49-year-old Olympic beach volleyball champion plays first event in 10 years

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Eric Fonoimoana, a 49-year-old who earned 2000 Olympic beach volleyball gold, played his first pro tournament since 2008 at the AVP stop in Hermosa Beach, Calif., this week.

Fonoimoana teamed with Jeremy Casebeer, who sought a last-minute sub for his injured partner, Reid Priddy, a 40-year-old who earned Olympic indoor gold at Beijing 2008 and Priddy’s injured replacement, Matt Olson.

Casebeer called Fonoimoana on Wednesday to ask if he would play, two days before the tournament.

“I was like, what? You sure you got the right number?” said Fonoimoana, who had never teamed with Casebeer but knew him a little bit from beach volleyball circles.

Fonoimoana, who still plays recreationally to stay in shape, signed up.

“I do play still at a high level, but more than anything my body’s healthy, which it’s been like four years since I could actually say that,” said Fonoimoana, who underwent left and right knee surgeries and rotator cuff surgery, as well as stem-cell and PRP knee injections until finding a balance that allowed him to jump and land on the sand. “It was a chance to see if I could still take it on and compete at that level.”

The pair won their first match over Bobby Jacobs and Michael Boag 21-16, 21-14 before losing to 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Jason Lochhead 21-10, 21-12 and then dropping a relegation bracket three-setter.

“Fans were excited to see me get back out there,” Fonoimoana said. “My friends were excited to root me on and see if I could beat some of those guys.”

Lochhead is actually the coach of Dalhausser and Rio Olympic partner Nick Lucena, but Lucena is out injured, too.

Fonoimoana, who lives in Southern California and works in real estate, is open to playing a one-off tournament again. It would be reminiscent of Misty May-Treanor, who came out of a three-year retirement to play three AVP events between 2015 and 2016 with no intention of getting back on the international level.

“The issue for me is about the start, stop and recovery,” Fonoimoana said. “If it was to play one match at a high level, I know I can play at a high level. It’s diminishing returns as far as me being able to get back and warm up and recover at that same level.”

NBCSN airs the Hermosa Beach Open on Sunday night/Monday morning at 12 a.m. ET. Dain Blanton, Fonoimana’s 2000 Olympic gold-medal partner, is a reporter on the coverage.

Fonoimoana, nicknamed “The Body” for his tremendous physique before retiring, and Blanton had a stunning run to gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, the second edition of Olympic beach volleyball. Neither player had previously won an international tournament, and Fonoimoana never won another international event before retiring.

He keeps the gold medal in a safe deposit box, bringing it out for speaking events or to show younger players and students. Fonoimoana provided inspiration on the sand on Friday without wearing it.

“The thing I got most out of it is so many players, ex-players, the fans, they said, my gosh, you relay motivated me,” he said. “At this point in my carer or journey of life, it’s great to be a motivator again.”

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