OUTSIDE MAGAZINESame Ball, Little Different Spin
Beach volleyball's emerging phenom wants his sport to look more like America
By Sarah Freidman
When Dain Blanton explodes from the sand and smashes a scorching spike over the net, his 6-foot-3, 198-pound frame jackknifes in midair, torso and legs snapping together with the force of a steel trap. It's a moment of such raw ferocity that beach volleyball spectators are sometimes surprised to see him landing back on his own side of the net. "Dain's got the quickness, the speed, the strength," says Ed Viramontes, a Los Angeles YMCA director who has run clinics with Blanton. "He's alert, his timing is perfect, and I don't think there's an ounce of fat on him."
Perhaps the best-conditioned and, at 26, one of the youngest of the top 10 players on beach volleyball's professional tour, Blanton broke into the sport's upper echelon last summer by pairing with Canyon Ceman to win the Miller Lite Grand Slam, the tour's most prestigious event, at Hermosa Beach, California. On the 16th of this month, he will be called upon to prove that this victory was no fluke when he returns to Hermosa for the U.S. Championship. Although insiders speculate that it will be an uphill battle — other pros say that he's not yet fully in sync with new partner Eric Fonoimoana — no one is lining up to bet against Blanton. "His greatest strength is that he does everything well," contends Marv Dunphy, his former coach at Pepperdine. "And that's a rarity."
He's rare — indeed, unique — in at least one other respect: Blanton was the first and so far remains the only African-American man to make a mark in professional beach volleyball, a game that still displays an exceedingly white tan-line. Though his achievement inspires sportscasters to invoke Jackie Robinson and Tiger Woods, Blanton says the comparisons are unwarranted. Growing up in the Orange County town of Laguna Beach, in the heart of Reagan country, he says he never really experienced racial discrimination. "It's a volleyball community, and race was just not a big deal," Blanton says. "When I'm out there playing, I don't think about the fact that I'm African-American, and I don't think the people I'm playing against are thinking about it either."
Blanton does, however, have a sense of mission about expanding his sport's demographically narrow player base. Out on the tour, he's been setting aside time to conduct a series of clinics to introduce beach volleyball to inner-city children. "One of my goals," he declares, "is to see another African-American win a professional beach volleyball tournament. And the sooner, the better." In the meantime, though, Blanton has his own contests to worry about. Though he and Fonoimoana have spent the summer racking up seconds and thirds, Blanton himself worries the duo's game may lack the consistency needed to prevail in Hermosa Beach. But then again, the oddsmakers were saying the same thing last year before he walked away with the title. "When he's on, he's simply overpowering," says Association of Volleyball Professionals tournament director Matt Gage. "In one tournament last year he served 11 aces in a single game. Believe me — that's amazing."