Diego.
Although she recalls being "terrible" on the beach when she first started out, Reno won her first of 28 domestic titles in 1992 with Janice Harrer. "I became obsessed with being a top player, and with the notion of winning, so I came a long way in a short amount of time," Reno recalls.
"The beach game was so much more expansive than the indoor game," Reno said. "And so much harder to master."