It’s a precarious gesture to bring your phone on any hike in any national park. Cellular obstacles abound, whether it’s water, sheer waterfalls, rocks, or miles and miles without service. Even more, the Narrows in Zion National Park are a 16-mile stretch of river in which hikers flow gently up the Colorado River, sometimes waist-deep, with towering canyons on either side.
Derek Olson really had nothing to do with his cell phone on such a trip.
It couldn’t have worked better than it did.
Just as he was about to set foot in the river, Olson’s phone lit up with a call from Stein Metzger, the UCLA head coach whose network of connections around the world. beach volleyball is more extensive than most. An opportunity had presented itself on his desk. Olson was the first to come to Metzger’s mind.
“The Moroccan national team is looking for a coach,” Metzger said. “Would you be interested?”
“That was about all he gave me,” Olson recalls on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m interested, because I’m always up for an adventure.'”
And an adventure he would get.
This phone call was both the beginning and the end of the information Olson would receive before accepting the job. When he finally had a telephone interview with the president of the Moroccan Federation, he set two conditions to be met: his wife, Steph, had to come; and it had to be clean.
Other than that?
Live the adventure.
“From there we ran off,” said Olson, 37, of Eugene, Oregon. “It was really crazy, it was really last minute.”
It can be easy to think of this trip as a wobbly vacation for the newlyweds, who will be celebrating their first anniversary this fall. A random five-week all-expenses-paid trip to Morocco? Why not?
A delayed honeymoon, it was not.
“I was working overtime while I was there,” Olson said. He spent the first eight hours of the day coaching the Moroccan teams, made up of six male and six female players, as well as Americans Iya Lindahl and Jessica Gaffney and two Qatari male teams. He did 90 minutes with the women, 90 minutes with the men, took a lunch break, then repeated: 90 minutes with the women, 90 minutes with the men. All under the scorching African sun.
Then he would go to work.
Yes, Olson, then interim head coach at the University of California-Berkeley, was still working full-time for the Bears, “spending the next eight hours of the day, which would have been our 9-5, recruiting on Zoom calls, doing all the college work the second eight hours of the day, “Olson said.” It was literally all day, every day work. It was a lot. But I signed up. “
Before he could coach anyone, Olson first had to figure out what exactly his role was. Already, Morocco had a salaried coach who had led the federation for the previous six years. Why they felt the need to bring Olson, it’s still not clear. What, his role is with the team, even after returning to the United States, he’s not entirely positive.
“I was going through YouTube trying to figure out if I could get a movie on them,” Olson said. “One thing I quickly understood was that there wasn’t a lot of planning, of communication. I was trying to get as much information as possible: what does the setup look like? Am I the head coach? Am I the assistant coach? What is the format of this tournament? What is the training program? Do I come with all this? I knew next to nothing when I set foot on the ground. I didn’t know who was going to pick me up from the airport. It was a scramble the first day.
” I still do not know. They have a coach. They just felt like they needed someone else to come. I guess I run workouts. At one point they even asked if my wife was coaching. There are a lot of staff. Everyone is president, everyone is a director, it’s very confusing.
It was pretty clear that Olson would act as the head coach. He had made training plans. He would provide comments. It was the guy. When he got the official green light that the program was his, Morocco was on the move.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that Morocco has a certain shortage of beach volleyball players. In fact, there is exactly one player in the country who plays beach volleyball full time. His name is Mohamed Abicha, and he is known as God.
After that? It’s a mix of extremely athletic indoor players, raw talent and explosive energy who only need to polish the art of the most skillful beach game. Olson saw the potential of Moroccan second team Soufiane El Gharouti, 23, and Oussama El Azhari, 22. He knew that Abicha, alongside Zouheir Elgraoui, was almost a safe bet to win every match of the African Continental Cup. He just needed El Gharouti and El Azhari to win a few here and there.
With each Continental Cup match, El Gharouti and El Azhari got closer and closer. Olson could see them slowly starting to understand the concepts he was teaching. It happened, it happened, it happened – until the Continental Cup final, against Mozambique, everything clicked.
“It was like a Disney movie,” Olson said. “Our second team did everything we were working on, they kept their cool, it was the culmination of everything. They lost a point or two over the entire first set and scored two points at the end of the set. Second game, they are neck and neck and they move away. You could just see it happening for them. They played to the limit and they ended up winning. I passed out when they won. I rushed to court, I was so happy for them. Just seeing it on their faces, for the first time, they have no beach experience. They had never done anything like this then win for their country. The best team goes to the Olympics, but they won it for them. It was a really cool time to be a part of it.
Because Morocco qualified for the Olympics via the Continental Cup, they can only send one team, and Abicha and Elgraoui were the obvious choice. But, due to a technical crash, Olson cannot join the Moroccans, who are playing their first Olympic Games in their history. It’s such a simple question that Olson was left off the list the Moroccan Federation submitted to the Olympic organizers.
The adventure, for the moment, is therefore over.
A new one is about to begin.
Olson was not hired as Cal’s official head coach, a job that goes to Megan Owusu, who took her maternity leave after having triplets. After four years with the Bears, Olson is looking for a new job. What is this concert, who knows. Whether or not he continues to coach Morocco in the future is also unclear.
But one thing is certain: Derek Olson is always up for adventure.