Sean Rosenthal stretches out for a dig

The Son of Jor-El Also Plays Beach Volleyball

© Josh Glazebrook/Red Bull Content Pool

Sean Rosenthal, a two-time Olympian beach volleyball player, is like Superman in many ways.

Sean Rosenthal in Hermosa Beach
Sean Rosenthal in Hermosa Beach

So he played his volleyball on 8th Street on Hermosa Beach. And that speck of beach, not far from the pier, became his escape, his home. Sean won’t say it because he doesn’t dwell, but he had it tough. His father lived five houses down from his mom’s house, but dad was out of the picture.

“I never saw him much. Never a part of my life.”

Sean was one of seven kids. They were on welfare; his mom had a substance abuse problem. But back in the day, mom had run track, and his dad had raced motorcycles. The kids were all athletic.

As a child Sean played soccer, basketball and baseball and starred in all of them. Doing well in sports was something that came natural, but with volleyball he found something more profound. He would go to the beach with friends, and he started playing.

The Home Sand

It was at 8th Street that he honed his game. He would bounce around up to 16th Street and 21st, too, but 8th was his home sand. Just a 14-year-old kid who wanted to play. And there were father figures there, men who would guide him, who took the tall kid with the killer leaping ability, and taught him the intricacies of the sand game. Local sand rats like Dale Smith, who had a company installing computer data cables. “He was kind of a second dad to me. Or a first one for that matter.”

Sean Rosenthal was the quiet kid. “I’m not the one to be a loudmouth on and off the court.” At 16 he qualified for the Manhattan Beach Open, the youngest player to ever do so. Volleyball can be seen as an elitist sport, but in Southern California the nets are up on the public beaches, and anyone can play.

Rosenthal never graduated from high school. And yet many of the American players come up through elite youth teams and the college ranks. Learning his game on his own has made him a different type of player.

“It’s not a care-free game, but…I just do it my way,” says Rosenthal who leads the 2013 tour in digs because of a primordial need not to let the ball hit the sand. He was always trying to make the spectacular play, to entertain the crowd and to prove something to himself.

“You can’t do it, if you don’t try it,” he would tell himself. Rosenthal can hit with both hands. “Because I try it.” When he was 17 he hurt his right shoulder so he played a whole summer left-handed. He would hit the ball against a garage door for hours.

Sean Rosenthal stretches out for a dig
Sean Rosenthal stretches out for a dig

The Adventures of Superman

They also call him the Son of Jor-El. It’s funny really. The story of this quiet guy, and he is playing in a “dress up” tournament and his team name is the Son of Jor-El (that’s Superman, if you didn’t know). His teammates are dressed up like evil guys. Rosenthal was dressed up like Clark Kent and then after the first point, Rosenthal subs out and comes back in a Superman costume. The AVP announcer was at that tournament and remembered it and started introducing Rosenthal as the Son of Jor-El.

If you recall, there is a father in that story. And there is a kid who must go it alone.

The satisfaction for doing the spectacular, to letting his actions do the talking for him, has lead to plays that are now a part of volleyball lore. Like the “Vegas Line,” in which Rosenthal -- at the Las Vegas King of the Beach Tournament back in 2005 -- took a set and jumped -- like an effing trampoline was buried in the sand -- and he just rises and rises and then spikes the ball straight down and the crowd goes crazy.

“Vegas is a different kind of tournament,” he says now. “You want to play to win, for sure. But it’s also a show tournament. Maybe that’s why I haven’t ever won it.”

Rosenthal does win. And wins a lot. “I feel when I'm playing I have to win cause I don't have a lot to fall back to.”

The Highest Level of Sport

Rosenthal was on the number one ranked team in the world in 2012, he went to two Olympics, which he counts as his greatest memory -- “Seeing so much red white and blue out there, in China, and knowing that everyone is at home is watching. Surreal.” -- and now, at age 33, he has teamed up with Phil Dalhausser -- the best player in the world -- to ultimately win gold at the next Olympics.

“In my opinion Phil is the best player to ever play,” says Rosenthal. “We’re learning each other, just getting our footwork setting, how do I like my set? How do I play defense behind this guy? There are different angles…Just a learning curve. I definitely feel like we can get a lot better. We can get a lot more consistent. We want to be the team that is in the tournament every week. Whether it’s first or second or third. And our main goal is 2016.”

Based on AVP team points, Dalhausser-Rosenthal are currently in second place on the AVP Tour. (A minor injury set back Rosenthal who plans to play in this weekend’s AVP tournament in Huntington Beach.) They hope to continue getting better and dominate next season. Rosenthal will be a father soon. He bought a house close to where he grew up. His mother is in his life.

When he is playing tournaments close to home (like this weekend) the 8th Street guys come out and support him. They are his Rosie’s Raiders, his family. “I was always on the court playing and practicing, and a lot of my buddies were kind of hanging out on the side and I was playing with the older guys. I was just always on the court playing and they were always on the side hanging out, doing their thing. And as they got older they started coming to my tournaments. We all hung out on 8th Street on Hermosa Beach, and that’s where it all started.”