Twenty-five years ago, Nina Matthies wandered onto a beach volleyball court near her home in Manhattan Beach. She didn't realize it at the time, but that day at the beach would leave a lasting impression on her.
A long-lasting impressing.
A quarter of a century later Matthies still goes to the beach to play volleyball on weekends. She's no longer a gangly 11-year-old batting a ball over a dipping net with her mother and father, though. She's now a mother, wife and coach of one of the nation's top collegiate volleyball teams.
And Matthies, 36, is the second-oldest player on the women's pro beach tour. She's also among the winningest on the circuit. Matthies and first-year partner Elaine Roque rank fourth in the money standings with $4,421 after finishing no lower than fourth in their first four tournaments.
Some athletes survive tests of time--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gordie Howe and Nolan Ryan to name a few--but Matthies said she flourishes because of age and experience. She stands only 5 feet 6 1/2 inches, but she seems to tower over her taller, younger opponents.
Matthies said her intensity keeps her competitive.
"The older I get," she said, "the more intense I need to be. The younger players can play on sheer emotion. I have to be intense, or I won't be as good as I want to be."
Roque understands Matthies' on-court attitude better than anyone.
"Actually, intense is only the tip of the iceberg," Roque said. "(She) begins with intense and then goes further. She's really fiery. She yells and screams a lot. All the top players do.
"We're both perfectionists. We always kid each other after a match. We tell each other that we shouldn't make any mistakes."
Although they didn't play error-free volleyball, Matthies and Roque cruised through two matches Saturday at the Huntington Beach Open to advance in the double-elimination tournament. They'll meet Dana Point native Janice Opalinski and Linda Chisholm, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist, in the winners' bracket semifinals today.
Success has come quickly to Matthies and Roque, the second-seeded team in the tournament behind Patty Dodd and Brazilian Olympian Jackie Silva. But it hasn't come easily.
They faced a problem when they joined forces at the beginning of season--both played the right side of the court. Matthies volunteered to move to the left side.
"I've played (the right) side for 25 years," Matthies said. "I thought my game was more adaptable. It's been a fun change."
Matthies has seen many changes in beach volleyball. The sport attracts taller, quicker players than before.
"You don't have any easy matches anymore," she said. "It has changed from a casual meet-at-the beach sport to a business. I run and train every day for volleyball. It's not something where you get together and bat the ball around anymore."
Marie Stielow, a second-year player, often seeks Matthies' advice. Stielow and tour veteran Roxana Vargas dropped a 15-6 decision to Matthies and Roque in the second round.
"Nina has helped me a lot," Stielow said. "She encourages me and gives me a lot of pointers. She's one of the great players on the tour and I look up to her."
Matthies said beach volleyball also provides supplemental income for her family. But something other than money keeps her diving headfirst into the sand to save points week after week.
"You can make money at this," she said. "The least we've won this year (in a tournament) was $750. But you can't do this for the money. You have to love what you're doing. That's why I've been able to play for so long. If I didn't love it, I couldn't keep going."
Before turning professional in 1975, Matthies played on two national championship teams as a freshman and sophomore at UCLA.
After quitting school, she competed in four indoor professional leagues, including two co-ed organizations. In 1977, she became an assistant coach at UCLA, a job she held until accepting a head coaching job at Pepperdine in 1983.
Matthies suffered through a 5-21 season in her first year at Pepperdine, but has since guided the Waves to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
"We've lost each time in the first round," she said. "But we always play in the West regional, and that's one of the toughest."
In the summer, Matthies leaves indoor volleyball behind. She dons her sunglasses and swimsuit and heads for the beach. She's played with a variety of partners and had an undefeated season with Linda Robertson in 1987.
She said the weekend tournaments give her time to herself, away from her job, husband Dan, a firefighter in Santa Monica, and sons Morgan, 6, and Marty, 4.
"They keep me pretty busy," she said. "But this is my time. And I need that."