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Smashing success

Posted February 7th, 2019, 11:00 AM IST

Smashing success

Alexa Chitra Strange walks into the lobby holding the hand of her mother Tara Strange. Smiling, they walk inside, we exchange pleasantries and as we settle down for a talk, Tara, a native of Thiruvananthapuram, throws a question in Malayalam, which leads to a discussion about languages. Alexa, an internationally acclaimed 6ft tall and slim beach volleyball player from California, who is in Kochi to take part in the Pro Volleyball League happening at Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium, Kadavanthra, listens to it and says she wants to learn it once. Well, it is the story of Alexa, who was born to Greg, a Caucasian and Tara, an Indian, and her two siblings. It will be difficult to narrate Alexa’s story without a mention of Tara, who gracefully walked a tough road, and is Alexa’s inspiration. Tara first moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. She did her studies there and returned to Kerala when she was 16. After doing her pre-degree here, she moved to Tennessee, where her parents first settled, and later to California. Tara met Greg during college days. They got married, and when she was 23, she lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa. Tara treaded the path with the help of Greg, who took her around the globe to experience the world. “It was a hard journey for both of us. It wouldn’t have been possible without his help,” says Tara, who never misses Alexa’s matches. She proudly says, “I am so happy that in a competitive place like the US, she is holding her own.”

As she says this, Alexa, to whom her mom is everything, smiles and teases Tara. She, then, begins to talk about her beach volleyball journey. She describes herself as a person with inborn sportsman spirit. “I have been into sports since the moment I could walk,” she chuckles. “They always tell me this soccer story, which is about a five-year-old me, who refused to come out of the field, and when taken out, ran along the lines chasing the ball. I was so competitive,” laughs the California girl, who is no stranger to beaches. “I grew up on the beaches. My dad really raised me like one of the boys.” Though Alexa plays soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball, she decided to focus on volleyball during her high school days. “I picked indoor volleyball as there was no scholarship for beach volleyball. But, as I went to college, the scenario started to change. Beach volleyball began to get recognition.” She was part of the University of Nebraska team. The culture there was different from California, but she chose to be there as it was one of the best colleges for volleyball aspirants.

But, she didn’t entirely leave her California volleyball days. Often, her team would play on the beaches in California. It was on one such day that a coach, whom Alexa had known before, asked the question: ‘Alexa, what are you doing in the middle of nowhere? Do you wanna comeback to California? A scholarship is waiting for you.’ That was the trigger and Alexa jumped into it. “When I finished, I had two degrees from USC,” she says. However, like all humans, she, too, had her moments of doubt. “I love art and volleyball. In beach volleyball, everything depends upon your victories. It is entrepreneurial. The fact is, deep in our mind, we know what we should do, but fear of failure holds us back. Also, there is society telling us what to do. Now, I can clearly say that I want to play beach volleyball. Back then, I could not see it,” smiles 24-year-old Alexa, two-time national champion, who is now a senior setter for the Women of Troy. “I didn’t even use my degree then and started babysitting. I was lost. That time, I was dating a guy. You know, as a woman, in such a situation, your dreams would cross with his and you would end up supporting the man. When I started to feel that, I cut all the ties and returned to my parents. They provided the support system. I resumed practice, got into tournaments, got sponsors. Also, beach volleyball, a game of mind, has a creative side, too,” she says, while Tara adds, “Her father was supportive. I was more of practical. I wanted her to get a job and settled down. But, my husband kept pushing her.” Alexa says she believes in the pace of life. “Of course, you should have a goal, but it is all about the process. If you come with the right intentions, you will always see the right path. See, here I am. It is crazy!” she laughs. “And, every time I feel low, the universe will show an omen telling me, ‘you are on the right path’. It helps me reassert my intention,” says Alexa, who currently plays for the Association of Volleyball Professionals League (AVP). She advanced to the round of 16 of the 2014 FIVB U21 Beach World Championships and was 4-1 in pool play with partner Delaney Knudsen (Pepperdine) in Cyprus, placed ninth with Jace Pardon (Florida State) at the 2013 FIVB U21 World Championships in Croatia. In 2011, she was 25th at both the FIVB U19 World Championships in Croatia and the Jose Cuervo Manhattan Open. She also finished third at the 2013 EVP Huntington Beach Winter Series. Right now, she is excited to take part in the first-ever Federation International De Volleyball (FIVB), a Beach Volleyball World Tour event that will take place in Vishakapatnam. In Kochi, she is one of the commentators of Pro Volleyball League. An excited Alexa says, “I know the game, but have never done commentary. But, I love to talk. It is a new experience with having my mom beside. And, they have organised it really good.” At the same time, she points to the need of providing a good support system to the talents as a whole. “I met a bunch of good talents here. The thing is they have to do a full-time job to follow their passion. It is the same with beginners in beach-volleyball in the US. That should change. We must provide them with a support system.” She feels that volleyball will tear down stereotypes in India, and believes that Kerala, which is blessed with a lot of beaches, is an ideal location for beach volleyball to flourish. “Believe it or not, women’s beach volleyball is the most watched sport on television, especially during Olympics.