The American beach volleyball player knows the pressure she faces in trying to help her legend partner win a fifth Olympic medal. But first she has to get her knee healthy – and qualify for Tokyo.
Can a silver lining in life be turned into gold?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent postponement of Tokyo 2020, Sweat badly injury her knee in May, needing surgery, and would have had to sit on the sidelines if the Summer Games went on as originally planned.
“For me and Kerri, it's been a blessing in disguise, especially for me right now with this knee injury,” Sweat told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “I would not have been able to play in the Olympics. So I'm very thankful that it happened when it did and everything was postponed.”
Sweat, 34, is an Olympian herself, having teamed up with Lauren Fendrick to make the Rio 2016 Games. But they fell 0-3 in pool play, an experience Sweat said has taught her a lot.
“Rio was a heartbreak. And for the longest time, I just thought failure,” she said. “But you look back at it and I had a torn rotator cuff playing in Rio; I had surgery like eight months before. So for me now, I can look back and it's a complete opposite (perspective).”
"Rio was a heartbreak. And for the longest time, I just thought failure. ... For me now, I can look back and it's a complete opposite (perspective).” - Brooke Sweat to Olympic Channel
Retirement was on Sweat’s mind when, in the summer of 2018, she was asked to come try out with Walsh Jennings, the 2004, 2008, and 2012 gold medallist in beach volleyball alongside Misty May-Treanor and 2016 bronze medallist with April Ross.
“It’s kind of crazy how it all happened. I thought I was finished playing,” Sweat explained about the Walsh Jennings partnership. “It was after my second shoulder surgery. Ever since then, it's just been our sights set on Tokyo. We're actually very different players and we see the game very differently.”
The different perspectives are something Sweat said the two have been working to gel more on, but it’s not lost on the Florida native just who she is playing alongside: One of the best beach volleyball players of all time.
“Kerri is an absolute legend. … Playing with her in the beginning, I wasn't sure what to expect. I put too much pressure on myself to be perfect,” said Sweat. “But once I got to know her a little bit better… it's just volleyball. She was like, ‘All those times I've played against you? Like, do that. Let's have that player come out.’ I would play fearlessly when I played against her… nothing to lose. I had to kind of switch my mindset to something like that, rather than thinking, ‘Don't screw this up for her. She picked me. She knows what she's got with me.’ And I think we can do really great things together.”
Before those “great things,” however, Sweat needs to get fully healthy. She is back on the sand, though timidly, testing her knee four months after surgery. She is doing passing drills and running a little, but doesn’t foresee practicing with Walsh Jennings until late November and then playing full out towards the end of this year or beginning of 2021.
As COVID quarantine set in and she then had her injury a few weeks later, Sweat said she tapped into a lot of her experience as a former collegiate indoor player, as well as some of those lessons from Rio, to keep perspective.
“I've been through a ton of injuries in my career, and it's just the mental side of things that got me here. (The injuries) are nothing new to me. But it's so easy to just kind of feel bad for yourself and get down and lose motivation. But it's the complete opposite for me. I still love this game. I love this sport. And I want to keep playing. I want to push for Tokyo.”
Walsh Jennings and Sweat are yet to punch their official tickets to the Games, however. They are the second-ranked American behind Alix Klineman and April Ross, but have a third team nipping at their heels in the FIVB’s Provisional Olympic Ranking, which has been frozen since March. The U.S. only has two women’s teams to send to Tokyo.
Engrossed in her rehab and dreaming about Tokyo next July, Sweat is resolute.
“I'm here and, you know, I’ve been on this journey, been to Rio” she said. “And now I have an opportunity to go to Tokyo with the best player ever.”
Below, a full conversation with Sweat (edited for clarity), in which she discusses the challenges the pandemic has offered, her partnership with Walsh Jennings, Tokyo dreams, Rio nightmares and much, much more.
Olympic Channel (OC): Let’s start with quarantine life. How have things changed for you and Kerri since March? You’ve moved from California back to Florida and she’s now near Lake Tahoe.
Brooke Sweat: There's been a lot of changes during quarantine. We stopped training in March and I came home to Florida and I was doing my training and everything here.
Kerri was out in California, (but) she couldn't do much out there. They shut the beaches down. I was still getting a little bit of training here, but then I injured my knee and had knee surgery in June. So, most of my quarantine since June has just been rehabbing my knee. I actually had my surgery out in California and started my therapy out there during that time.
When Kerri decided to move to Lake Tahoe, I packed up my things and moved back to Florida for good. I've been here since then. I found a new physical therapy place, but am still working with my doctors and therapists out in California, too. I still go back out there every once in a while to check in, see my doctors and whatnot. But Florida is my home again after nine years of being in California.
It’s a long, long rehab process for this knee injury. I'll continue doing that until we start practicing together, which will probably be the end of November or (early) December, and we'll go back and forth between Tahoe and Florida. I'm just trying to get healthy and be ready to go for Tokyo.
OC: The knee injury. Was this an existing one? A new injury? Tell us about it.
