In beach volleyball, you earn points based on your recent finishes. These points determine your seed for the next tournament and whether you will be in the main draw or the qualifier (or if you can get into the tournament at all). No one wants to be in the qualifier, it’s a brutal single elimination bracket in which you grind through multiple matches before the real tournament even starts. Even top players in the world have suffered casualties in the qualifier.
If your team hasn’t earned enough points, there is one other way to sneak into the main draw. The wild card. Every time you register for an FIVB tournament you have the option of applying for the wild card which grants you a spot in the tournament regardless of your points. How wild cards are chosen is a mystery to me. God-like promoters have the ability to reach down from on high and place a team into the main draw they feel would add something to their event. Usually Olympians.
For the FIVB in China this year, the US team of Ryan Doherty and Avery Drost received a wild card into the main draw and took advantage with a 5th place finish. Interested in the politics of how it all worked, I asked Ryan about getting the wild card.
“I apply for a wild card every time,” he said as if it was a silly question. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because you don’t feel you deserve it?” I offered.
Not being an Olympic gold medalist or reality TV star, I had never applied for a wild card before. But as I talked to more players this seemed to be the standard operating procedure when registering. Even the [seemingly] humble John Mayer applies for wild cards, listing his accomplishments and reasons he’d be good for the tournament.
Rich Lambourne laughed when I told him I had never applied for a wild card because I didn’t think I deserved one. He said that I don’t think like other volleyball players.
So when it came time to register for the FIVB 3-star in The Hague, I checked the box and applied for a wild card. When asked to write in my reasons I put a smiley face. Colon parentheses.
It was a shot in the dark—with a water gun.
My partner Stafford laughed when I told him and I didn’t think of it again until a couple weeks later when he texted me the entry list. We were given a wild card into the main draw of The Hague. The smiley face worked!
It’s all still a mystery to me and I’ll probably never know how or why it happened. Maybe the nice Dutch people were swayed by the cheery symbol and said, “Smiley face? They speak our language. This is a team we can get behind.”
Or maybe the person in charge of reading the wild card submissions was up all night toiling through lengthy player resumes and persuasive essays when they stumbled upon a two-character entry with relief. And a smile.