Throughout his globe-trotting season on the beach volleyball circuit, one place beckoned to Nick Lucena: Fort Lauderdale. Home. The warm, soft sand of the courts where he fell in love with the game.
It took an extra 36 hours for Lucena and partner Phil Dalhausser to get to Fort Lauderdale in time for the SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals.
They enjoyed only a brief celebration of their first international gold medal as a pair and the first of Lucena’s career at the Xiamen Open. After their victory on Saturday, they packed for the long journey from China to Florida.
Despite jet lag, they defeated Canada’s Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk 23-21, 21-12 in their opening match Tuesday. They play No. 1-ranked Brazilians Bruno Oscar Schmidt and Alison Cerutti on Wednesday.
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The homecoming is especially sweet for Lucena, 36, who grew up in Cooper City in a soccer-playing family. He was drawn to the beach, where he and a high school friend would spend weekends playing pickup volleyball games against the weathered denizens who beat them soundly.
“We’d go out without sunglasses or sun block and come home burnt red and get in trouble for being gone all day,” Lucena said.
The courts were commanded by Kenny Haan and Chuck Dunn, Lucena’s first mentors.
“They were tough, and they would let you know you were terrible,” Lucena said. “I’d say, ‘I can’t believe I’m losing to these old guys.’ I give them a lot of credit for making me a better player. They are still really funny, and even grumpier old men.”
Lucena played soccer at Cooper City High and then Western High. He also played indoor volleyball but found it boring.
“In beach you’re involved on every point,” he said. “Indoor you can go an entire rotation without touching the ball.”
He honed his competitive edge against four siblings.
“If someone lost a video game it would turn into a physical altercation,” said Lucena, recalling a time one brother chipped his tooth and he retaliated with a tennis racket. “I’d set my alarm earlier to make sure I’d get Froot Loops before they ran out and I was stuck with Grape-Nuts.”
At Florida State, Lucena grew a few inches and gravitated toward beach volleyball tournaments, where he met Dalhausser, a Central Florida student from Ormond Beach. That’s when their partnership began. When they graduated, they moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to train with pros Adam Roberts and Matt Heath, then two years later moved to southern California, mecca of the game.
“We knew we had to practice and play against the best if we wanted to make a living at it,” Lucena said.
They won their first event together in 2005 and shared the prize money of $20,000. This week in Fort Lauderdale, the winning pairs will collect $100,000 each.
Lucena and Dalhausser split up soon after their early success. The 6-9 Dalhausser was in high demand to play the left side, and was plucked away by Todd Rogers. That duo won the 2007 world championship and 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal.
“Phil is a physical phenom and one of the best point scorers ever while there are a lot of defenders like me whose job is to side out and dig some balls,” said the 6-1 Lucena.
While Dalhausser and Rogers dominated for seven years, winning 125 domestic and international titles, Lucena went through six partners.
But in August Lucena and Dalhausser decided to reunite. Lucena wanted a more experienced partner and Dalhausser, coming off an injury, was dissatisfied by inconsistent results. They hope to make a run at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where volleyball at the Copacabana venue is sold out. They’ve found they are as compatible as they were 11 years ago.
“We were on the road in Russia and China, playing Monopoly and fantasy football, and it’s like hanging out with your buddy,” Lucena said. “I had some partners I wouldn’t even exchange a word with for the whole tournament.
“On the court, I’ve adjusted to Phil’s hand sets and our chemistry is progressing. It’s a great opportunity for me.”
Dalhausser, 35, said Lucena brings passion and energy to the team.
“Now volleyball is more of a job to me so some days I say, ‘I just don’t feel like sweating today,’” Dalhausser said. “It’s good to have someone who will push you.”
In four tournaments they’ve finished third, second and first.
“The first two tournaments were like a honeymoon but now we’re just grinding it out,” Dalhausser said.
Lucena is glad to be back in Florida. He and wife Brooke Niles, a former pro, recently relocated from Santa Barbara, California, to Tallahassee, where she was hired as Florida State women’s beach volleyball coach. Their son, Gunner, is two years old.
The Fort Lauderdale event features the world’s top 10 men’s and women’s teams.
“I’m tired,” Lucena said. “But it will be fun playing in front of friends and family. And if Kenny and Chuck come, I’ll have to pump it up.”