Encinitas volleyball player aiming for Olympics

Encinitas’ Kim DiCello is making a living out of playing on the beach, ranked sixth in the country on the Association of Volleyball Players Pro Beach Volleyball Tour. A 2002 graduate of San Dieguito High School Academy, DiCello recently received the AVP’s Most Improved Player honors at the end-of-season award ceremony held in Costa Mesa.

“The Most Improved Player Award is a special one because it represents how a player can transform through sacrifice and brutally honest evaluation of their game from others and most importantly, themselves,” said Jeff Conover, AVP’s director of competition. “Kim has moved up the ranks through hard work, mental toughness and consistency. ... I’m very pleased to see her progress, and looking forward to what she produces in the future. As a born and raised San Diegan, I am proud of how she is representing our volleyball community on the court and off.”

“I was certainly surprised,” said the 6-foot-tall DiCello, who had also been nominated in the categories of best blocker and offensive player of the year but wasn’t expecting anything, as she was up against players like Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings.

The season MVP and Most Improved are fill-in-the-blank categories, so DiCello didn’t know she was even up for the award. When they announced her name, she didn’t hear it, as she was chatting with a coach at her table. Slowly she realized everyone in the room was looking at her.

She admits she wished she had a speech prepared, because there are so many people to thank who she feels have been responsible for her growth as a volleyball player.

“My focus has always been to just get a little better every season, and it’s nice to see the hard work pay off,” said DiCello, 30.

Her volleyball career might never have happened if not for JT Regan, who introduced her to the sport when she was the “most lanky, uncoordinated middle-schooler you could ever imagine” in a Diegueno Middle School PE class. She said Regan believed she could be a great volleyball player before anyone else did.

She developed as a player at Sunwest Volleyball Club, now known as COAST, and reached her dream of playing collegiately for Santa Clara University.

After graduating, DiCello played professional indoor volleyball overseas for two seasons in Holland, Spain and Indonesia, fulfilling her next dream of living in a foreign country and playing the sport she loved.

While living overseas was an amazing experience, she wanted to return home to close the distance between her and her then-boyfriend — now husband — Mark.

She also wanted to have a job.

“I’ve always been very academic and I wanted to put all that education to use,” she said.

DiCello works in the energy and resource consulting businesses on energy and how to manage and reduce use.

“It’s really rewarding,” she said. “I’m a tree-hugger at heart, but I believe in a business-minded approach to sustainability. I like the fact that I’m creating solutions that are great for the environment, but also great for the business.”

“Crazy” for the sport of volleyball, she still wanted to continue playing. As there is no professional indoor league in the U.S., she had to go to the beach.

“It was a very humbling experience, coming from a background of being one of a team to being more of an individual player. Once I got on the sand, I felt like I was back at square one,” DiCello said.

She rode the learning curve and had so much fun playing that the process didn’t bother her.

Breaking into the AVP Tour is a tough road, DiCello said. Before finding sponsorship, players start out paying all their own expenses to travel to play in qualifying tournaments. In many cases the tournaments are single-elimination — so a player could travel cross-country, not qualify and not earn a dime.

“You go through the process of paying your dues,” said DiCello. “You really have to have a love for the game; you really have to be committed.”

Finding the right partner is also important, DiCello said. That person must have the same level of commitment, competitive drive, ability to complement your skills on the court — and be someone you can have good chemistry with.

“It’s a lot like a marriage,” DiCello said.

A deciding factor is also being willing to compete internationally.

DiCello started this season with Tealle Hunkus, but halfway through, partnered with Lane Carico, a “fiery little Brazilian” she met at Mission Beach.

With Carico, she’s had four top three finishes this season.

Life on the AVP tour is a lot of work. Some months, DiCello is traveling every single weekend. Places she’s played this year include the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Tobago, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and China.

“You have to be very organized. I’m very effective with my time. I have to be very productive working on airplanes,” said DiCello, who departs Dec. 6 to Bloemfontein, South Africa, for a tournament.

DiCello also must be efficient with her time when it comes to training. She trains for a minimum of five hours daily, whether it’s practice on the court, time in the weight room, physical therapy at Longevity in Encinitas with Brett Bloom, or working with her nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach Robert Yans in Encinitas — “a rock star” who has helped keep her healthy this season.

She also works with a sports therapist at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center.

Of all that work put in, DiCello can’t single out one factor that has caused her improvement as a player this year. It’s a combination of many things, she said.

“I think that every athlete’s journey in sport is different. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifices, but the results didn’t always reflect what you put in. This year, a lot of a hard work from the previous year and this year came together.”

She believes she has become a smarter athlete, learning how to manage stress, and paying attention to the importance of sleep, one of the best recovery tools.

“Some of it is admitting that things like sleep do have a difference. I have a strong personality and I’m tough mentally, and I think I can play through anything. I needed to understand the importance of preparation and putting myself in the position to have the best success possible.”

She also made a change in what goes into her well-trained body. DiCello has always been very connected to the food she was eating, remembering her youth spent in the dirt of her mom’s backyard Encinitas garden. While she already was eating a very clean, plant-based diet, this year she went gluten-free and dairy-free. Through her nutritionist, she’s upped her protein to help build strength and recover faster, and she said she is feeling better than ever.

After South Africa, she will have a “month off”— but DiCello won’t stray too far from training.

She said she plans to prioritize time with family and friends — “I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve missed”— and evaluate how the past season went and what she wants to change.

DiCello has her eyes on the 2016 Olympics, which would be a dream come true, but admittedly, not the be-all and end-all.

“As important as the Olympics are to me, I also want to keep in perspective the value of this journey. I’m certainly an Olympic hopeful, and we could be that team, but I’m not going to evaluate myself based on one competition,” DiCello said. “It’s really important to understand the value in the process, because it’s not an easy journey — it’s very challenging.”

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