Phil Dalhausser: The story of a
once in a lifetime talent
LAUSANNE, December 22, 2020 - 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 victories 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
“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
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.