Brooke Sweat marches on: 'They know the heartbreak I went through with Rio'

Estero, Florida, USA, June 10, 2020 - Brooke Sweat’s house has been strangely crowded these past few months. Strange, because Sweat is actually in it.

It’s not typical at this time of year – or many times of the year, for that matter – for Sweat to be home. Like any other beach volleyball player, she’d be travelling the world or the United States, spending precious little time at her home in Estero, Florida. Even if there were no tournaments to be played on a particular weekend during season, she’d still be out of town, living in Southern California to train with Kerri Walsh Jennings.

But with no tournaments to play, and no training in the foreseeable future, she’s been able to enjoy more time at home than she has for the majority of the past decade.

“We’ve seen each other more in the last two months than we have in the past eight years,” Nick Sweat, Brooke’s husband of a little more than 12 years, said. The season being cancelled for the foreseeable future has been “a blessing in disguise for sure.”

It was both the plan and not the plan at all for Nick to live in Florida and Brooke in California. Nick knew, well before the two began dating, that Brooke had a future in the sport, one whose primary training grounds in the United States is located in California. But he was just a kid then, 17 years old, a senior in high school. He flipped on the TV and there he saw Brooke, “this volleyball stud,” he said, competing in the Florida State Championship.

Three years later, both students at Florida Gulf Coast University, they were dating. A few after that, when Brooke was 21 and Nick 23, they wed.  

“Here we are,” Nick said, “18 years later.”

Eighteen years later. Making it happen, no matter how far or wide they may be from one another.

When Brooke’s beach career began to take off in earnest, they had moved to California together. It was in 2011 when Brooke received a call from Dave Williams, the late managing director of beach programmes for USA Volleyball. He told her that she had potential in this sport. Moving to California was the best way to fully tap that potential.

“I told her I’d quit my job right now and move out here,” Nick recalled. “If this is what you’re going to do, let’s go all in.”

They did, packing up in January of 2012 and moving to Southern California. But Brooke was on the road so much that it hardly made sense for both of them to live in one of the most expensive places in the country, particularly when she preferred to spend her off-seasons in Florida. In August, Nick moved back East. Brooke stayed. The next eight years of summers and early falls consisted of “waking up at 2 a.m. to watch a scoreboard or just phone calls and not seeing each other for weeks on end,” Nick said. “It’s a completely different lifestyle from what we all anticipated.”

Little, really, can be described as anticipated in Brooke’s career. She competed during the final year of her run to the 2016 Olympics, alongside Lauren Fendrick, with a torn rotator cuff. It had been 80-90 per cent torn. Her orthopedist, Michael Shepard, couldn’t quite comprehend how it was able to hold up over the course of a year.

“Dr. Shepard has been doing this forever,” she told reporters at the Rio Games in 2016. “He said in his career he has seen two other cases where he was completely dumbfounded and couldn’t explain what was going on.”

There is a saying from St. Thomas Aquinas that many Christians point to in circumstances such as these: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

Brooke didn’t really need an explanation for how she was able to qualify for the Olympics on a bum shoulder, or why she was able to do so only to lose all three matches of pool play. Faith has been the bedrock of her life, the foundation upon which her and Nick built their relationship.

No explanation was needed. God simply had something else up his sleeves.

What that “something else” was, neither of them knew.

She considered retirement. Moving back home. Spending time with her husband. Building a house. Starting a family.

Then Walsh Jennings called, the one with the four Olympic medals and resume that puts her on the short list of greatest athletes of all time. Would Sweat want to make one more Olympic run?

“I just wanted to be on the court against her, she’s always going to make me better,” Sweat said in a previous interview. “I never thought I would be playing with Kerri. Like, no. So it’s kind of cool to be in this position, especially after not knowing if I was going to be playing ever again.”

She’s playing, all right. And winning. Her and Walsh Jennings hit 18 FIVBs and a pair of NORCECAs in hardly a calendar year. They’ve won six medals on the World Tour, including a gold in Jinjiang, China, in May, Sweat’s first.

After pondering retirement, Sweat now finds herself in a pair of life scenarios she had never envisioned coinciding: second in the United States Olympic race; at home with Nick for months at a time, overseeing the construction of a new house they’re building.

“I think that [the Rio Olympics] prepared me not just for these moments but just for life in general,” Brooke said. “Nothing is going to go as planned and if it does, wonderful, but that was the main thing I learned. You gotta prepare for things not to go as planned. That’s how I look at my life right now: ‘This is how it’s planned, but it’s probably not going to go like this and you just gotta take the bumps and bruises when they come.’ I couldn’t avoid this so am just taking it a day at a time. It just comes back to being thankful.”

She loves the time she’s had with her family, even if it means another year before she’s able to start one of her own. Walsh Jennings acknowledged that if Sweat wanted to start a family, she’d support her 100 per cent, even if it meant a premature end to their Olympic chase.

“She said ‘If you want to start having babies I’m all for it!’” Sweat said. “The plan was to move back home after the Olympics and start a family but luckily I have a family back home and a husband who’s very supportive and they’re like ‘Absolutely not! You gotta go for this!’

“There’s no thought of not giving it all.  I’m so blessed. They know the heartbreak I went through with Rio, and I’m not saying Tokyo won’t be a heartbreak if we qualify, but this whole journey towards Tokyo has brought us closer together and my extended family understands what I’m going through trying to qualify. Every tournament, I get texts and calls from everybody. It’s been really cool. It’s brought us a lot closer. They just wanted to see me have another shot.”

Also watch: Kerri Walsh Jennings on Facebook Live

Quick links:
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour


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