When Elaine Youngs and Rachel Wacholder abruptly ended their successful beach volleyball partnership a month ago, it came as a surprise to many who follow the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball tour.
Wacholder and Youngs were a solid No. 2 team behind Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and the only team other than May-Treanor and Walsh to win an AVP tournament in 2005 or '06.
But partner switches are common in beach volleyball. In fact, they happen every week.
"It's part of the game," said Youngs, in her 10th year on tour.
Indeed, on any given week, there will be at least two or three partner switches. Sometimes players are dissatisfied with previous results. Often, one teammate sees an opportunity to play with a more skilled partner. Occasionally there is an injury, and sometimes the personalities simply don't allow the players to stay together.
"Usually it's a combination of all of the above," said Stein Metzger, who was involved in a high-profile breakup with Kevin Wong in 2003. "But the personality clashes are a lot more fun to talk about."
Beginning today in Las Vegas, players have no choice but to swap partners. They are playing the Gods and Goddesses of the Beach tournament at Caesars Palace. The format of the tournament puts players into pools and they partner with each player within their pool.
Players advance and are eliminated based on their results in the pool. The two who accumulate the most points in pool play meet in the finals and can pick a partner from any of the eliminated players.
The format, popularly known as "King of the Beach," is a testament to how ingrained the idea of partner switching has become on the AVP tour.
"It's a business and everyone does what's best for them," Youngs said. "Partnerships are not easy in this sport. It's very different from other team sports because it's only the two of you out there."
And that is a key factor, according to Liz Masakayan, a former player who was coaching Youngs and Wacholder at the time of their breakup. Because there are only two players, one person's actions directly affect the team more than in most other sports, Masakayan said.
For instance, a bad set makes it difficult to put away a kill. A bad pass forces a teammate to chase down the ball and makes a good set difficult. "You're more exposed and vulnerable to your teammates than in any other sport," Masakayan said.
It's no wonder there are so many references to marriage in beach volleyball vernacular. Players routinely refer to partnerships as a marriage.
"Breakups are a part of life," Metzger said. "Look at how many people get divorced, and those are people who truly loved each other at some point. We're just attracted to somebody's volleyball ability."
The Youngs-Wacholder breakup was a culmination of frustration, both players said, because they hadn't achieved success at the international level and they had the goal of winning an Olympic medal in 2008.
The quest for that Olympic medal puts a further strain on the relationship. Players are traveling together for weeks at a time. This week's Las Vegas tournament is the 19th of 20 consecutive weeks that top AVP players are playing, a stretch that included four cross-Atlantic trips.
"It's a lot of tournaments and a lot of frustration. That's a lot to deal with," Youngs said.
There are teams that believe in longevity. May-Treanor and Walsh, for example, have played together since 2001 -- among the longest-running partnerships on the women's side. Of course when you have 61 victories in 90 tournaments, including an Olympic gold medal, it makes it a little easier to stay together.
But it isn't always a walk on the beach. The two still spat on occasion, May-Treanor said, but they find a way to work through it.
"When you're in such tight quarters with someone it's like a sisterhood or marriage, you're bound to have disagreements," May-Treanor said.
"But we stuck with it and we're better off now with the experience."