Becoming an Olympian and getting to represent your country is the dream of every athlete. It is the pinnacle of sport to be able to compete not just against the best in your country, but the best in the world. Olympic dreams are born, many times, as young kids, and most of them never come true. Well, for Sarah Sponcil, hers became a reality this year in a pretty unbelievable whirlwind and I got the rare opportunity to get to share some incredible moments along the way with her.
Many times you hear about athletes transferring schools to play for the “best high school in the state” to try to win or get noticed, or even just for the notoriety. Sarah didn’t do that. While she played club ball, she realized that the school she played for didn’t matter and she took pride in being from a small school in Arizona and helped them to win the state title 3 times in their division. She peppered with her dad before school every day, and she played in beach volleyball tournaments before true beach volleyball clubs were even a thing in Arizona before finding her RPM Sand family. She didn’t go straight from high school to the #1 school in the country to play beach volleyball. She started at LMU where she played both indoor and beach volleyball. She ended up transferring to UCLA and winning the national championship multiple times. Sarah always knew that it wasn’t about where she was at, but about the training she was doing and about the people she was surrounding herself with.
After she won her first national championship at UCLA, she wanted to try her hand on the professional tour and as her dad reminded me at her Olympic party at their home a couple of weeks ago, she came back to train with Ryan and I when she could. Holidays, vacations, whenever she could find the time, there she was. She didn’t care who she trained with either, it was all just reps to her. I recall one practice at GCU where she, a high school girl, and a high school boy got out with us to get reps. It was never about the immediate result, it was always about the process and the long term goal of becoming an Olympian. She didn’t worry about whether her last swing landed inside the lines or not, she realized that it was about taking the swing, and getting the rep that mattered.
Sarah Sponcil never won a juniors national championship, but she and Torrey Van Winden partnered up to take 4th at the U19 World Championships in Australia. In her first main draw appearance at the AVP, Ryan Mariano was there working with her and Lauren Fendrick as they made an unprecedented run to the finals where they lost to 2 time Olympic medalist April Ross in an epic 22-24, 23-25 battle for the ages. It was official, Sarah Sponcil was not only a legitimate contender, but was here to stay!
I was on the sideline, behind the scenes, doing scouting for the team when she played in the Manhattan Beach Open with Lauren Fendrick. I had the opportunity to work with Sarah, Ryan, and Therese Cannon in Hawaii when they pushed, then #1 in the world, Agatha and Duda to the limit in a 20-22, 21-23 loss. I was with she and Kelly Claes in Las Vegas at the p1440 FIVB event when they played a different Brazilian team and went 3 games. As they traveled internationally, I tutored Sarah in Spanish so she could finish her senior year at UCLA and got to know her even better.
So many people see Sarah the Olympian now and are impressed by the things she does on the court, heck, I’m blown away by them, but I am more impressed by Sarah the human. The girl I have gotten to know off the court. When Covid hit, Sarah spent most of her days at my house in Scottsdale. She and I messed around with video editing, and traveled around the state to film fun volleyball stuff. One day Sarah calls me and says, hey Nick, I know that kids are struggling right now. I know during all of this craziness with Covid they don’t know what to do. I want to do something to brighten their day. Is there any way you would want to take me around to some of your player’s houses and help me to surprise some of them? You see, since Sarah is part of the RPM family, she has ALWAYS given back to the girls and been willing to do anything she could to take care of them. So off we went. We showed up on doorstep after doorstep, all masked up, to deliver packages she had sanitized, and put together for them. It was incredible to not only see how excited the kids were, but to also see just how much it filled Sarah’s soul to give back.
It didn’t stop there. Sarah and her partner Kelly came out to our practice at RPM to play with the girls, and she has even come and run private camps for our kids.
No sooner had she won her second consecutive gold medal in Sochi and officially qualified as the youngest U.S. team for the Olympics EVER, than she sent me a text to check on the girls and see how they were doing in Seattle.
In December of 2019, Sarah got the call from us to come out for a charity event to benefit Autism Speaks. Ryan had put together an event where teams signed up and could “rent a pro”. Each round of the tournament a pro could be rented for a game and they would play with the players on the team. There was also a raffle involved with the event. Sarah not only volunteered her time to come out and play in the event, but she brought autographed gear to be used in the raffle, and she made a connection with each and every kid she played with. The girls still talk about “getting to play with Sarah Sponcil” to this day! Thanks to Sarah and the other pros that came out that day, we raised $13,810 to benefit austism!
This week Sarah called to chat. We were talking about her crazy schedule leading up to the Olympics with travel to Florida for humidity training, competing in Gstaad, Switzerland, and then eventually heading to Tokyo for the Olympics. There are pictures, and interviews and training sessions. There are appearances, and responsibilities with sponsors, and all kinds of other things that need to happen. Her schedule is crazy! I told her about a little girl from my hometown that was incredibly excited to play volleyball this year. She had been playing and getting ready for tryouts for her freshmen year in high school when she became severely ill and was hospitalized. Unfortunately, she never got to play. Each time she would get to the point where they thought they might clear her, there was another setback. After multiple cardiac catherizations over the span of a year, she is now in Phoenix Children’s Hospital where she has been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and pulmonary hypertension. She is battling but as her mom put it on the private Facebook group for this young girl, it’s two steps forward, and one step back. When I told Sarah, she immediately wanted to help. She put together a package of USA gear, a little flag, a Wilson Optix, and a heartfelt card that she sent off yesterday to me so that I can deliver it to this young girl.
So you can see, while Sarah is a world class beach volleyball player, she is also a world class human with a huge heart. So as you are watching the Olympics this summer, cheer on this 24 year old girl whose dream is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Cheer on this girl who cares for others and whose heart has changed lives even at only 24 years old. She’s someone we can ALL get behind. I am proud to have worked with her in the sport and HONORED to call this friend of mine, family.