GSTAAD, Switzerland — George Wanderley still had a tournament to play, but before playing a single point or even warming up for their first match, he had already accomplished something far bigger than anything he could possibly achieve during May’s Brasilia Elite16.

The moment Pedro Salgado and Guto Carvalhaes didn’t show for their qualifier match on the Wednesday preceding the main draw, George and Andre Loyola officially punched their ticket to the Paris Olympic Games. The Olympian title was something he had been envisioning since before he was a teenager, a moniker he had narrowly missed out on in 2021 and had alas put on his resume, able to represent Brazil on the highest stage of the sport.

And now he was supposed to focus on … pool play?

“It was kind of hard because we still had the tournament to play so we couldn’t celebrate or do anything about it,” George said from his hotel balcony at last week’s Gstaad Elite16. The evening provided a muted celebration. He called his wife. Grabbed dinner with his father, George’s unimpeachable supporter who had made the 1,400 mile trek to Brasilia from their home in Joao Pessoa.

“It was a mix of focusing on the tournament and celebrating at the same time,” George said. “We were really happy but after we settled, we said ‘OK, we need to work more. We want to get a medal in the Olympics.’ We were happy, and then next step.”

It’s fitting that George’s father, Americo, was there. He was the man who pushed his son in all the ways a parent should. He was the one who built a court at their house, attracting one Brazilian great after the next: Ricardo Santos and Emanuel Rego, Harley Marques and Pedro Cunha, Alison and Bruno. He was the reason George had a beach volleyball in his hand as early as the age of 7, never veering to the indoor side of the game. And he was the reason George, at just 19, hit the World Tour for the first time, understanding full well that his son, talented as he may be for his age, the youngest to ever medal on the Brazilian Tour, would “get my ass kicked,” George said, laughing.

And he did.

Lost in the qualifier in his first even on the pro tour, and in three straight country quotas the year after. Never once did George or Americo consider pausing the breakneck pace of his development, or pulling his support, be it financial or emotional. They both knew the invaluable education that comes with experience. On the court, George was quickly becoming accustomed to the stress of high-stakes matches against the world’s best. He was learning to navigate the block of Phil Dalhausser, to shoot around the defense of Bartosz Losiak, to stay focused and calm as three-setters went well into extra points. Off it, he was learning how to manage his money, to sleep in, for instance, at a site like Gstaad, and eat a late — and large — breakfast so he could skip lunch and only pay for two meals. He was learning to crash on floors and build relationships, to navigate a world that didn’t speak Portuguese.

“I didn’t waste time,” George said of his career. “My father is addicted so he’s always given me so much support, if you want to be a good player, you need to go out there. You need to get experience, you need to get your ass kicked sometimes. I think I was the youngest to do a podium on the Brazilian Tour, I was the youngest by two months. All the money that I got I used to invest here because here’s where the big money is, the big names are. If you want to make money in beach volleyball, you need to come here. That’s why I tried not to waste much time in Brazil.”

And it’s why, when he was just 21, he shocked the world when he and Pedro Salgado came out of the qualifier and ran straight through the semifinals of the Fort Lauderdale Major. A typical 21-year-old wouldn’t yet have experience on that stage, as likely to wilt under the pressure as he would crack from the high-level defenses against which he was playing. But this was nothing new to George.

This was, on the contrary, becoming routine.

“When I really got comfortable was when I started playing with Pedro. I always loved to play against the big names, my best games were against Alison, Ricardo. I like the challenge,” George said. “When I got comfortable with Pedro, one of the first tournaments we played was Fort Lauderdale. It was the first tournament and we made the semifinals and I was really happy. I said ‘OK I can do this at a high level.’ ”

Now, there is only one team in 2024 who is doing it at a higher level. Sweden’s David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig are the only team in the world with as many medals this season — five — as George and Andre, just as they are the only team with more points in the world rankings.

At 27, an age when many American men simply begin to dip their toes onto the Beach Pro Tour, George Wanderley is coming into his own.

“That’s why I’m saying the young guns need to come here, because you only learn when you get the stress, get the anxiety, get the tough matches,” George said. “When we started playing against the guys who made semifinals constantly, it’s a different mindset. I’m starting to learn and develop it. It’s really different.”

George Wanderley gets ready to jump serve at the Gstaad Elite16/Volleyball World photo

His development is coming at an apt time. It is a remarkable accomplishment to simply qualify for the Olympic Games. But to peak during a two-week stretch when millions of uninitiated beach volleyball viewers tune in, when a podium is at its most valuable, is a near-impossible task. Unlike swimming and track and field, there is no scientifically proven method of tapering at the exact moment when the best is needed. Yet George and Andre seem to have found their own secret sauce, bringing home more medals this year than they have in a single season in their entire careers — with half of the 2024 season remaining. Those five medals have all come in their last seven events, including a pair of silvers in Tepic and Gstaad in which their only losses came to Sweden.

This comes thanks as much to what they’ve been doing off the court as it is on. On the court, they’ve stolen from all of the top teams in the world. Andre’s blocking is perhaps the most improved of any player in the world, kudos of studying the otherworldly moves of Anders Mol. Typically a traditional team, a year ago, in Hamburg, they began adding jump-sets, pushing the perimeters of their abilities, finding when they veered too far in Sweden’s direction and where they were at their best. The result? Four semifinals in the final five tournaments of 2023, including a bronze at the Beach Pro Tour Finals in December in Doha, and five more podiums in 2024.

“We try to do that all of the time, especially Norway, Sweden. We always have something to learn about every team, especially the top ones,” George said. “Sweden has won almost every tournament they have played this year, so there is something you need to learn about them.”

But it is what’s off the court that provides George and Andre an intangible edge that few, if any, pairs in the world have. For many partnerships, a team is just that: a partnership. A business relationship. Clock in. Clock out. See ya at the next practice. For some, that works. But George, now a decade into his professional career, has found that he is at his best when his teammate is more than just a teammate. He won the 2014 Under 19 World Championships with Arthur Mariano, a blocker-turned-defender whom George likens to a younger brother and one of his best friends. Two years later, they claimed the Under 21 World Championship.

With Andre, he is able to travel and compete not just with one of the most talented blockers in the world, but the 29-year-old who was also the best man at his wedding.

“It comes a lot with how you’re feeling outside of the court. We don’t separate too much,” George said. “When we’re OK outside of the court, we’re OK inside. We’re really close as friends, he comes to my dad’s house more than me now. He’s part of the family already. When we are good, everything is perfect all around, the training, the traveling. We’ll get homesick a lot because we like to stay with our family. When that happens, we don’t play how we can, but when we are really good, everything is just flowing.”

They’re flowing, all right. The World No. 2, podium regulars, favorites to medal in two weeks in Paris. For George and Andre, the formula for bringing home Brazil’s first medal since 2016 is both incomprehensibly complicated and comically simple.

“If we do our side good,” he said with a smile, “the other team is f***** up already.”

George Wanderley
George Wanderley celebrates at the Gstaad Elite16/Volleyball World photo


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