Sweat: Yeah, this was a new injury. I've had knee issues in the past for quite some time, but this one in particular, it could have been building and we just didn't see on MRI. But yeah, I tore my posterolateral corner and tore my cartilage. The cartilage is the one that is hard to repair. There's not a lot you can do for it. Thankfully my doctor in California had the perfect solution for it, (which) hasn't been tried on very many people, maybe a handful.
OC: Sounds like this has been a long, painful process – figuratively and literally. Where are you now physically? Are you back to 100 percent?
Sweat: I am not 100 percent. It's been four months since surgery, and I'm just now getting back onto the sand a little bit. I'm doing a little bit of jogging in the sand, a little bit of shuffling, but not a ton yet. I still have quite a way to go. We're ramping up pretty quickly and (the knee) is responding well. We're gonna keep pushing it. We're not gonna overdo it, but we're gonna push it and hopefully be ready to practice with Kerri. Hopefully passing and setting (to start with), (and then) jumping by the end of the year, early next year. We're slowly getting there.
OC: So the knee has been your focus, but how have you handled what 2020 has thrown at you in full? COVID and quarantine life has been especially challenging for athletes like yourself.
Sweat: This has definitely been a challenging time for so many people… lots of athletes not knowing the future of what's going to happen next. Kerri has never had this much time off from volleyball, so it's a good reset for her: She's moved away from Manhattan Beach (California) and is up in Lake Tahoe. I know she's really enjoying the time with her family and just kind of forgetting about volleyball for a little bit. It's been a time to decompress.
I've been in California for nine years, away from my husband and my family. It’s been really good to just slow it down for a little bit. We're also building a house here in Florida. It gave me time to work on that and put my touches on it a little bit more than I would have if we're out traveling and competing right now. It's really been a weird time. I mean, this is longest I've gone without volleyball in my life. I know it is for a lot of people. So I'm itching to get back to it. My heart goes out to everyone that's been affected by this.
OC: One theme we’ve talked about at Olympic Channel is #StrongerTogether, and how mentally and emotionally challenging this has all been in the Olympic being postponed and so many uncertainties. Have you tapped into any particular tools to help you stay motivated in this time? You mentioned your love for the game earlier.
Sweat: It's just that I’m not done yet… that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. It would have been so easy to call it quits when this knee injury happened, because I knew it was going to be a long, terrible recovery. It’s a mental thing: If you can flip the switch in your head, our bodies are capable of crazy, amazing things.
I think my faith does play a lot in it as well. I don't know what tomorrow holds, but he does and my trust is in him. I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be and doing what I'm supposed to be doing. And it's one of those things you can control what you can control and everything I can't control... I just trust God. And that takes the burden off of me.
"(The Olympics) got postponed (and) I wouldn't have been able to play if they didn't. There's good that's going to come of it. I don't know exactly what else will come of it, but I've just seen it one day at a time and trusting where my strength comes from." - Brooke Sweat
OC: You and Kerri linked up in the summer of 2018, then competed together for the first time October of that year. What do you recall about your “tryout” and those first feelings of being on the same side of the net as one of the game’s greats?
Sweat: I was contemplating moving back to Florida then and just calling it quits. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was talking on the phone one day with Kerri, and nothing about volleyball. But then she's like, ‘Hey, you know, I need a partner. When you're ready, let's get on the sand together and see how it goes.’ So it's like, ‘OK, I can't turn that down.’ As soon as I could, I got on the sand with her and she was training with some other girls, too. I told my husband, ‘I don't know if she's going to pick me, she has her options.’ I had all these things, thoughts going through my mind. But he's like, ‘Just relax. It’s gonna work out.’
One day after we were practicing, she went over and talked to our coach, Marcio, and she came back over and she's like, ‘All right. He told me I needed to pick. And yeah, pick you. Let’s do it.’
Sweat: Kerri and I are complete opposites. She doesn't watch a lot of film. She doesn't want a big game plan. She just wants to go out there and beat them down, which is completely different than the way I play. I'm even strategic when I play. Am I going to attack the blocker? Am I attacking more to the defender? Kerri just doesn't see the game that way, so we've had to feed off of each other, learn from one another.
I'm like, give me some of (your confidence). Like, you know, you're the best player ever… teach me. I think that first year, year and a half together, we were trying to be so perfect for each other. Obviously, there's some stress that comes with playing with Kerri. And I wanted to be perfect for her. I think she was feeling the same way, so we just didn't play our best. We weren't playing free and that held us back.
"(Now) we’re trying to pick up on what we’re doing when we’re playing really good, really free. And that's just when we weren't thinking and we're just playing volleyball, not trying to play perfect volleyball. Going forward, it's all about the trust in each other." - Brooke Sweat
Trust that we're just gonna do our jobs, play free, and play fun. We've been talking about that during the quarantine. Like, we really held ourselves back (previously).
We’re ready to let all of that go and just play really free moving forward. And I just can't wait to get back out there.
I'm excited that she's on the same side of the court with me now. The nerves are kind of gone and it's just excitement now.
