For David Swatik, the key to volleyball success has been simple.
Life is a beach.
For five years, Swatik has spent his summer days walking a few blocks from his home in Manhattan Beach to Marine Avenue to meet friends. They might stop at Sloopy's first, but basically they spend their hours playing pick-up two-man volleyball on one of the 11 sand courts, a place for players who are serious about spikes.
"It's the main spot to play," said Swatik, a sophomore-to-be at UCLA. "It would be different if I just took a couple of friends and went straight down (on any stretch of sand) and played out here. It would be hard to get much better. But when you are watching all these players who are really good, you can learn from them and play with them. It brings your whole level up, I think."
This beachy-keen upbringing has been a focal point in Swatik's development. The UCLA swing-hitter is competing in his second U.S. Olympic Festival as a member of the West team.
Swatik, 18, also played in the 1989 Festival as a sophomore in high school. He was 16, making him the youngest men's volleyball player to make a Festival team, a distinction he still holds.
Since then his fortune has rolled like the tide. From a high of being a much-recruited high school All-American to a low of being a struggling freshman at UCLA, ready to redshirt. Then, at the end of the year, back to a high of keying an end-of-the-season run that almost took the Bruins to a national championship.
For it all, the 6-foot-4 Mira Costa High alumnus was one of two Bruins named to Volleyball Monthly's first-team freshmen All-American squad, his first collegiate honor to go with a slew of prep awards. Swatik was the 1990 CIF 4-A Division player of the year, a member of the 4-A championship team and a two-time Ocean League MVP. He teamed with Ross Pier to win the 1990 high school beach state championship, qualified for a AAA beach tournament rating and was named to Volleyball Monthly's "Fab 50" list.
"Beach guys like David Swatik, Sinjin Smith and Karch Kiraly, when they start at the college level, have the skills where they could be better than guys who are three years older and more experienced," said Al Scates, who has coached all three players--as well as 13 national championship teams--in his 29 years as the UCLA volleyball coach.
"David is just so far ahead on basic hitting skills," Scates said. "He's a natural at digging. His quickness and natural athleticism. . . . He has learned how to head a hitter and get to the spot quick enough to respond. He moves his feet tremendously well and all of that gets back to playing on the beach.
"Once you get a beach player off the sand and onto a hardwood floor, they just explode off the wood. It is possible to improve more by playing at the beach than in these summer festivals. . . . Still, this means that he was better than 150 of the other players at the tryouts."
Five members of the UCLA volleyball team are in the Festival. But originally, Swatik was looking to make a higher-level squad. In May he tried out for a spot on the World University Games team. He was cut and then was among 150 participants competing for 48 sports in the Festival during a two-day tryout. He survived and made the West team roster.
Making the West squad meant that Swatik had to cancel plans to try to qualify for professional tournaments in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach. College players are allowed to compete in such tournaments provided they do not play with a pro player and do not get paid.
Swatik is excited about the Festival, although his memories from the 1989 event, when he played for the North squad, are not the most pleasant.
"I remember I really did not get accepted because I was so young," Swatik said. "I do not know. I think that maybe people were jealous. . . . I do not want to say (guys were) jealous, but . . . I don't know. I think they may have held a grudge at the beginning."
The North team finished third in the four-team competition. Still, Swatik said the experience gave him confidence that helped him lead Mira Costa to an undefeated season and the 4-A title.
"Playing against older guys and playing well definitely helped my confidence," Swatik said. "It really got me ready for my senior year."
Mike Cook, Swatik's coach at Mira Costa, noticed the change.
"In the CIF title game in 1989 against Corona Del Mar, Dave did not play really strong and did not do well," said Cook, whose teams were 43-1 during Swatik's junior and senior seasons. "It was a big game and a big crowd, and all of that can get to you.
"But after going to the (1989) Festival, the big crowds did not bother him and he had been through any big-game situation you could ask. In the title game, he was awesome. Just an unstoppable force."