Jake Gibb exclusive: Cancer gave me perspective
If he qualifies for Tokyo in 2021, the 44-year-old American blocker will become the oldest beach volleyball player to compete at the Olympic Games.
Three-time Olympian. Two-time cancer survivor. The oldest man to win a World Tour event.
His goal? Trying to qualify for Tokyo 2020 with his new partner - 16 years his junior - Taylor Crabb before transitioning into coaching.
The pair are now ranked eighth in the world and leading the race for the two spots assigned to the USA men. They currently sit ahead of the veteran duo of Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena (11th), with Taylor's brother Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne following in 14th place.
If Gibbs punches his ticket to Japan, it will be his fourth appearance at the Games. He was twice a quarter-finalist with Sean Rosenthal at both Beijing 2008 and London 2012, but at Rio 2016 with Casey Patterson he didn't make it out of the pool stage.
"Going to the Olympics and getting a medal in the Olympics would be just icing on the cake," the 2012 FIVB World Tour winner told Olympic Channel during an exclusive interview from his home in Southern California.
Next year Gibb will be 45, potentially becoming the oldest beach volleyball player to ever compete at the Olympics since the sport made its official debut in 1996.
"To be honest, it doesn't mean a dime to me," he admitted.
"What means more to me is like what I accomplished with my partner and I want to really go to this Olympics with Taylor because he's never been to Olympics."
Crabb and Gibb have teamed up in 2017 and last November they won the World Tour four-star event in Chetumal, Mexico.
Since beach volleyball’s return amid the coronavirus pandemic, they played three tournaments in the AVP Champions Cup reaching the final twice.
On loving beach volleyball
OC: How was resuming playing after long time?
JG: Playing again is amazing. It's like anything, you know, you take it away, you take something away from yourself or have it taken away and you realise how much you love it or how much you don't need it.
You know, some people are working right now in the business world and are working from home and they realise they don't need to go into the office anymore because there's no reason, they can do the same work from home. Well, for me, you take away beach volleyball and I've realised how much I love it and how much I've missed it and I love what I do. So to be back with the AVP right now and playing now is huge. We don't have fans. We don't have people watching. So you don't get that energy. But still, it's still fun.
I'm just really thankful for the AVP for putting on these tournaments, and they've done it in a really safe way where everyone is wearing masks around the event except for the players. We don't high five; they're washing the ball between every point. They're really taking a lot of precaution to make sure everything's safe. So I can't thank them enough because it's what I love to do and, man, it's fun to play again!
OC: I read you took up beach volleyball relatively late. Can you tell me how you fell in love with the sport and why you are so passionate about it?
JG|: I did start late. I started really playing professionally when I was 22. When I was 21 years old I was playing in what would be considered 'recreational volleyball' because I really hadn't played much growing up. I was playing in like 'B tournaments', it's like 'barbecue volleyball'. So I really had a late start to it. I was a basketball player and then changed over to volleyball when I fell in love with it.
For me, it's just a sport I love, and it's a sport that my wife plays, my son plays. And if I wasn't playing professionally and I had a full time job, in an office somewhere, I would be out on the weekends playing beach volleyball with my brothers and with my wife. I just love the sport. I really do. I think it's just a great sport to spend with the people that you love, like it's a unique sport and that I can go down and play with my wife and have great games and have competitive games and have fun. Whereas like, I think if you're playing basketball or something, maybe you can't share that with your wife or your son. Sometimes it's a little more difficult.
But volleyball is a unique lifestyle sport that I've grown to love and for that reason I just keep playing. I've always said since I was like 36 years old, about eight years ago, I'm always like year by year, like, 'OK, well, we'll see if I can keep winning and keep my body in shape and keep healthy. Then, yeah, I'll play one more year. OK, I'll play one more year and one more year...'
And, you know, I've been fortunate. Last year I just became the oldest player to win an FIVB event. I'm fortunate to keep getting good partners and just my body has stayed healthy. So it's something I work at hard, but also I feel like I've been very fortunate.
On playing at 44 and secret to longevity
OC: It's not common to see a 44-year-old playing professionally in a demanding sport like beach volleyball...
JG: I always make fun of you 'Euros' because once you get to like 31 you're like: 'Oh, I'm too old. I must retire!' Americans have a different mindset. We're like: 'man, you push until you physically can't go anymore." But I think it's different culturally. In Europe people start looking at you like, 'what are you doing?' And here in America, I think people look at the older athletes with kind of like a sense of admiration, like, 'wow, man, you're still doing it!'
