‘U’ alum Branagh headed to Olympics for beach volleyball

Branagh and her volleyball partner, Elaine Youngs, will go to Beijing as the third-ranked team in the world.

When former Gophers volleyball player Nicole Branagh won the match to qualify her team for the Olympics, she fell to her knees and started to cry.

What she landed on, however, wasn’t hardwood – it was sand.

Branagh played beach volleyball competitively for the first time just three years ago , and now she and partner Elaine Youngs are one of two United States beach volleyball teams headed to Beijing .

“It’s crazy what’s happened the last couple years,” Branagh said. “It was always my goal to make it to the Olympics while I was playing indoor, but I never thought my first time making it there would be on the beach.”

Going outdoors

The first time Branagh played a game of beach volleyball was in 2002 .

After a year of playing professionally overseas , Branagh was “at a spot in life where I needed to do something different.”

Some friends in Los Angeles – Branagh is from Orinda, Calif. – urged her to come out to the West Coast and try playing on the sand . Planning on playing for the USA indoor team again that year, she figured it would be a fun way to stay in shape .

After a summer of beginner’s drills and low-level tournaments, she went to Italy to play professionally, but missed the beach. She decided to return home and train on the beach full-time.

“It’s a whole different game; a whole different culture,” Branagh said. “The people are all more laid back. You have a lot more control. In indoor you have set practice times and everything, but in beach volleyball we employ the coach.”

Gophers head coach Mike Hebert was skeptical when she told him . He didn’t think she had enough ball control with her forearms – something that’s much more important in the two-person outdoor game versus the six-person indoor game, he said.

“But what I didn’t know was how much better she got as a passer and defender when she went overseas,” Hebert said. “She really became a great all-around player in a pretty short amount of time.”

With former Olympic medalist Holly McPeak as her partner, Branagh was named the 2005 Rookie of the Year on the Association of Volleyball Players tour . The next year she won the AVP’s Most Improved Player award .

But with Branagh and McPeak struggling on the international circuit, Branagh was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of her career in late 2006 .

Youngs, another former Olympian, was having trouble with her partner and asked Branagh to team up . Meanwhile, McPeak, who had given Branagh a shot when she was an unknown, wanted to remain a team .

“I really hate that whole part of the process,” said Branagh, who finished out the 2006 season with Youngs . “During all that, I learned that this is a business and even though I’m on the more sensitive side in terms of thinking about the other person, I realized I have to also think about what’s best for the future, and that maybe this is my best shot at going to the Olympics.”

“But of course it was hard,” she said, “because Holly and I were having a pretty good year on the AVP tour, and she taught me so much.”

A big change

Having just one teammate was one of the stranger transitions to beach volleyball, Branagh said.

The two train, play and travel together, and in the end, each is dependent on each other for their salary . In 2007, the two won nearly $170,000 on the AVP tour and another $57,200 internationally.

“It’s really not much different than a marriage,” Branagh said. “You spend so much time together and rely on each other so much, it’s kind of ridiculous.”

And balancing the AVP tour with the international circuit takes a dedicated travel agent and a lot of long, trans-Atlantic flights .

Since flying to Australia four months ago, Branagh estimates she has been home about four days .

“Gosh, we travel a lot,” she said. “Nowadays I decided I’m always flying business class. My body deserves it.”

Branagh and Youngs are one of the few teams on the AVP tour that are able to play beach volleyball full-time , Branagh said. Despite sponsorships and a dedicated core following , players can usually make more money playing indoor volleyball overseas than they can on the beach .

“I respect both sports, but I typically try to steer people towards the indoor game if they are looking to play professionally,” Hebert said. “I’ve seen a lot of people try the beach and then quit pretty quickly because they find out that, if you’re not one of the best in the world, it’s a hard existence.”

But for Branagh and Youngs, ranked No. 3 in the world , the beach could bring a gold medal this August.

“I have had so many great partners,” Youngs told NBCOlympics.com . “Some of the best players on tour: Holly McPeak, Nancy Reno, Liz Masakayan Ö But I think athletically, (Nicole’s) the best. She’s a very talented jumper, very mobile, very strong. She hits the hardest ball on tour; the best server I’ve ever played with, so it’s coming together. I think winning a gold medal would definitely put her on top.”