"They know, long-term, they won’t be partners at the elite level because they’re both undersized, but right now they’re the two best players at their age level (in the United States), and they play well together.”
The stories of Tim Brewster and John Schwengel, the young men representing USA Volleyball at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, couldn’t be more different: One destined for greatness, literally living in the shadows of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic beach volleyball venue, the other the ultimate long shot.
USA Volleyball coach Ali Wood Lamberson says the pair defies the odds in many ways.
“They’re a nice Yin and Yang,” Wood Lamberson says of the 18-year-olds. “One is technical and responsible with his training, while the other has a lighter personality. They know, long-term, they won’t be partners at the elite level because they’re both undersized, but right now they’re the two best players at their age level (in the United States), and they play well together.”
Tim Brewster grew up in San Bernardino Valley, just east of Los Angeles, and primarily competed in swimming and basketball. He didn’t play the sport until, at the age of 12, he signed for a camp with Sinjin Smith, one of the pioneers of beach volleyball. Brewster wasn’t the least bit interested in indoor volleyball, preferring the culture and scenery of beach volleyball.
“I had just a blast from the get-go,” Brewster says. “Everything about it was so much fun: the location, running and diving around in the sand, needing all the skills.”
He played in a few tournaments when he was 13 and didn’t fare so well. But during the offseason he dramatically improved, then started to have some success the following summer. By his third summer he was a part of the USA Volleyball program.
“It happened really fast,” he says.
In 2015, Brewster attended a tryout, assuming he would make A2, just below the national team. But he survived the tryout’s first cut.
His family had a long-scheduled vacation to Barcelona, Spain, and Brewster briefly wondered if he should remain in California to see if he made the national team.
“I played some of the best volleyball I had ever played,” Brewster recalls. “I was like, ‘You know what? It could go either way.’ But I felt it was a longshot.”
Those who made the national team needed to quickly report for training, and he worried that would be a challenge since he was 6,013 miles away.
At 3 a.m. local time, in a refurbished monastery, Brewster was awakened by his mother shrieking and shaking him.
“I was groggy and in shock,” he recalls, “then I was just really excited. I had heard about how cool it was to be on the team.”
Brewster says the email informed him that he had 24 hours to officially register; he completed his in the first five minutes.
John Schwengel grew up on Santa Monica Pier, where he’d often tag along when his father regularly played pickup games on the beach. He shuffled between indoor and beach volleyball, excelling on both surfaces. He appreciated the intensity and camaraderie of indoors, including some of the big gyms for tournaments. But he also liked the looser environment of the beach, playing with just a partner and not having a coach barking commands and instructions.
He wasn’t sure which he liked better — until he was forced to choose.
When he was 17, Schwengel suffered a stress fracture on his right patella, an injury he wasn’t even aware of.
“I was trying to get a prescription for ointment for tendinitis,” he recalls. “But my doctors did an X-ray, then an MRI, which showed a stress fracture. That was the most frustrating part: I didn’t even feel it.
“I was shocked.”
Doctors and specialists informed him that switching so frequently between indoor and beach volleyball were causing serious damage to his knee and advised him to pick one. He was being recruited by NCAA schools to play indoors. There are no collegiate options on the beach, at least for young men.
“It was a really hard choice,” he says.
Schwengel, after consulting family and coaches, picked beach volleyball.
“I could see myself doing it for a long time,” Schwengel says.
Then something remarkable happened: Schwengel’s play greatly improved once he focused solely on beach volleyball.
On Sept. 13, 2017, Schwengel couldn’t believe the news: Los Angeles had been awarded the 2028 Summer Olympics. As plans were revealed, he discovered the beach volleyball venue would be in Santa Monica.
“They wanted to build it just north of Santa Monica Pier,” he says. “That’s where I learned to play. It’s a one-minute walk from our house.”
Looking forward to watching our awesome beach teams compete at @youtholympics in @BuenosAires2018! Good luck to Devon Newberry/Lindsey Sparks and Tim Brewster/John Schwengel and Coach Ali Wood Lamberson. pic.twitter.com/9AqGAzgz2i
— USAV Beach (@USAVBeach) October 5, 2018
An ideal beach volleyball team is usually comprised of one taller player and one shorter one. Both must be versatile and well-rounded. But the taller one can be more helpful in blocking and spiking, while the shorter one can excel as a backcourt defender and setter. The most dominant beach volleyball duo is Misty May-Treanor (5 foot 8) and Kerri Walsh Jennings (6 foot 2), winners of three Olympic gold medals and three FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.
But Schwengel stands 6 feet 2 inches tall, while Brewster is 6-feet.
“We’re an undersized team,” Brewster says. “It’s a challenge when we’re playing people who are 6 foot 8, and 6 foot 9.
“But we have good chemistry on the court, and our defense helps us compete.”
Adds Schwengel, “It can put us at a disadvantage sometimes, but we we try to come up with unique strategies and outsmart the other team.”
In preparing for the Youth Olympic Games, the pair has worked with Wood Lamberson on the technical aspects of their respective games.
But they’re not among the favorites: Earlier this year, at the FIVB U19 World Championships in China, they tied for 25th.
Still, Brewster can’t wait for the Youth Olympic Games experience in Buenos Aires.
“Getting to meet all the other top athletes from the U.S. and around the world, and being around that much talent is just going to be amazing,” he says. “We’ve faced a lot of these teams before, so it’ll be great to compete against them again.”
Besides, the Youth Olympic Games is one step closer to the ultimate goal, though Schwengel wants to keep things in perspective.
“I think about it from time to time, but I don’t think too far ahead,” he says. “I focus on what I can do more short-term to improve and not get caught up too much in the big-picture stuff.”