OC: How do you take on that pressure of playing with one of the greats? Sounds like the two of you are still trying to figure out exactly what your balance is out there on the court.
Sweat: When we play free, when we play fun. First of all, I think you'll see some smiles from us. I'm so serious on the court usually that I don't break a smile out very often. So that's something I want to change because it's volleyball. It's supposed to be fun. That's why we're doing this.
I think we need to come together. There's going to be more unity on the court. I think you'll see us more in a flow together when that's happening. We're just flowing. It looks smooth. It looks just like we're out there and we know what we're doing together. But, yeah, I'm excited to see what that looks like because we don't see it very often.
OC: You still technically need to clinch your Olympic spot. That’s a lot of pressure alongside one of the greats… Kerri trying to make her sixth Olympics, win a fifth medal, maybe even a fourth gold… that’s a lot for you to shoulder.
Sweat: We're just gonna focus on ourselves. And yeah, I mean, we can't control what the other teams do. We can only control us. Worrying about them is not going to do us any good whatsoever.
There's talks of tournaments happening this year and I'm not gonna be ready to play. And, you know, those are things we can't control. Our (coaching) team is set and ready to start training, and I think they've got it all blocked out for us… we're gonna follow the plan.
To be in the race and in the second spot for USA and I think maybe top five or six in the world, we're not in a bad spot. Our goal is to try to move up in the rankings as much as we can before the cutoff. And that's where our focus is going to be: on what we can do, how good we can get, and do our best. That's all we can do. And we know that. So it's always fun. I mean, it's a fun time. It can be stressful. My first go around with Rio was very stressful. I get another year here to make the best of it and just really enjoy this time with Kerri and our families as we go through this to Tokyo.
OC: You mention Rio there. It was obviously a disappointment for you, going 0-3 in pool play. But how do you reflect on it now? Or what sort of lessons do you feel like it’s brought you in the time since, that you’ve tried to carry on to the sand with you?
Sweat: Obviously we didn't get the results we wanted in Rio, but I'm so thankful for the opportunity that I had to represent the U.S. there. And, you know, I might not ever know why things happened the way they did in Rio. But I know it serves a purpose for some reason that it happened the way it did. And for me, it is like we went down, we gave it our best and we didn't play our best, but we were out there fighting for every single point. And that's all you can do. Sometimes things just don't fall your way. And that's like life, too.
It's the same in volleyball, same in life. I've always been an underdog, (having) moved out to California (to play the sport). When there's coaches out there and people telling me, ‘Don't do it! You're crazy, you're not going to make it.’ I've always been the underdog. I think I'm kind of in that position right now, too. I'm playing with the best ever.
But for me personally, a lot of people don't feel like I deserve to be playing with her. I don't want to think about them. I don't want to play to prove them wrong. I think I'm given this this opportunity to play with Kerri. I think that's the only reason I'm in this position.
OC: It sounds like Rio had an impact on you and your perspective.
Sweat: It just kind of drove me to be better… a better person. Rio, I don't see it as a failure anymore. But it does still drive me to be better in Tokyo. You know, I haven't watched any matches or anything from Rio, but I know I can replay things in my head: There’s so many things I could have done. And that's just fuel for me.
I want another shot at it and I'm in a position to get another shot. If we get there, when we get there, I'm going to be really excited, really fired up and using everything from Rio as motivation to just play free, play fun, play aggressive. Pretty much everything I didn't do in Rio, so I'm excited for the opportunity.
OC: Lastly, your husband Nick has been such a force for you, helping you get into beach (volleyball), then serving as a rehab partner and voice of reason in this time. What sort of role has he played in your volleyball?
Sweat: We’ve been together for almost 13 years now, but we've known each other longer than that. He is the one that actually got me started in beach volleyball. Him and his brother used to play for fun. I'd go out and watch. And eventually I was like, I want to give it a try. And I did.
I started dragging him out to the court being like, ‘Teach me this, teach me that to this.’ And we just did hundreds of reps. He got me into the sport… and I'm not sure if he's regretting that now because we were apart for years, him being in Florida and me in California.
But yeah, he's been my biggest fan. He always tells me, ‘Go for it. You can do whatever you gotta do.’ I don't know if I would've made it this far without him. Luckily, these last few years, he's been able to travel quite a bit with me. So he's been overseas at some of the tournaments. And it's just always nice to have a familiar face, especially when it's your husband's, at all these tournaments. It gets hard on the road for that long without seeing family.
When I'm home in Florida, I still drag him out on the court and make him practice with me. I don't know if he enjoys it as much anymore, but he still does it. (After surgery) all I could do was stand there and, like, hit shots and stuff. But he would toss 100 balls for me to just stand there and do my shots. It’s hot and humid in Florida! (But) he stands out there for hours at a time just helping me, trying to make me the best I can I can be. I really appreciate it. I don't know what I would do without him. I don't think I'd be here without him. I wouldn't be in this position or talking to you.
OC: Thank you Brooke. We appreciate your time.