You can’t keep a good woman down, even when she’s trying to make it in pro beach volleyball at just 5-foot-5 while grounded by a pandemic.
Katie Spieler is bringing the hills of Santa Barbara alive with the sound of music and dance, and it’s helped her overcome the loss of her season, her youth camp … and a close friend.
“My sister and I have always loved dancing,” she said, “and this past year, we leaned on it even more to find joy in the days.”
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour just when Spieler, a 26-year-old Dos Pueblos High graduate, was coming into her own. Her AVP finishes have been as high as third (Austin), fifth (Hermosa Beach), and seventh (Manhattan Beach) during the last two, full seasons.
Spieler also helped the U.S. National Team win the 4×4 Beach Volleyball Championship in Qatar just five months before the pandemic canceled sports competition all over the world.
But her 2019 season of volleyball was marred by the death of Eric Zaun, a fellow pro beach volleyball player whom she had been dating. Zaun took his own life a few days after having played in the New York City Open.
“I was just in a really sad time,” Spieler said.
One Friday night, however, she and sister Cara decided to dance their cares away.
“Not just your average dancing, but on a rock in the mountains,” Spieler said. “And we just loved it because right when we got up there, dancing on our own, all we could hear was the music, nature … and you had this amazing view of Santa Barbara.
“In that moment, dancing on the rock for the first time, I just thought, ‘Wow! This is what life is!’”
It was the start of a roving, outdoor dance party which has taken the Spielers and friends to many of Santa Barbara’s most scenic locales.
“Once we figured out that we could capture that, we just got into finding new spots that were fun and cool to dance,” she said. “Just kind of out-of-the-box spots.
“We’ll listen to songs during the week and go, ‘Oh! We found a really good song … Let’s try it out.’”
Spieler said Cara will usually get things started.
“She’ll get up on whatever spot we’re dancing,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a rock. Sometimes it’s a boat that washed ashore.
“She’ll just go until she can’t dance any longer. And then we switch off.”
Spieler felt inspired by Zaun, who helped bring out her “super-adventurous” and “feisty” side.
“Meeting Eric was awesome — it kind of broke that shell for me because he was really not concerned with any rules,” she said. “He really opened that up.
“I do feel like when I’m in the moment — doing a pier jump, dancing, doing these little adventures — that’s when I feel Eric the most. That’s been special for me, and I hope to carry that forward.”
Spieler’s volleyball roots run deep into the sands of East Beach. Her parents, Paul and Kathy, both excelled in the sport, as did her aunts, the former Kelly and Lisa Strand.
“Before I could walk, I was down at the beach with my mom,” she said. “I could go down anytime and get better on my own time, so I loved that aspect of it.
“I had aspirations that were really high. A lot of people didn’t see that because of my height, but I knew within. And I’ve had a lot of support.”
Spieler led DP to the CIF-Southern Section semifinals during both her junior and senior seasons. She continued on to become a two-time beach volleyball All-American at the University of Hawaii. She was nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award in 2016.
She teamed with her 6-foot-3 cousin, Torrey Van Winden, to win the 2014 CBVA Santa Barbara Women’s Open. Torrey, the daughter of Kelly and former Cal Poly basketball star James Van Winden, starred for the Mustangs in beach volleyball but is planning to play for Florida State this spring.
“All my cousins are like 6-4,” Spieler said. “I was like, ‘Mom! Why did you marry a short guy?’
“But as I grew up, I’ve really seen it as a positive. If I can succeed at this height, it inspires a lot of other kids who may not have the physicality. I just say that if you follow it, and you love it, and you push yourself, you can accomplish anything.”
That’s been her mantra at the East Beach Volleyball Academy, a camp for kids age 9 to 17 that she started with Dana Kabashima. It’s become so popular that the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table honored Spieler and Kabashima with its Russ Hargreaves Award for recreational leadership in 2017.
They’ve kept the academy alive in spite of the pandemic by writing up practice plans for the campers and holding twice-weekly Zoom practices. Her parents and sister, as well as local coach Jason Donnelly, have kept her in shape, as well, with practice sessions on a private court.
“I’m just so blessed,” Spieler said, “because I love the sport.”
It is her favorite dance.