OC: What's the secret to your longevity?
JG: There's no secret. The secret is hard work and a lot of dedication to nutrition. So I take nutrition very seriously because that's part of my recovery. I always say that I work so hard off the court so that I don't I don't feel my age on the court, if that makes sense. Because when I'm playing age really isn't a factor. When it is a factor is off the court, is working out and doing the work and trying to recover and waking up in the morning and having achy bones and achy muscles. And that's real, that comes with age and you have to fight that. But it takes a lot of work to fight that.
You're doing a lot of work with P.T.s, a lot of work with chiropractors, with massage therapists, eating the right things so that you can recover and train again the next day because it's very demanding. You know, I have a partner that's 27 years old. It's not like I can take time off and say, 'hey, listen, I'm 44 years old. I need today off.' No, that's not how it works. Like I don't want to disrespect him that way. So I'm at every single practice and I'm doing the same amount of jumping as he is. And in order to do that, I really have to put the time in with my strength coach and then also with diet. You know, I can't I can't mess around with unhealthy foods.
OC: I understand that you are a good sleeper, how is this helping your recovery?
JG: For sure I sleep a lot. I sleep probably 9 or 10 hours a night. I've always been a good sleeper since I was a kid. I have five brothers that are all 6-ft (182-cm) tall and I'm 7 inches (18 cm) taller than them: my mum and dad would always tease me and say the reason I grew so tall is because I slept so much as a kid!
I've always been a good sleeper and it's the same now. I think everybody knows that while you're sleeping that's that's when you recover. It's something I take a kind of pride in but it also is a little bit of work. Like when I'm on the road. I get teased about this, I get heckled from my partner and my coach about this, but I travel with white noise. I have a white noise machine that drowns other human beings, because I don't like hearing grown men while I sleep, because I know that wakes me up. I have an eye patch and I take my sleep seriously. And, you know, that's worked for me. I feel recovered when I wake up!
On chasing his fourth Olympic Games
OC: You and 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser are both in your 40s and, with two different partners, you are competing for an Olympic spot in Tokyo. How can you explain that?
JG: I think it's very unique. My first year on tour, way back in like 2002, 2003, I was playing against Phil Dalhausser, and I'm still playing against him in finals. I played against him in the last two finals. So I've played him, you know, over a hundred and twenty matches during our career. So it's I know him very well. And, yeah, it's a testament to both, that we've put a lot of time and energy into this sport and we've stayed at the top for a long time. Yeah, I think the natural progression is that there's going to be some American players that will start pushing us out. But regardless, I'm going to retire after next year. So it doesn't matter if they push me out or not. I'm gone!
OC: What motivates you to go for your fourth Olympics?
JG: The Olympics are interesting because they have been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for me. You know, I have moments and thinking about the Olympics and the energy there is unlike any other energy I've ever experienced in my life. It's amazing and I want it again and I want it more. At the same time I've experienced more pain because of the Olympics and finishes and certain matches that really hurt and sting, that I really wanted to win.
I had a match to get to the medal matches in London that we lost, and I didn't play well. And for six weeks, I was in my house, I didn't draw the curtains, I was in a dark place, I was very upset. But what I've realised is this: if that's the worst that's happening to me is losing in sport, I can handle that. It's fine. I'm willing to risk that again to go and try for another Olympics. It's part of the journey, that's part of life. Like, what happens in life is we get our teeth kicked in, and what do you do with that? You keep going, you keep fighting. You keep trying for more.
I've had really tough moments in the Olympics, but I've had amazing moments. I've had amazing moments where I've got to go up into the stands and hug my wife and and see my brothers cheering with an American flag wrapped around them. And those are moments that I take and I cherish, and I'll think about those for the rest of my life.
So it's not always easy and it wasn't easy to choose to go to try to push for another Olympics. That wasn't an easy decision because it's scary to put yourself out there. But it's worth it to me. It's not scary enough that I don't want to try. So I'm going to try again.
OC: What impact did the postponement of the Games have on you?
JG: That was the biggest change for me because I was planning on retiring this year. So I was going to play this final Olympics and finish out the year with Taylor Crabb. I kind of had my life scheduled or what I was to going to do next... So when they postpone the Olympics, in beach volleyball, I don't know if you know how the point system goes, but if I decide, 'oh, well, I'm retiring this year and I let Taylor get a new a new partner', well, they have zero points to qualify for the Olympics. So he can't go to the Olympics. So I would be ripping away his dream. So I was really forced to play another year. Now, I feel weird saying that because I love playing and so I'm happy to play another year, but I wasn't planning on it.
