Gabby Reece did the math. Not that it was particularly difficult math to do.
“I used to joke that I spent 90 percent of my time training and playing volleyball, and three percent of my income at that time came from beach volleyball,” Reece said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was doing all these other things to make it happen.”
And it is because she was doing so many other things to make it happen that Reece’s name is one of the most ubiquitous when it comes to discussions around the most influential figures in women’s sports. Mention Reece’s name in virtually any volleyball circle, indoor or beach, and there’s a familiarity there, this despite playing less than 20 career events on the beach and never going overseas to play indoor professionally.
Reece has, simply put, always been about more than volleyball. Far more.
As a sophomore at Florida State, where she would set records for solo blocks (240) and total blocks (747), Reece gave up her scholarship to pursue a potential career in fashion modeling. Her NCAA career came in an era before the NIL epoch, where NCAA athletes can earn an income on their name, image, and likeness. In order for Reece to do so in the late 80s and early 90s, Reece needed to take a shot on herself.
“My bills weren’t paid for by anyone else,” Reece said. “After my sophomore year I gave up my scholarship because I said ‘I’m going to take a gamble on this other thing to make a living.’ I didn’t dream to do that. It was a job. Once I turned professional, I took some things I learned from that — communication, image, all these things — and took them to volleyball.
“I was always doing other things because I understood the limitations of our platform, and that certainly made it easier.”
By the time she was 23, she was a host on MTV Sports while doubling as one of the most dominant forces on the erstwhile four-person Women’s Beach Volleyball League. Even then, she was expanding the aforementioned limits of her platform, penning a note to Phil Knight at Nike, asking if he’d like to buy her team. At the time, sponsors were limited to barely an inch-by-inch space on bathing suits for logos.
But if Reece could get Nike to buy her team?
Those suits would be swooshed out.
Thus, in 1994, Gabby Reece became Nike’s first female athlete to design a shoe — the Air Trainer — and it’s first female cross-training spokesperson.
“It’s interesting what a good chip on your shoulder or no safety net can do for people,” Reece said.
Fear is the one-word answer Reece provided when asked how she has been able to create and reinvent herself so continuously, so successfully, business after business, lofty endeavor after lofty endeavor. She was joking, but like any good joke, there was more than a kernel of truth to it.
She didn’t willingly choose to forfeit her scholarship to pursue a career in modeling while still competing for Florida State; she had to. There was no other choice, no safety net, just as there was no financial safety net — and there still isn’t — as a professional beach volleyball player. If beach volleyball were to be a viable pursuit, she had to either find or create other avenues to make an income.
She chose to create, and has ever since.
“I tell all athletes this: A college football player, All-American, could go to the pros, but we all know how hard that is, and their knees hurt and it just didn’t happen,” Reece said. “I tell athletes: You’re a loaded gun. You just need to find your next bulls eye.
“We get wrapped up as this is our identity, and it’s natural: I do this, I’m good at this, oh you’re the volleyball player. I think the problem is there’s so much life after volleyball that you don’t want people to be done with something that was very positive and then for it to be disappointing or sad.”
Reece is an exceptional example in the sporting and business world as someone whose identity cannot be neatly wrapped or explained in either a single word or a three-letter acronym. She’s a New York Times best-selling author — “My Foot is too big for the glass slipper: A guide to the less than perfect life” — host of an award-winning podcast, the eponymous Gabby Reece Show; entrepreneur as the co-founder of Laird Superfoods with her husband, Laird Hamilton, one of the best big-wave surfers of all-time; a loving mom to three children.
“It’s staying open and not being afraid of being a beginner and not knowing and feeling uncomfortable, because then, that’s when you can kick some real ass,” Reece said.
She’s kicking ass, all right. And she’ll kick yours, too.
One of Reece and Hamilton’s projects at the moment is Extreme Performance Training (XPT), described as “a unique and powerful fitness training and lifestyle program featuring their unique water workouts, performance breathing, recovery methods, high-intensity and endurance training for people of all fitness levels and backgrounds.”
And by all backgrounds, she means it. Their pool in Malibu, decked out with dumbbells, an ice bath, sauna, and a depth that ranges up to 13 feet, has featured everyone from NBA stars Grant Hill to Joakim Noah to MMA fighters, actors and actresses, big wave surfers and everyone in between.
“When you’re at a practice, you’re jumping how many times at a practice and over a competition and a weekend, and you can jump 400 times in my pool, and now I haven’t jammed your joints but I’m supporting your performance,” Reece said. “You’re in performance, so your lymphatic system is working differently. You’re hypoxic, and there’s a lot of things you can do more with less air, you can become more efficient. There’s some real scientific and interesting thing. There’s some time when you really see yourself, when you have no air and you go ‘Oh, I kind of freaked out.’ You can bring all of that onto the court or field and I believe that all your training should make you a more efficient organism.”
It’s physiological training, yes, but it’s just as much mental work — if not more — than physical. Hypoxic training, going without your breath for short and occasionally long periods of time while also working your body through a series of weighted jumps under water, creates a stressful environment.
How will you respond to that stress?
That type of training, of putting you in a stressful situation that triggers the fight or flight response, will invariably humble the most successful people in any industry, be it the NBA, Hollywood, or UFC. It’s a beautiful community Reece and Hamilton have built in Malibu. Egos cannot survive underwater, and you’ll find none of them near their home. If the water doesn’t kill the egos, they simply aren’t allowed through the gate.
In a world that is becoming increasingly artificial, what Reece and Hamilton have created as parents, entrepreneurs, athletes, and community-builders is refreshingly, breathtakingly real. Medals tarnish, accolades get forgotten, but “striving, and who you have to be in order to do that, is the thing,” Reece said. “Winning feels so good because it’s an indication you did the right things: Your preparation was correct, your thoughts, your instincts, all that. But who you have to be, to be that disciplined, to work that hard, to grind it out, that is the thing that lasts all the time. Next year they’ll be like ‘Are you going to defend your title?’
“There was a quote from a Navy SEAL that said ‘Never let your accomplishment be greater than your dreams.’ Then you’re free. In the end, it’s your life: What is the thing you want to do?
“A lot of champions, yeah they’re great at what they did or do, but what do we define as successful? It’s the quiet stuff. People who say they won or have a lot of money or a fancy job title, but for me as a parent, it’s the quiet: That kid has a lot of friends, or they can set goals and achieve them, they can solve problems, they can adapt. That’s not sexy, but for me, that’s a real part of success.”
That’s the real part of kicking ass.