When Kamila Tan entered UCLA as its first beach volleyball-exclusive athlete in 2012, there was only one 2-inch deep court the team had to practice on. The players weren’t allowed to dive on it, and there wasn’t even an NCAA Tournament for beach volleyball.
Fast forward to today, 11 out of 15 players on the roster specialize in beach volleyball and UCLA plays its matches at a home stadium set up in Sunset Canyon Recreation Center.
A pioneer for collegiate beach volleyball, the graduate student’s growth has been emblematic of the sport’s rapid transition over the past few years. In 2013, Tan saw the sport be designated a National Collegiate Championship under the NCAA and led the UCLA beach volleyball team to third place in the inaugural competition at Gulf Shores, Alabama.
While the sport has taken her places, Tan’s journey in beach volleyball can be traced back to Mission Beach in her hometown of San Diego.
Because Tan was born with some allergies and mild asthma, her father Philip Tan said that being in the water always felt more comfortable for her, so the beach formed a big part of her life early on.
However, it was only later on in sixth grade and junior year of high school that Tan started playing indoor and beach volleyball, respectively. Tan would join her uncle and his friends at Mission Beach for a few casual games on the weekend, which led her to fall in love with the beach sport immediately.
“Beach volleyball has been my passion since the first day that I stepped onto the beach court,” Tan said. “I get to be right outside and right next to the ocean. This is the best sport ever, why would I ever want to play anything else?”
Jeff Smith, Tan’s first coach and operator of 692 Beach Volleyball, a program designed to train juniors in San Diego, noticed a player who was overlooked on the indoor side.
“She was basically a diamond in the rough, and I knew that I could mould her into a great beach player,” Smith said. “And now she’s turned into a sparkling diamond.”
According to Smith, Tan quickly transformed into one of the most dominant players in San Diego.
Tan went from never having played beach volleyball to placing fifth at the 2010 California Beach Volleyball Association Cal Cup Youth Championships all in that summer, with her partner Jansen Button.
692 Beach Volleyball has seen explosive growth since then. Although its summer program has increased its intake from 30 to 180 girls, Smith still lauds Tan as an outstanding player with drive and discipline that is hard to come across.
“Even though I might now have 180 girls every summer, I might have a Kamila maybe once every 10 years,” Smith said. “She’s a special athlete and a special person.”
Meanwhile, Tan also performed well in the indoor sport. She was tabbed the MVP of the California Interscholastic Federation Volleyball Championship after leading the Cathedral Catholic High School to a Division III state title in 2011.
Tan went on to play indoor volleyball at UC San Diego for two collegiate seasons, where she saw action in 40 sets over 21 matches in the 2013 season.
However, she knew that she wouldn’t be happy playing indoor and was always looking at other schools to see where she could transfer to play beach.
As soon as she knew that UCLA was going to have a beach program, she immediately contacted coach Stein Metzger.
Metzger said that within five minutes of watching Tan pepper during warmup, he knew that UCLA wanted her. Metzger noted that her height and good control of the ball made her a valuable beach volleyball player.
When Tan first transferred, it was just the second year of UCLA’s beach program.
Then, the UCLA team would drive 7.2 miles to Annenberg Community Beach House to hold two-hour 8 a.m. practices twice a week. In her first season, it had a mere 22 practices in total.
Tan admitted that coming into a newly formed program was hard for her to cope with.
“Watching it grow from the first moment that I transferred here till now has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done,” Tan said. “Especially not having structure in place.”
She also mentioned that entering UCLA as a transfer in the middle of her sophomore year meant that it was tough for her to make friends at first.
“I was a little lonely. … I was really shy and I felt like I didn’t fit in,” Tan said.
But the faith that the program was developing kept her going.
In 2014, UCLA opened up two new sand volleyball courts at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center to serve as on-campus practice facilities. This more than tripled the number of practices in the following season.
In the same year, Metzger pinned down four sand-only recruits to make the first-ever freshman class in program history.
Tan looks back on the development of the program as one of the most difficult and transformative things that has ever happened to her.
“It’s been really a privilege to grow with my team and with my coaches,” Tan said. “It added a sort of resilience to my personality.”
Metzger said that Tan’s personality made her the best fit for spearheading the growth of the sport at UCLA.
“There’s no better person to be a trailblazer for our squad,” Metzger said.
The focus on program development paid off when UCLA gained a spot in the national tournament in 2016.
Tan was part of making history when she represented UCLA at the first-ever NCAA championship at Gulf Shores.
“It was exhilarating,” Tan said. “I can remember the whole setup so clearly. … The feeling of walking around and looking around in awe. So many people, so many excited faces, the big screen on the beach, the hangout restaurant by the water, the white sand and the clear blue waves.”
The Bruins ultimately clinched third place in the double-elimination tournament, beating No. 3 seed Pepperdine and No. 5 seed Hawaii along the way.
Smith, who Tan said was like a second dad to her, said that turning on the television and watching Tan play Hawaii and enter the semifinal made him really proud because he knew where she started and how much hard work she had put in.
“I went from being her first coach to being her number one fan,” Smith said.
Tan’s current partner, freshman Madi Yeomans, was also from 692 Beach Volleyball and went to the same grade school as Tan. Yeomans said she definitely looked up to Tan growing up.
Yeomans said that Tan being a frontrunner in beach volleyball and part of the first wave of beach players to obtain scholarships and play in college inspired her and many other girls.
“I know a bunch of people in my grade that just know that you can play the sport that you love in college now,” Yeomans said. “Just to see this whole new sport emerge for us, and that she kind of started it and really advocated (for) it, was really cool.”
Tan recently concluded her last season with UCLA, helping the team finish second at the Pac-12 championship and beat USC for the first time in Pac-12 program history.
“She was there when it was really taking off in (San Diego) and she was there when it was taking off at UCLA,” Philip Tan said.
Tan is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public health. She is passionate about mental health, especially for athletes, which she hopes to bring to light more given that it is a taboo subject.
She also stated that she has aspirations to play professionally and hopes to start by finding a consistent partner and sponsors before getting on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour.
“Beach volleyball is always going to be a huge passion of mine, if not the number one passion,” Tan said. “I don’t ever want to give up.”