International Volleyball

The rookie whose career is only up from here

The rookie whose career is only up from here

HERMOSA BEACH, California โ€” Beginning in the spring of 2019, it would all be downhill for Abby Van Winkle.

Never mind that she was still just a teenager, a bright-eyed and more than promising freshman blocker for UCLA. Never mind that she was still floating on the euphoria that comes with not just winning an NCAA Championship, but clinching it with a block on court three. Never mind that she could be a successful professional if she so chose, that she could allow volleyball to be her vehicle to travel the world and live what she calls a โ€œfantasy lifeโ€ on the beach.

Never mind all that.

Sheโ€™d peaked, right then and there on the sugar-white sands of Gulf Shores, Alabama.

โ€œMy parents looked at me after and said โ€˜This is probably the highlight of your volleyball career. Everything else is downhill from here,โ€™ โ€œ Van Winkle said with a laugh on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. โ€œThatโ€™s not the case any more.โ€

No, it certainly is not. While that moment marked the highlight of her NCAA career, it seems but a lovely blip given what she recently accomplished as a professional. In college, she had to beat talented players, yes. But as a burgeoning professional on the AVP and Beach Pro Tour?

Sheโ€™s matching up with Olympic medalistsโ€ฆin qualifiers.

And winning.

In mid-April, Savvy Simo and Van Winkle made the trip from the Dominican Republic, where they won a bronze medal at Van Winkleโ€™s first NORCECA, to Guadalajara, Mexico, for a Challenge. Van Winkle wasnโ€™t even supposed to be there at all, subbing in on short notice when Toni Rodriguez pulled out with a knee injury. She and Simo were kind of a team, kind of not. They knew, from their time as teammates at UCLA and a handful of one-off events here and there over the ensuing handful of years, that they enjoyed playing together, that they could even be an excellent team. But points rule the world, and Van Winkle didnโ€™t have any, Simo did, and that made committing to Van Winkle as a partner no easy thing.

It took one match for Van Winkle to convince Simo that the risk was more than worth it.

In the second round of the qualifier, they matched up with Switzerlandโ€™s Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Mader, a team who had won the bronze medal in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and are currently on the verge of qualifying for Paris. The Swiss did what anyone would do when playing a team where one player (Simo) has wins over Kelly Cheng and…

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