The next, perhaps surprising, stop on Sarah Sponcil’s volleyball career, as a highly touted player on the upstart Grand Rapids Rise in the inaugural season of the Pro Volleyball Federation, began in an unlikely spot: Kenya.
This past May, Sponcil visited Kenya, in part to see her good friend Gaudencia Makokha, whom she met competing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, in part to help a non-profit organization, World concern, “an amazing organization dedicated to serving people in extreme need because they have an extreme calling — to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a broken world,” Sponcil wrote this past May.
“They bring clean water to the thirsty, they help feed the hungry, they give comfort to the exploited, traumatized, and forgotten. They literally work with people left behind, beyond the end of the road.”
While with Makokha, Sponcil joined the Kenya indoor national team for practices as they prepared for the African Championships, rediscovering her dormant love for the indoor version of the sport she left in 2017 after starring as a setter for UCLA.
“You kind of forget about it. You forget about the memories, you forget about the people, you forget about the community,” Sponcil said on Tuesday morning. “I’m just so excited to open that door again. Going to Kenya was one of the best trips of my life. I’ll say it until I die.”
What role Sponcil will play for the Rise, she isn’t quite sure yet. Neither, for that matter, is Rise coach Cathy George, although it’s most likely she’ll be a setter and/or libero.
“Sarah is the all-around volleyball player, having played every single position except for middle blocker. She has an extensive background in beach volleyball, which may be slightly different from the indoor game, but she is a natural at whatever she does and I am sure she will be ready to play come January,” George said.
“Sarah has represented Team USA at the Olympics, and the mindset you must develop in order to compete at that level is extraordinary. Sarah has big goals, whether it’s to play in the Olympics, indoor or outdoor, and I love the confidence and mentality she brings to our club.”
The Rise are one of six teams in the PVF, which will begin its inaugural season this January. The Rise will compete against the Atlanta Vibe, Columbus Fury, Omaha Supernovas, Orlando Valkyries, a San Diego-based team and one more team that will be announced soon. A Dallas franchise is set to join the PVF in 2025.
“This last month and a half has been the wildest but best month and a half of my life,” Sponcil said. “It’s been a lot of decisions, big decisions, but exciting. I like to be more to myself so I can have a clear head where I want to go next. So exciting. I’m just so excited to get back on the indoor court.”
A move of some sorts, be it a partner shift or a move to indoor, from the 27-year-old Sponcil was expected, as her and beach partner Terese Cannon withdrew from a number of tournaments in the previous two months. They skipped the Hamburg Elite16, Manhattan Beach Open, and Chicago Gold Series. In the second year of their partnership, Sponcil and Cannon were one of the best teams in the USA, medaling at the Ostrava Elite16 and Itapema Challenge and thrice finishing third on the AVP. Despite the recent hiatus from the beach, they are still ranked No. 12 in the Olympic rankings and had a spot sealed up in the upcoming World Championships.
But the unexpectedly rekindled love for indoor was too intriguing for Sponcil not to pursue.
“It’s not what people do,” Sponcil said. “Most people will go ‘This is my career for the next 20 years.’ To take a leap of faith and do what’s in your heart, it’s OK to explore those. When I look at society a lot of people don’t — this is what I should be doing or what society thinks I should be doing.”
She isn’t the only beach player to join the PVF. Carly Skjodt, a rising presence on the AVP, signed with Orlando, and several others are in negotiations with various other franchises. The benefit of the PVF, as opposed to the international club route, is a short season close to home that will end in May — exactly when the AVP typically begins its season.
As she did at UCLA, where she set indoors and played on court two on the beach, Sponcil is planning on playing both.
“I want to play PVF but AVP is just as much on my radar to go out there and play the sport that I love. That love hasn’t gone away but this opportunity I couldn’t say no especially with my eyes being opened to another joy I have, which is indoor,” Sponcil said. “I can’t say no to an opportunity like this. I’m just as excited for both, and to be able to do both, I’m grateful for it. To be able to do both is a dream.
“I’m just taking things one opportunity at a time. Obviously Paris [2024 Olympic Games] and the FIVB, I won’t be playing in those tournaments, but once the next quad hits I can’t say that I won’t go back to the beach. I’m still interested in both but this is where I’m at right now.”
Kerri Walsh Jennings, who played on the 2000 USA Olympic team and then became a three-time beach gold-medalist with Misti May and won bronze in 2016 with April Ross, is now part of the PVF San Diego franchise.
“Sarah Sponcil is made of greatness and has proved it at every level of indoor and beach volleyball,” said Walsh Jennings, who went from indoors to the beach. “The fact that she’s now committed to playing in the PVF shows not only her sincere love of the game, but it shows her tenacity of spirit. Sarah wants it all and I can’t blame her.
“This league is structured so that the athletes can maximize their opportunities within the sport and in life. I love that Sarah has recognized the powerful opportunity within the PVF and I love that she’s going for it.”
It was a lifelong dream of Sponcil’s to represent the USA in the Olympic Games. She did so in Tokyo in 2021 alongside Kelly Cheng, where they became the youngest team to qualify for an Olympics in USA beach history. They finished ninth, a respectable, if somewhat disappointing finish for the two, who entered Tokyo on a scintillating run, with gold medals in the Sochi and Ostrava Four Stars.
But, as Sponcil wrote in that piece for VolleyballMag.com, “the proverbial shit hit the fan on the return flight home from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Questions and contradictions were racing through my head, and they wouldn’t stop. We got ninth, but I felt sad and empty. I was so happy we made it, but it wasn’t enough. Volleyball was my everything, but I felt suffocated by it. I was sitting there asking myself one question after another:
“Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel unfulfilled? Why do I feel so empty?”
A little less than two years later, she was in Kenya, rediscovering a path that may fill the void.
“Going to Kenya was one of the best trips of my life,” she said. “I’ll say it until I die.”