On the day his life changed, Sean Rosenthal didn’t make a dime. Didn’t win a match, either. But neither of those things mattered. What mattered was that 16-year-old Rosenthal was there. He was there, in the AVP players tent with Karch Kiraly and Mike Dodd. He was there, with Kent Steffes and Adam Johnson.
“That was: This is what I want to do,” Rosenthal said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “This is what I’m going to do. It was special to me. It was a week before I turned 17. That was something I found out right then and there: This is what I want to do. And here I am, many years later, 25 years after.”
Twenty-five years later, Rosenthal is 41. He has given more to beach volleyball than even the most bullish of prognosticators could have ever guessed. He has won 12 AVPs and another five AVP Hot Winter Nights, as well as an NVL. He has won 10 gold medals on the World Tour and qualified for two Olympic Games. Twice, he’s finished as the No. 1 team in the world. Yet all of these accolades are, when compared to the immeasurable impact he has had on the beach volleyball world, and in particular the Hermosa Beach community, nothing more than shiny trinkets.
How often, after all, can you find a two-time Olympian, one of the best to ever play their respective sport, at Eighth Street, playing in a blind draw fours tournament? How often could you see that same athlete, in spite of a bum knee that is still recovering from a recent surgery, setting in the famed Solstice fours tournament at 21st Street? How often will you find them at FUDs, or Six-Man, or any other event where the barrier between professional and fan is eliminated, and what’s left is the only thing Rosenthal has ever sought: a beach, the sport he loves, and good people.
Some crave the attention of the marquee events: Olympics, World Championships, the Major Series, Manhattan Beach Open. And, to be sure, Rosenthal has aspired to those, and enjoyed more success than most. Those are the events that have made him famous outside of the South Bay enclave and continued to fund his enviable livelihood. But they were never his why, never the reason he got into this game in the first place. More than two decades later, those events remain far from the motivation for why he continues to play.
“A big reason of why I fell in love with beach volleyball is this community in Hermosa Beach and all these: 8th Street Drunk Draw, 16th Street has Labor Day, Memorial Day, Cinco de Mayo, 21st has the Solstice. It’s part of the culture down here,” Rosenthal said. “That’s why I fell in love with beach volleyball: the beach and the people and the hanging. It’s hard for me to pass those up, especially Eighth Street. That’s where I was born and raised.
“Why [Taylor Crabb and I are] the most popular with the fans is because we’re there, and we’re with the people and we’re hanging out and having some drinks and being yourself and enjoying yourself and not just feeling like this is only work or a full-time job.
“My whole life, people have been like: Do you work? Well, I play beach volleyball, and yeah, that is my work, it’s my job, but is it a job? No. I’ve loved my life and that’s been my office for a lot of years and I just hope that can be the same for the next coming generation.”
To say that Rosenthal entering a new role in his beach volleyball career would be inaccurate, though many, pointing only to his declining results and waning tournaments played, may see it that way. But Rosenthal, after all his wins and spectacular highlights, is the same as he’s always been: A champion for the sport that’s been the drumbeat of his life.
In the midst of a tight 2012 Olympic race, in which he was partnered with Jake Gibb, Rosenthal could feel the strange tension between them and American rivals Matt Fuerbringer and Casey Jennings, who were nipping at their heels for the Olympic bid.
“Even throughout the process, a little bit of what I noticed with where we were, just sitting at lunch, or sitting at dinner at these tables in Switzerland or wherever we were, you could feel a sort of awkwardness, where I didn’t want that,” Rosenthal said. “I wanted to grab my plate and sit at their table. For some reason, for me, I want to watch you do well. I want to go to the Olympics because I earned it.”
In spite of the FIVB’s attempt to pit countrymen against one another with the country quota system, Rosenthal never caved to it. He’s always lifted up those around him — like Jennings and Fuerbringer — even if it wasn’t in his own best interest. Which is, unsurprisingly, exactly what he’s doing now, only even more than he had earlier in his storied career.
In February, when Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb lost a critical country quota match to Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner to earn a spot in the Doha four-star qualifier, the Hawai’ians were sniping at each other. Crabb lamented to Rosenthal about Bourne’s siding out; Bourne chirped about Crabb’s setting.
“This year was definitely different, to sit back, watch it, throw a couple two cents in here and there. From the outside looking in, [Tri and Trevor] had just lost a country quota match to go to Doha at the start of the year, and Theo and Chaim are a great team, and you play them in a one-match thing, on a windy day on a hard surface, it’s anybody’s game. It’s one game. Lose that game, and then Phil [Dalhausser] and Nick [Lucena] and Jake and Taylor made the semifinals. That was a big dagger. After that, I almost saw it in practices, watching these guys, I could see that it was bothering them,” Rosenthal said. “I’m like ‘Guys why are you coming to me? You should be coming together.’ That’s what it was about: Enjoying the process. How many times are you going to get a chance, a realistic chance to go to the Olympics, with one of your childhood friends. It may not happen again. It’s something that gets overlooked of enjoying the process.”
In the five tournaments since, Bourne and Crabb have finished in the top-10 every time. There’s a marked shift in their on-court personas. Still intense, yes, but less tension. Whether or not Rosenthal would deserve any credit for that shift, he’d never accept it, or even externally acknowledge he made a difference.
He was just Rosie being Rosie.
It was a strange Olympic race this quad, without Rosenthal in it, the first since 2008 that he has not made a run for the Games. He has been on every side of an Olympic race: A relatively stress-free run in 2008, one in which he and Gibb did not have anyone chasing them; an airtight race in 2012; a tough partner switch in 2016 that kept him out. It makes him the perfect advisor, the perfect voice, for whoever is in need of it.
So why did Bourne and Crabb turn to Rosenthal, when their Olympic hopes were fading?
Who else could possibly have been better?
Who, in the past two decades, has been better for beach volleyball than Sean Rosenthal?
Who better than Superman?