FORT MYERS — Despite a big bang, Brooke Sweat is getting really close to Rio de Janeiro.
The soft-spoken former Canterbury and Florida Gulf Coast University star is, along with partner Lauren Fendrick, on the verge of making the United States beach volleyball draw for this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil.
Sweat, whose maiden name is Youngquist, has shrugged off a torn shoulder and the surgery that followed, gutting out three FIVB World Tour events before the procedure and rehabbing like crazy afterward.
The result has Sweat/Fendrick in second place among American teams, two of which will represent their country in the Olympics.
Atop the standings are three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and teammate April Ross. Behind Sweat and Fendrick are Jennifer Kessy and Emily Day. All three teams have played the 12 qualifying matches that began in January 2015 and conclude on June 12 when the Olympic team will be determined. They’re currently working to improve standings in tournaments they played last year, but Sweat and Kendrick are in good position.
“I feel good about it,” said Sweat, a 30-year-old who graduated from FGCU in 2007 as the Eagles’ all-time kills leader and a Division II All-American. “We have a goal to where we want to be. The first goal, obviously, is to qualify. And we want to be the best team in the Olympics.”
Sweat/Fendrick have three more shots: Cincinnati (May 17-21), Moscow May 24-29) and Hamburg (June 7-12).
They finished ninth in this year’s Rio Grand Slam and in the Fuzhou Open.
“I think our best volleyball is still to come,” said Fendrick, a 6-foot-1, 34-year-old UCLA grad with a law degree. “I’m super-excited to play these upcoming tournaments. The pieces are really coming together. We can beat anybody out there.”
The 5-8 Sweat, the AVP’s Best Defensive Player in 2013 and 2014 who never played beach volleyball until after college, and Fendrick, the 2014 Best Blocker, make an almost perfect pair.
That carried over into rehab for both Hermosa Beach residents after Sweat finally had surgery on the torn right rotator cuff in September and Fendrick missed a month with a calf injury shortly after. Fendrick followed Sweat’s lead: No stressing over it, rehab hard and focus on that, and watch lots and lots of video.
“She’s been working super-hard and had a really great attitude about it,” Fendrick said. “It’s been really impressive and speaks to her character as an athlete.”
Sweat tore the rotator cuff while diving for a ball in practice last July. Surgery was risky, so Sweat tried to just tough it out.
The AVP’s eighth-ranked player somehow made it through three FIVB world events — two quarterfinals and a 17th-place finish — left-handed. Get this: She served underhanded.
“It was frustrating at first, but you’ve got to keep going,” said Sweat, whose husband Nick, a real estate agent in Naples, got her into the sport. “I just didn’t hit with my right hand. You have to play way more dynamic when you’re playing with your off-hand.”
Fendrick, ranked 11th by the AVP, said watching that was a trip.
“It was pretty incredible,” she said.
Sweat, who often played through tears, finally gave in. Sort of. She disregarded the advice of two doctors to have the shoulder completely repaired — she would’ve been out 6 to 9 months — opting instead to have Los Angeles Angels team doctor Michael Shepard clean it out arthroscopically.
Ten weeks after the surgery, Sweat was back on tour, still playing left-handed.
There’s still pain, but Sweat/Fendrick have healed and are good to go with all four arms. They both call Sweat’s injury a blessing in disguise because it helped them advance their games.
“I think we’re both pretty healthy now and getting back in the groove,” Sweat said. “Things are getting better every day. If we can stay healthy, I think we’ll end up being even better.”
Before they teamed up in January 2014, Sweat, who has pocketed $273,093 and has an armful of sponsors, had five partners in 33 AVP matches and Fendrick had 19 in 82.
A big reason for their success is continuity, somewhat of a rarity on the AVP and FIVB tours. Their offense and defense has continually expanded.
“We have grown each year, each tournament,” Fendrick said.
Fendrick is the frontliner. Sweat is the crafty — especially after playing left-handed — all-over-the-place one.
“She’s a fierce competitor,” Fendrick said. “She works super-hard. She’s super-determined. She’s like a little bulldog back there. She’s super-skilled. She can hit every shot in the book. She makes incredible defense plays that put pressure on the other team.”
Sweat said “there’s more to life than just volleyball” and that not making the Olympics would “not be the end of the world.”
But, boy, it sure could be fun.
“It would be a really great honor to be in the Olympics,” Sweat said. “That’s what we’re shooting for and working for. Obviously it’s not something I dreamed of as a kid. When I first started playing volleyball this wasn’t something I thought that I would be in the position I am right now for.
“It would be awesome.”
About Dana Caldwell
Dana has been the leading source of FGCU athletics reporting since joining the Daily News in 2005. Besides blanketing FGCU’s dramatic rise into a Division I mid-major power, he’s covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Tampa Tribune as well as Arkansas Razorbacks, Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers basketball and football.