The Florida State University war chant blasted through the loudspeakers, and American fans decked in red, white and blue did the tomahawk chop as Cooper City’s Nick Lucena, a proud FSU alum, ran onto the Copacabana sand for the Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinals on Monday afternoon.
It was a picture-perfect day. The sun was shining. It was 88 degrees. And there was only a slight breeze as 8,256 fans – most of them Brazilians – settled into their seats to see a highly-anticipated match between the third-ranked U.S. team of Lucena and Phil Dalhausser and world champion Brazilian superstars Alison and Bruno (volleyball stars go by one name, like their soccer stars).
Then, as if on cue, the moment the match began, a windstorm rolled in with gusts of 52 mph. The ocean got choppy, fans started losing their hats, and Lucena and Dalhausser were thrown off guard. The Brazilians, perhaps more accustomed to the erratic conditions, got off to a quick start, withstood a U.S. rally in the second set, and dominated the third to win the match 2-1 (21-14, 12-21, 15-9).
“Right when warm-ups ended this wind came out of nowhere, it was dead calm and then it just started blowing hard,” said Dalhausser, a Daytona Beach native who won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It was really weird. They just handled the wind better than us, that’s basically the difference. It was really tough conditions today and I’m impressed with how well they did with it.”
Lucena added: “Hats off to them. It’s unfortunate that we lost today, but I think the better team won. They handled the conditions better than we did.”
The Brazilians got some help from the partisan crowd, which booed loudly every time 6-9 Dalhausser, nicknamed “The Thin Beast” served. They roared whenever hulking 6-8 Alison or Bruno made a great spike, dig or block. Before the match, the stadium announcer instructed the fans to raise their arms and shout “Monster Block!” whenever a player made a spectacular block.
They got to do the “Monster Block!” cheer on back-to-back points at the end of the first set, when Allison, known as “The Mammoth”, obstructed what would have likely been American points against any other player. The Brazilian fans sang and danced to the stadium play list, which ranged from the Grease soundtrack to Here Comes the Boom to Danza Kuduro.
Dalhausser and Lucena regrouped, and raced to a 5-0 lead in the second set. After Alison and Bruno made it 14-11, the Americans scored seven of the next eight points to force a third set.
The Brazilians started on the good side, took a 4-1 lead and kept the lead until the end. The most exciting play came at 9-5, with Alison digging a Dalhausser spike and then sealed the point with a thunderous spike that launched the fans from their seats.
“They killed all of our momentum in the third by winning the toss and going to the good side,” Dalhausser said. “Bruno hit the ace right off the bat. That changed the tide.”
Bruno, whose full name is Bruno Oscar Schmidt, is the nephew of the legendary Brazilian basketball player Oscar Schmidt, who played in five Olympics and is considered the best player never to play in the NBA. Bruno is only 6-1 and not as flashy as Alison, but his crafty play earned him the nickname “The Magician.”
“We turned the match around in the third set, regardless many difficulties, the wind was so crazy in our match, and also facing the Americans - it’s unbelievable,” Bruno said. “Every match here is like a final.”
Lucena and Dalhausser were hoping to catch the Brazilians in the medal round, but Alison and Bruno were upset by an Austrian team in group play, so they wound up in the U.S. quarterfinal bracket.
“It was unfortunate for us that it turned out that way, but we would have had to beat a good team to get to the next round anyway,” Lucena said.
Though the Americans were disappointed, they were pleased to get this far. Just a year ago, Dalhausser’s status for Rio was unknown because his partner Todd Rogers retired. He reached out to Lucena, who teamed with Dalhausser early in their careers.
“About a year ago we started playing together, no one gave us a chance to qualify,” Dalhausser said. “We were playing with the houses’ money here. We weren’t supposed to be here. I enjoyed the journey, I’ve enjoyed the week and a half that we’ve been here and it’s been a lot of fun. I couldn’t have done it without him (Lucena), and I wouldn’t have done it with anybody else.”