This post was updated June 11 at 11:00 p.m.
A week before flying to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Lauren Fendrick reached out to Sarah Sponcil, offering her an opportunity to train together.
“I’ve always been a fan of her game,” Fendrick said.
Sponcil had only finished her sophomore year at Loyola Marymount at the time, playing both indoor and beach volleyball. But the dual-athlete, who was leading the Lions in kills, had already begun to make a name for herself.
“I didn’t even think she knew me,” Sponcil said about Fendrick, who is 15 years older than her.
Fendrick became an alternate at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and later became a part of the United States’ second qualifying team for the 2016 Games.
“We trained that one time together and it was just crazy,” Sponcil said. “I was like on cloud nine.”
Fendrick was a former UCLA women’s volleyball outside hitter, logging over 1,000 kills, 1,000 digs and 100 aces in her collegiate career from 1999 to 2002.
As a freshman, Fendrick was the Bruins’ starting outside hitter as well as a reserve pitcher for UCLA softball, which was the runner-up in the 2000 Women’s College World Series.
Fendrick – who decided to stick to volleyball after her first year – helped the Bruins make three consecutive NCAA regional finals in her first three seasons. In 2001, she became the first Bruin to reach 50 service aces in a single season in almost a decade.
Off the court, Fendrick would bike along the streets of El Porto, California, playing sand volleyball instead of indoor volleyball. At first it was just pickup matches, but then she realized she could turn it into a profession.
By the end of her senior year, Fendrick hung up her shoes and transitioned to the beach.
“I kind of put everything else on hold and tried to find my way,” Fendrick said. “I didn’t know anything about planning training, or doing my own lifts, or hiring a coach or anything like that.”
But when Fendrick had finally found her groove managing a regular beach training routine, a knee injury temporarily put her beach volleyball career on hold.
“So I went to law school,” Fendrick said. “I started the process in 2005. … Because with the injury, I was thinking like, ‘I need to be thinking about what to do if I can’t play volleyball.’”
Fendrick received a bachelor’s degree in communications from UCLA with a 3.91 GPA, and later passed the bar exam and received a law degree from USC in 2010.
“I’ve always enjoyed critical thinking and I loved the way law school teaches you how to think – to analyze and problem solve,” Fendrick said. “You basically learn how to learn.”
Fendrick interned at a law firm in Los Angeles after receiving her law degree.
As she recovered from her injury, however, she was able to make her way back to the sand. But Fendrick qualified for world championships with still five weeks left of the internship.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I just qualified for world champs, but I know I still have five more weeks left of this internship,’” Fendrick said to her boss. “(But) without hesitation, he was like, ‘I’ll always be here, go play in the world championships (and) you can do this later.’”
Not only did the international experience propel Fendrick as a professional beach volleyball player, it also helped her develop an interest in coaching. Since 2011, Fendrick has been coaching U.S. high performance camps in the winter.
Fendrick recently accepted a volunteer assistant coaching job for Stanford beach volleyball after returning from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Fendrick followed her husband, Andrew Fuller, who took over as the Cardinal head coach.
Despite coaching a Pac-12 rival, Fendrick continued to admire Sponcil’s game.
Mentoring a Bruin
In May, Sponcil – having transferred to UCLA in 2017 for indoor and beach volleyball – received a similar text to the one from 2016.
UCLA beach volleyball coach Stein Metzger reached out to the rising senior two days after returning home from Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the Bruins won their first-ever beach volleyball national championship.
“Hey, Lauren Fendrick wants to play with you in the Austin AVP,” Metzger wrote. “Would you be down?”
The last time Fendrick competed in the Association of Volleyball Professionals in Austin, Texas, Sponcil was just 8 years old. UCLA was far from establishing a beach program at the time.
“I was just like, ‘Yeah, of course, that’s such an opportunity that I’m not going to pass up,’” Sponcil said. “So I jumped at it and I called her that day (and) we signed up that day”
Fendrick, who resides in Palo Alto, California, flew down to get in some practices the weekend before the tournament. The two only practiced twice before heading to the 2018 AVP Austin Open that started May 17.
But nobody could tell that it was Sponcil’s professional debut.
Fendrick and Sponcil won four consecutive matches as just the No. 7 seed in the main draw of 16 teams. The duo cruised by the top pros in the country, getting to the finals without dropping a single set.
Sponcil said their instant chemistry developed because of her drive to improve her game – asking about what to do against certain blockers and defensive schemes.
“It was so impressive to see her ask for help,” Fendrick said. “I’d offer her some advice or just give her my thoughts. But then she totally would run.”
Metzger, who coached Sponcil for the first time this season, said he admired the mentorship that the former Bruin was willing to provide his current player.
“I watched many of their games,” Metzger said. “I noticed how much (Fendrick) was mentoring her and talking to her in between plays and really guiding her. It’s only going to make her more experienced.”
Fendrick and Sponcil hit .485 and .456, respectively – both good for top five at the tournament. Sponcil logged a tournament-high 86 digs on the weekend and averaged 8.6 digs per set, which was nearly three more than the second-highest player.
Sponcil said the intensity of each match was very prominent at the next level.
“Offensively, you needed to be crisper with your shots,” Sponcil said. “They’re going to pick at every weakness you have. If you don’t side out right away, they’re going to keep annihilating you.”
At the NCAA championship with UCLA, Sponcil – who wasn’t usually served by opponents in the regular season – started to get served.
She said it made her uncomfortable, but that she was thankful for the challenge because it prepared her for the professional level.
“Getting served (at the NCAAs) really helped me in this AVP,” Sponcil said. “Because I knew going in, they weren’t going to serve the freaking Olympian, they were going to serve me.”
In the AVP tournament final, Fendrick and Sponcil faced No. 1-seeded Alix Klineman and April Ross, who plan to make a run in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo as a pair. Ross was a silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics, and earned the bronze alongside Kerri Walsh Jennings at the 2016 Games.
Fendrick and Sponcil kept sets one and two close, despite playing from behind for a majority of the match. The duo fell short of the upset, losing 24-22, 25-23.
“Our defensive calls and plays – we weren’t real clear on responsibilities,” Fendrick said. “If you watched the match, we were both covering the same side of the court a lot of the times. … I thought that would’ve been the difference.”
Legacy and future
It was only fitting that the former Bruin took Sponcil under her wing.
“I was really curious as to how we would do,” Fendrick said. “I think she proved that her game definitely translates to the professional level. … It’s wild to think about where she’s going to be later in her career.”
For Sponcil, she said her dream has always been to compete in the Olympics one day. But she has one more year of beach eligibility at UCLA to make another run at the national title.
“(Sponcil) is obviously still in school and has another year of eligibility,” Fendrick said. “But man, I would love to play with her in more tournaments for sure.”
For now, Lauren Fendrick has one goal in mind: Tokyo 2020.
Sarah Sponcil may be just what she’s looking for.