Any athlete will tell you that the road to the Olympics can be lonely, grueling and extremely costly. If that athlete plays a sport where the prize money is small, travel expenses are large, and the window of competitive opportunity closes quickly, it’s a wonder why they would be willing to take on such long odds. But Brooke Sweat is not the type to let overwhelming odds alter her goals.
Sweat didn’t grow up with Olympic dreams. In fact, beach volleyball wasn’t even on her radar. “Basketball was my sport,” she says. “I did softball and track, too. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started playing club volleyball.” Sweat began dating a friend who helped out with the volleyball team. He was a beach volleyball player himself. After watching him play, she decided to give it a try. “I hated it at first! (laughs) Over time, I grew to like it,” Sweat says. “Then, it was all I played.”
Playing recreationally, however, was one thing. Playing professionally is an exponentially more difficult endeavor. Getting started on the pro circuit requires more than just athletic ability. “When you start, the prize money is so small,” Sweat says. “You’re grinding it out in qualifiers. Sometimes, the prize money doesn’t even equal your travel expenses. You’re basically competing and losing money.”
After completing a successful collegiate volleyball career at Florida Gulf Coast University, Sweat began earning her way into draws for AVP tournaments—the major pro circuit. She moved to California in 2012, and she broke through with partner Jennifer Fopma in 2013 to win the Huntington Beach Open. Sweat was even named the AVP’s defensive player of the year. But at the end of the season, Fopma chose to play with a different partner for the following season.
“Feelings do get hurt,” Sweat says. “It’s part of the sport. We were beginning to find some real success. Lots of times, things aren’t working between partners and they try to force it. It’s important that you find a partner who compliments you as a player.”
In 2014, Sweat and AVP pro Lauren Fendrick decided to try teaming up. “I absolutely hated playing against her,” Sweat says. “She had the same mindset I had. I wanted her on my side of the net.”
The partnership clicked immediately. Fendrick was the tall, intimidating presence at the net that complimented Sweat’s game perfectly. They both shared the same ambition of pursuing the Olympics. The teammates immediately began playing internationally. Now, they are in Rio, ready to go for gold at the 2016 Games.
The road to Rio has provided its own challenges. Sweat’s husband, Nick, a former beach volleyball player himself, still lives and maintains his business in Florida. Supportive of his wife’s dream, he flies out to California frequently to help her train and provide support. Sweat’s extended family will also fly from Florida to her international tournaments to spend time with her and watch her play as well. She has also battled a shoulder injury that briefly threatened to derail her Olympic ambitions. Yet still, Sweat has found a way to manage her injury, and the distance from her family and friends, while staying focused on her dream. “It’s been a battle to get this far,” she says. “I know that I’ve sacrificed a lot to get this far, but I’m excited for the rest of the journey.”