Jake Gibb doesn’t yet know if he’s at the end or the beginning. As he contemplates his final year in beach volleyball at the Tokyo Olympics, the four-time Olympian has successfully held time at bay but has never quite figured out what’s on the other side of the net.
The 45-year-old started his fourth Games on Sunday evening at Shiokaze Park on Tokyo Bay and made history as the oldest beach volleyball player ever in the Olympics. It wasn’t how he’d imagined his final appearance to be after a 20-year career in the sport. But then again, Gibb is used to life throwing the unexpected at him.
In 2003, he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had a malignant melanoma removed from his left shoulder. Seven years later, in 2010, he was informed he’d failed a drug test with abnormally high hormone levels.
So he read up on the subject and saw the small print: A hike in these levels could also be explained by testicular cancer. That diagnosis came in December 2010. Gibb was told he’d likely need three rounds of chemotherapy, which would have pretty much ended his hopes of reaching London 2012 because he and partner Sean Rosenthal would not have been able to get enough wins to qualify.
The night before he underwent surgery, his wife, Jane, who took on two jobs to cover Gibb chasing his dream back in 2001, told him he was going to be a dad. Looking back now, he sees 2011 as the hardest year of his life as he battled conflicting emotions and life-changing news. But the waves calmed. After surgery, he was told they’d caught the cancer early enough. Four weeks later he was back in training, trying to find his form. By the summer of 2012, he competed in his second Olympics at the Horse Guards Parade in London.
After two consecutive fifth-place finishes at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, he placed ninth at Rio 2016. Tokyo 2020 would be his final shot at a spot on the podium. Four months ago in March 2021 he was planning his sporting swan song — his “last dance.” In an eight-minute video on his Instagram, he assessed his own sporting journey — and retirement on the horizon.
His motivation for making Tokyo 2020 was to be able to compete in a Games with his family in the crowd. His son, Crosby, was just 5 years old when his father competed at Rio 2016 — the memories aren’t crystalized through having seen his father play on the beach in person, but instead played out through highlights. His daughter, Cora Jane, is now 6 years old. With this summer’s Olympics being played out in front of empty stands, Crosby watched from the family home in Huntington Beach, California, jumping and copying every one of Gibb’s blocks as his hero competed 5,500 miles away.
Family and that feeling of “putting everything out there” in front of packed stands is what has kept him going. He was also planning to do this all alongside Taylor Crabb, his beach volleyball partner. But Crabb tested positive for COVID-19. The results came back just before the USOPC was to submit its squad list.
Gibb offered to forfeit the first match to give Crabb enough time to quarantine. That scenario would have pretty much ended any hopes of a medal. Crabb rejected the offer. In stepped Tri Bourne, who will now try to help Gibb the perfect Olympics send-off.
“I was not going to risk this opportunity for Jake and [coach] Rich [Lambourne],” Crabb told The Associated Press. “This is Jake’s last year. This is everything he’s worked for. I want him to go out on top. This is our goal coming into it. And I want to see him fulfil that.”
Gibb and Bourne started that journey with a straight-sets win over Italy on Sunday night. The hope is by Aug. 7 they’ll be competing in the final, after which Gibb will return to the U.S. looking for closure on the beach in California.
Gibb already has three bronze plaques on the Manhattan Beach Pier, the iconic focal point of the beach volleyball world. They recognize his three triumphs in the Manhattan Beach Open in 2005, 2009 and 2017. They are a tribute to his longevity, but a reminder of everything he’s endured. He wants a fourth.
After Tokyo and the Manhattan Beach Open, where he will hopefully compete alongside Crabb, will come a time for reflection. It will be time to find out what is on the other side of the net.
“You realize who’s with you and who’s going to fade away,” said Gibb, who thinks coaching might be in his future. “Once I’m done, all those people who come up to you and say how great you are, they’ll fade away. But my family won’t. I don’t know if it’s the ending or starting of my story, but I really want it. That’s how I want to go out — a champion.”