What’s my purpose in life?

08.04.2019 - Florida, United States

As he embarks on a 17th season in professional beach volleyball, American legend and 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser explains to Beach Major Series how his career traveling the world on the sand made him question his relationship with his own family – and whether he should quit the sport altogether.

Phil Dalhausser has played professional beach volleyball since, in his own words, he was a “dumbass 20-something in need of a few extra bucks to be able to eat”.

Back then, at the turn of the new millennium, a young Dalhausser had no idea where his talent would take him in his career, in life.

As the story, and the journey, goes, it took him far. Very far. His ability on the sand, his dexterity and proficiency of rising to jump and block an oncoming ball would lead to the ultimate sporting prize: an Olympic gold medal, won in Beijing in 2008.

But fast-forward to today, and unlike those early days as a youngster fresh out of University of Central Florida, Phil is a 39-year-old doting father to two children, Sebastien, five, and Sofia, four, and a loving husband to Jennifer, whom he married in 2011.

Things have changed since those dumbass days. Life happened, responsibilities emerged.

Yet the volleyball remains very much in his life, too. This season is Dalhausser’s 17th in beach volleyball.

It will be another season which involves a daily, sometimes hourly, strain of juggling a life that chases paychecks and medals to support those he loves most.

Calling it quits

But in beach volleyball’s most recent close-season, Dalhausser’s personal struggle almost led the man they call on the FIVB World Tour The Thin Beast, putting down the Mikasa ball for good. Retirement was well and truly on the table.

You might think the life of a beach volleyball player is glamourous, sexy. Traveling the world to exotic locations playing beach volleyball for goodness sake. A job most would dream of.

Yet for Phil, and his fellow professionals, that is not always the case. The 2018 campaign was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a man that had competed in over 250 national and international tournaments since 2003.

Enough was enough. Family had to come first. Jennifer, Sebastian and Sofia deserved better. F*ck volleyball he thought. Countless days, months and accumulated years of not being there had taken its toll.

“I had developed a terrible mindset about the game and it was family-orientated,” Phil says unequivocally. “I was focusing on the negative aspects of being away. If I didn’t feel like playing or working out I would think ‘man, I wish I didn’t have to do this stuff’.

“I wanted to stop. I thought about it a lot. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Nobody else could help, this was up to me to work out for myself.”

Just three weeks ago, 6ft 9in Dalhausser and teammate Nick Lucena – also 39 and like Phil a father of two children – had returned from a World Tour event in Doha, Qatar with a silver medal. It was the pair’s first steps onto a qualification ladder which they hope will end at the Tokyo Olympics next year.

So what had changed? How did Dalhausser win the battle in his brain to get back out on the beach and reignite a dream of appearing in a fourth Olympics?

“After last season finished, I undertook some personal growth – you could call it ‘soul searching’ if you like. I was reading a lot of books about finding your purpose in life.

“The major thing about my negativity towards volleyball was I felt I was putting stress on the family. Last year I had a total of four-to-five months away from home. That put stress on me and my wife, our relationship and the kids. It was weighing me down.

“Being away, missing birthdays. Both my kids have summer birthdays, you miss them sometimes, that comes with the job. Beach is a summer sport. However, it was just being gone full stop that affected me.

“One day I was talking to myself in the kitchen. I asked myself out loud ‘what is my purpose in life? – I guess it is playing volleyball, right?’

“Jen overheard me and came in. She said: ‘You’re a f*cking idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.’

“I laughed and thought well, ‘that’s kind, that’s support’. Her words changed my mindset. My life was beach volleyball. It’s all I have ever known.”

Family matters most

The next six months will be crucial for beach volleyball athletes. Not only are there the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships presented by comdirect and ALDI Nord in Hamburg, Germany, but a host of high of profile tournaments across Europe and Asia. If partnerships in this unique two-player team sport harbor hopes of stamping a ticket to Tokyo next year, then their attendance is all but obligatory. If you’re not playing, you’re not earning qualifying points – or, for that matter, an income.

For Dalhausser that means extended time away from family. Something that the past few months had told him was out of the question.

The Thin Beast needed to think of a solution that would tick all the boxes. One which we'll hopes will ensure that his head will be in the right frame of mind to focus on a major championships and give him the peace of mind that he isn’t missing what he cherishes in his life.

So the easiest way is to bring the whole family along to enjoy the ride. Come June, the Dalhaussers will head for Europe and be part of the experience, taking in the World Championships in Hamburg, and two crucial tournaments, the Swatch Gstaad Major in Switzerland and an event in Espinho, Portugal.

The Gstaad event is one particularly close to Dalhausser’s heart because he was born in Baden, a town a two-an-a-half hour’s car ride away from the iconic mountain location. The son of a Swiss mother, Marianne, and a German father, Peter, Phil has fond memories of the picturesque village 1,000-meters above sea level in the Alps. With then-teammate Todd Rogers, Dalhausser won the 2007 World Championships with close family and friends watching on from the stands.

“It’ll be good to have the children and Jen around this summer,” he smiles. “That will make things better. The last time the family came along was close to my son’s first birthday. Jen was super pregnant with my daughter and they came to Berlin and then to Norway. We won gold in Norway but finished 17th in Berlin. It was a mixed bag. But it helped and it was good to have them in tow.

“It’ll sure help in Hamburg because a World Championship is slow going, there’s not the intensity of two or three matches a day like a regular tournament, so we’ll get the chance to hang out.

“Gstaad will be special, too. I have relatives in Switzerland. All my aunts and uncles have never met the kids. That will be cool.”

The fact that Dalhausser must go to such lengths, essentially uprooting his family for a month, for the sake of volleyball still suggests that his love and loyalty for the sport remains deep-rooted.

He has no hate for volleyball, but a niggling contempt gnawing away at the back of this mind, every so often reminding him that the sport has, occasionally, robbed him of enjoying treasured moments with his young family.

“I’m not angry at myself or the sport itself, just at volleyball for taking me away from my family. I don’t blame anyone and the family don’t blame me, I’m around for a few days and then I’m gone, there’s no consistency.

“For young kids, that’s tough. For them to live in an unstable family environment cannot be easy. I assume that kids thrive when their environment at home is more stable.

“They are four and five. The five-year-old is realizing that’s why I do, I go and play volleyball to make money.

“They like watching me on TV and get a kick out of it. For the younger one, when I leave for a tournament, all hell breaks loose, screaming the house down, that makes things tough. When I got home the kids would be so excited."

“I’m focusing now on the positive stuff. That’s what this season will all be about.”