So all that tells me is I need to put in more work. It's another year of work and that's fine. But I was also in a stage where, you know, this year coming up into this season, I was working out and my strength coach was in my ear screaming at me, 'hey, man, you got four months left. Let's go. Let's push through these reps!' Maybe my knee is hurting or my back is hurting and we're pushing through. We're like four months (out) – you have the clock on the wall at USA Volleyball saying the Olympics are here – and you're pushing through some stuff as a 44-year-old.
Well, to reset and say, 'oh, I have a year and four months left'… It's a little different for a 44-year-old going to 45 than it is for maybe the other athletes that are 22, going to 23. So it definitely was difficult. It was hard for me when they first postponed the Olympics. But listen, we've all been affected by this pandemic. I don't want to say that I'm something unique. Everybody has gone through some very difficult times. So if the worst thing that happened to me is that I get to play beach volleyball for one more year, I'm very happy.
What cancer taught him
OC: You recovered from cancer twice, how have those experiences changed you?
JG: Well, they were different experiences. I had skin cancer, you can see my scar. I had a melanoma removed from my shoulder. That was in 2003. That for me is very serious, but it didn't affect me the way testicular cancer did in 2011. So when that happened, it was really kind of devastating for me. It put me in a state where I was very vulnerable.
I felt for the first time like...I've always been this professional athlete. I could do anything. And to have that come into my life really rocked me, and a lot of things happened from that: in 2011 I had the worst year of my career. I didn't win an event. At the time I didn't recognise what was going on. This was post-surgery, everything, so I was healthy but not mentally. It was something I had to kind of accept and let it give me perspective, because the greatest thing I took from this is perspective. I just started to enjoy what I do more: going out on the stadium court, when I'm in Italy for example, at the Rome Beach Finals, feeling the energy of the crowd... I now sit back and I look around and I just I just enjoy those moments.
I feel very fortunate to do what I do and I just take in those moments more now. So it's simple: I play the same game, I work as hard, all of that is the same. But the difference for me is that I take it in a little bit more. And I just enjoy what I do. I've always enjoyed it, but I allow myself to take that in more during those moments.
So that's I think what I've taken from those two experiences of going through cancer is really perspective.
I enjoy my time with my family and I've combined my family and my beach volleyball life a lot more since then. I have my kids and my wife travel with me when they can. I take my kids to the beach during my practices and they sit on the side and they watch me and they help shag balls and my wife gets to watch me. I've kind of brought all that in and I understand what is important to me in my life.
OC: How has your mindset been while facing a lockdown and these uncertain times?
JG: I want to be real: during that time of lockdown I hear about people that were reading books, meditating and really making themselves a better person, and they excelled during that time. For me, it was very difficult. I locked down with my family and I would lift weights in my garage and on my front porch. But what I realised during that time is that I have created a life that I love, because I like to go out, I like to play beach volleyball, I like to train, I like to be social with the people around me. And I love the life I've created. I realised how much I do really appreciate that. So, during that time of lockdown, I did not thrive. It was very difficult for me.
The positives that I did take from it is for sure that I got to spend a summer camping, fishing, boating with my son and my daughter and my wife. As a beach volleyball player for the last 18 years, I've been travelling, you know, I've been in Europe during my summers and really haven't been able to spend summers with my family. So that for sure was an amazing time and really helped me realise that it is time for me to retire soon, because I do want to spend that time with my family, with my kids, while they still want to spend time with me. Because I think soon, when they get to be teenagers, they don't want to spend time with me. I think I have a small window and I really want to spend that time with them.
OC: It looks like you have already planned out your career after retirement: why coaching?
JG: I want to focus on youth coaching. What really excites me or pushes me is that I want to coach 12-year-old girls and boys and take them for six years until they're 18 years old and see them go off and get scholarships to play beach volleyball and become future AVP players and future World Tour players and future Olympians.
So for me that is very exciting and that's what I want to do. And maybe in the future, I'd take over a university programme of beach volleyball. I went back to school to get my master's degree, so if that opportunity arises, I'll jump on that. I'm open to a lot of different things, but right now I have to learn how to coach. It's not like just because I'm a decent player it makes me a decent coach. So it's something I'm working at and I'm learning and I want to become great.