The life of Stanford freshman Jenna Gray is no day at the beach.
The 19-year-old forms half of the No. 1 pairing for the Cardinal on the beach volleyball team. In her spare time, she hustles over to Cobb Track and Angell Field to practice throwing the javelin, with her NCAA debut in the event coming this past weekend at the Stanford Invitational.
To complicate matters, classes resumed Monday following spring break.
“Right now it’s been kind of hectic,” Gray said. “Just kind of fly by the seat of my pants.”
Only a few months ago, Gray was celebrating a national championship in women’s volleyball, the seventh NCAA title in program history.
The 6-foot-1 setter played an instrumental role after she was inserted into the startling lineup midway through the season, though the accomplishment hasn’t fully set in.
“Maybe it’s just one of those things that it maybe never will,” said Gray, who recently attended a men’s volleyball match at Maples Pavilion and watched a video on the scoreboard showing highlights of a previous NCAA championship team. “And I think it kind of sunk in, ‘Oh my God, that could be us coming back 20 years from now getting to watch the videos of the final match.’ But, still, it will always feel like a dream.”
Some would consider what she’s attempting this spring to be a nightmare, juggling beach volleyball with the javelin while indoor practices loom on the horizon.
“I think a lot of people when I first told them, they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Gray said. “They’re like, ‘It’s spring quarter, this is supposed to be fun, the weather is nice. You’re not going to enjoy yourself at all.’ But I’ve explained to them my schedule is actually extremely flexible. I’m lucky that all my coaches are super understanding, so I definitely still have time in my life to hang out with my friends and just relax.
“So once they found out, they’re like, ‘OK, OK. It’s not as bad as we thought.’ ”
Indeed, the coaching staffs play a crucial role in this experiment.
Both of them hired in the offseason, beach volleyball coach Andrew Fuller and throws coach Zeb Sion are intent on making this work.
“It’s super cool,” said Fuller, a graduate of St. Francis High in Mountain View. “It fits into our ethos of really believing that being a multi-sport athlete is a good thing from a physical perspective, from an emotional perspective, a life perspective of being a well-rounded person. It makes someone really adaptable. She loves it, and we want to be encouraging our student-athletes to be doing things that they love.
“And if Jenna is having a good time out there, then we’re stoked about it and we’re happy to do the back-end work of communicating to make sure that her schedule is fair and not putting any further undue burden on her.”
The NCAA puts a limit of “countable athletically related activities” to 20 hours per week, no more than four hours per day.
That includes practice, lifting, meetings, etc.
Just because Gray is a multi-sport doesn’t mean the NCAA will grant an extension, which means her time is precious.
“Communication is critical from a lot of perspectives,” Sion said. “Obviously, the number of hours you can train each week and each day is clearly limited, so we’re cautious of that. As well as her mental and physical well-being in terms of all the things that are on her plate.”
To keep her enegy level refreshed at all times, Gray is committed to spending as much time doing the one thing that the NCAA cannot limit: sleep.
“I definitely sneak naps in throughout the day,” Gray said. “It’s really just time management. That’s probably the biggest thing about being a student-athlete, it’s finding the time and the motivation to just do your work now, get it done, so you can sleep. And I’ve made a point to make sleep a priority, because I know that everything else is downhill if I don’t get some sleep.”
Rookie on the sand
Expectations for this spring are rather tempered.
Gray is a rookie on the sand and is still vulnerable to growing pains.
“I’d never played beach volleyball before,” Gray said. “So the first couple of practices I was like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be rough.’ ”
Her partner, on the other hand, is the polar opposite.
Kathryn Plummer, a 6-6 freshman, won a bronze this past summer at the FIVB Under-19 Beach World Championships.
“She definitely believed in me,” Gray said. “There’s some times where I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ But she’s really supportive.”
Fuller likes the contrast in style on his No. 1 tandem.
“They fit together in a variety of ways,” Fuller said. “Also, having a friendship off the court helps. It’s not a deciding factor among partnerships, but it’s something that helps them get through the hard moments with some understanding of how each other communicates.”
More than a hobby
As a two-time Kansas 5A state champ, Gray is a little more familiar with the javelin.
What began as a way to hang out with one of her best friends eventually turned into much more.
“My now brother-in-law was the coach, so I was like, ‘OK, cool, I’ll just go out,’ ” said Gray, whose father played baseball at Kansas, while her mother competed in track and field at Kansas State. “Just from there, I fell in love. It’s just such a different atmosphere from volleyball. It’s very laid back, so I really appreciate that. It’s a nice little break from volleyball.”
She set a 5A state record in the javelin with a personal best of 162 feet as a senior, which placed her sixth overall among high school throwers in the country last year.
But because volleyball is the priority, Sion didn’t seek out Gray to talk about about joining the track and field team. Rather, it was the other way around.
“When she did, I was ecstatic,” Sion said. “I was excited, because somebody obviously of that level, even though she’s pretty raw technically, adds a lot of value to our program right away.”
There is even a little bit of overlap in methodology between the javelin and volleyball that helps her transition back and forth between sports.
“Whenever I’m going over technique with my javelin coach, I definitely find some similarities,” Gray said. “The last three steps are just the normal volleyball approach — it’s left, right, left. So that’s been really helpful in finding a rhythm. And also the release. In volleyball, you’re told to swing high, snap high. And that’s another thing in javelin, release it high, snap it high. So those have been two really helpful crossovers between the sports.”
At the Stanford Invitational, her best effort was barely a couple of feet shy of a PR at 159 feet, 10 inches. It was good enough to move her into sixth on Stanford’s all-time list and qualified Gray for the NCAA West Prelims.
Stanford sophomore Mackenzie Little, the reigning Pac-12 champ, won the event with a throw of 182-5, just shy of the school record set by Brianna Bain in 2013.
“The future is really, really bright,” Sion said.
This weekend will add a new wrinkle, with beach volleyball in action on Friday, then a quick turnaround to throw the javelin on Saturday at the Big Meet against Cal.
It’s the first time Gray will compete in both sports within such a tight span.
“I’m really excited for this weekend, especially going up against Cal, that’s always just a fun rivalry,” said Gray, who saw encouraging results at Tuesday’s track and field practice and hopes to set a PR. “All my teammates now are back from spring break, so they’re like, ‘We’re going to come out, we’re going to be so rowdy, it’s going to be so much fun.’ So I’m really looking forward to them getting to come out and cheer.”
Fuller said: “She’s really immersing herself in those experiences.”
It seems like just a matter of keeping her head above water.
“Thus far, she’s handled it like a champ,” Sion said. “It’s been nothing but positive so far, for sure.”