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CROWE'S NEST

Mike Dodd finds success in coaching amid grief over former partner's suicide

He is now mentor to two of beach volleyball's top teams, but has struggled to come to terms with the death of his former on-court teammate Mike Whitmarsh.

August 04, 2009|JERRY CROWE

As a coach, Mike Dodd is expected to have answers. He is supposed to impart wisdom and guidance.

But Dodd, one of beach volleyball's all-time greatest players and now mentor to two of the sport's most successful duos, could do little more than throw his hands in the air last February when told the shattering news that his former on-court partner Mike Whitmarsh had committed suicide.

Dodd, 51, and the five-years-younger Whitmarsh were "like brothers," Dodd says, and had followed similar paths to beach volleyball stardom, turning their full attention to the sport after standout college basketball careers led to NBA rejection.

Silver medalists at Atlanta in 1996, when beach volleyball made its Olympic debut, they had remained close long after they stopped playing together in 1997, when Dodd retired.

Whitmarsh, a father of two young daughters, confirmed via text message last winter that he and wife Cindy planned to divorce, Dodd says, but assured his former partner that he was OK.

Soon after, he took his life.

The San Diego County medical examiner listed the death as suicide by inhalation of carbon monoxide from car exhaust. Whitmarsh, who led the University of San Diego to the West Coast Conference basketball championship in 1984 and later won 28 beach volleyball tournaments, was found in the garage of a friend's home in Solana Beach.

"He obviously caught all of us completely by surprise, due to the nature of his personality and his positive attitude," Dodd says, running his fingers through his hair during an interview near his Manhattan Beach home. "He caught himself making a horrendous decision at a very, very vulnerable time. . . .

"His friends down there loved him so much and put him on such a pedestal that I think at a time of real vulnerability it was hard for him to say, 'I need help, I'm not feeling too strong.' "

But nobody really knows.

As he speaks, Dodd is seated at a picnic table in a park only blocks from the Manhattan Beach Pier, where last month the twosomes he coaches, Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal on the men's side and Nicole Branagh and Elaine Youngs on the women's, won titles at the prestigious Manhattan Beach Open.

"It was a dream weekend," notes Dodd, who will be courtside again this weekend when Gibb-Rosenthal and Branagh-Youngs vie for similar success at the Hermosa Beach Open.

Much to his surprise, Dodd has taken a great liking to coaching since Gibb and Rosenthal approached him a few years ago. Previously, the 6-foot-4 former San Diego State guard and San Diego Clippers draft pick owned and operated Fonz's, a popular Manhattan Beach restaurant, before cashing out in 2005.

Also a sometimes television commentator, Dodd took on Branagh and Youngs this year and hopes to parlay his experience into a college coaching career when the NCAA officially adopts women's "sand volleyball" in the near future.

He had played regularly against Branagh and Youngs during the last three years, he notes, "because on a women's net, I'm like the perfect poor man's Kerri Walsh," referring to the two-time Olympic gold medalist who returns from maternity leave to the AVP Tour this weekend. "I'm tall, long, quick, so I was kind of a go-to practice player for a lot of the top women players."

At the pro level, Dodd says, "what's wanted from me is a little insight. These are the best players in the world, but sometimes they need another eye to say, 'Maybe it's this.' "

Says Gibb of his coach, who won the majority of his 75 beach titles with longtime partner Tim Hovland, "He knows how to teach, which I think a lot of great players lack."

Still, even as Dodd tries to point the way toward the 2012 London Olympics, he can't help but look back.

He's still mourning a friend.

"When someone takes their life," he says, "you're left with lingering questions of, 'What could I have done?' 'Why didn't I see this?' And the pain of just not being able to say goodbye. . . .

"The closure part is something we're all still trying to figure out -- finding the right compartment not only for our good memories of Mike but also our anger with Mike and our disappointment with him and our love for him. You have to kind of find a place to put all this, and I don't think any of us has gotten to that point yet.

"Thank God for families and your own problems and your own deals that you have to work on so you won't just drive yourself crazy with, 'Why did this happen?' "

Dodd also has two daughters. The older, Dalas, is a high school junior who will represent the United States this month at the beach volleyball youth world championships in Turkey. He and wife Patty Orozco-Dodd, a former beach volleyball standout and UCLA All-American, have been married nearly 23 years.

Dodd was nearly 39 when he reached the Olympics, old for an Olympian and, he notes, "thankful I was able to sneak in."

Whitmarsh was there with him.

"The reality is that he's gone," Dodd says, "but when you're out on the tour and in those situations, you can't help but say, 'Whitty would have really loved to have been here.'

"I hope that never goes away. I hope we're always in those situations where we can think about him and know that he would have made them that much better."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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