This feature story on volleyball player Claire Robertson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2004.
‘THE PERFECT LIFE’
By ED ODEVEN
She lives a block from a southern California beach with her grandma. She bicycles two blocks to work at her uncle’s coffee shop in the mornings. She travels 10 minutes by bike to Hermosa Beach, where she plays volleyball in the afternoons.
Sounds like a dream routine, doesn’t it?
It is. And it’s Claire Robertson’s reality.
“It’s the perfect life for me,” said Robertson, the former Northern Arizona volleyball standout. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. And now I’m getting it.”
Robertson is a volleyball player on the AVP Pro Beach Tour. She’ll next compete in the Hermosa Beach Open, to be held July 22-25.
Growing up in Torrance, Calif., Robertson was a beach bum by day, beach bum by night. Thus, it’s only natural for her to continue this lifestyle.
“I’m so used to it,” she said. “I’m there every single day in the summertime. That’s why it was very hard for me to make the decision to go to NAU. But I know now I could never live in the snow. I have to live by the beach.”
During her four years at NAU, Robertson made a name for herself as one of the top all-around players in the program’s history. She became the first Lumberjack to finish her career with more than 500 kills, 2,000 assists and 2,000 digs, and was the first setter in team history to record a triple-double.
The 22-year-old, who finished her collegiate career last fall, is now trying to establish herself as one of the top young players on the AVP Tour.
It’s a big adjustment, as beach volleyball is a stark contrast from the indoor game. For starters, there are only two players on the sand, as opposed to the six that play together indoors on the hardcourt.
“Beach volleyball is completely different than indoor because you have to have all of the skills — pass, serve, set, spike, all of it,” said Robertson, who split time at outside hitter, right-side hitter and setter at NAU. “You have to know how to see the whole court while you’re jumping to swing.
“There’s so much you have to change, from your approach, to your arm swing, to your quickness on the sand,” she added, “because you don’t really move well in the sand. You have to get your sand legs developed first before you even play in the tournament. I sort of learned that when I played in Tempe (in late April).”
In the Tempe Open, Robertson and then-partner Patti Scofield finished 37th overall. They won a first-round match in three games over Michelle Moore and Suzanne Stonebarger, but dropped their next one to Kimberly Coleman and Julie Sprague.
Robertson teamed up with Alyssa Rylander for the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Open the first weekend of June. They placed 41st, winning their first-round match and dropping the next, which eliminated them from the tourney.
A NEW PARTNER
Since the Manhattan Beach Open, Robertson has been playing with Keao (KAY-ow) Burdine, a senior-to-be at the University of Southern California and a two-time NCAA championship MVP.
In case you’re wondering, there were no 11th-hour negotiations at a secret location, no heated discussions between agents before the change. The partnership, in fact, is quite informal.
“I get to pick who I want to play with,” was how Robertson described the agreement.
Burdine watched Robertson play in the Manhattan Beach tournament and called to inquire about forming a team.
The two said OK and that was the end of the discussion.
They trained three days together before competing in the San Diego Open, which was held June 11-13, placing 25th, the highest finish of Robertson’s young career (she made her pro debut at the 2003 San Diego Open).
“We just play well together,” Robertson said of she and Burdine. “…But one thing we have to work on is communication. She tends to be the more quiet player on the court and I tend to be the more loud one. But she’s definitely the more powerful hitter. She can pound the ball. It’s good. It fires me up.”
Burdine said that Robertson’s “been the best partner I’ve had so far playing on the beach. It’s been fun. She’s very feisty and really wants to win. She’s really competitive. She has really good ball-control skills.”
The 5-foot-9 Robertson and the 6-1 Burdine complement each other with their varied skills. While Burdine is wreaking havoc at the net, Robertson is the steady defensive force in the background.
Robertson and Burdine will next play in the aforementioned Hermosa Beach Open. “That’s the big one,” Robertson said.
In the meantime, they’ll continue to work on getting better by playing in AVP Next events, the association’s semi-pro circuit, like they did last weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif.
ON THE BEACH
As a teen-ager, Robertson began competing on the amateur beach volleyball circuit, working her way up the ladder from the unrated classification to B, AA, AAA, and, finally, the semi-pro level.
In 2001, Robertson and Tawny Schulte, who starred for Wake Forest, competed in the Junior Olympics in Australia. They earned one of the two coveted women’s berths to the international tournament — two U.S. men’s teams also went.
Robertson and Schulte placed fifth overall behind a pair of Mexican teams, the other U.S. team and the Chinese champions. They had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the week in an Australian monastery in Manley Beach.
All in all, Robertson said the trip was an eye-opener for her, a reminder that she was indeed a talented player.
“It was an amazing experience. After that, I knew I could do it,” she said.
Now that she’s doing it, Robertson is eager to become one of the best, but the financial constraints of not yet earning prize money on the tour limit how many tournaments she can compete in.
In the future, Robertson said she’ll need to get a sponsor to help pay for “my plane tickets, all my bathing suits and stuff like that.”
Advancing out of the qualifying round will be key to attracting sponsors. Currently, Robertson cannot afford a personal coach, but she said it’ll be beneficial in the future.
For now, she soaks up all the knowledge offered by her many friends who play on the tour, including Sean Rosenthal and Larry Litt, who are currently ranked No. 3 on the AVP men’s tour.
And she’s on the beach as much as possible. Besides serious training “three hours a day, four days a week,” there are plenty of impromptu games at Hermosa Beach. All it takes is a simple phone call.
“We’ll call up a team and say, ‘We’re meeting down at the pier at four o’clock, can you come play? ‘Yes, we’ll bring our balls, our lines and our antennas,'” Robertson said, recounting countless conversations. “And we’ll just play a couple games. It’s pretty cool, because everyone on the tour is really young and everyone knows each other, so if they want to train you can just call them up and play.”
Robertson will fulfill her educational obligations to NAU — she’s a health promotion/secondary education major — by student-teaching at a Flagstaff school, starting Aug. 30. After that, she said the goal is to become one of the top 32 players on the ultra-competitive tour.
“I haven’t played anyone really good yet,” she said, sounding clearly motivated to erase that fact from her resume. “Playing top 25 teams will be really exciting.”
That said, Robertson enjoys the competitive nature of the tour.
“These girls are so competitive because they are playing for money. … It’s like hard-core money. It’s so serious,” she said, referring to tandems like Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who split $14,500 for winning the Tempe Open.
She was asked if she can make a good living playing on the beach.
“That’s been my goal since I was young,” she said. “You can make a decent amount of money. You’ve just got to win.”
Then you take a break and relax. After all, you’re already at the beach.
If you’re Claire Robertson, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.