'Michael Jordan' of beach volleyball in Christchurch

Phil Dalhausser. Photo: Getty Images
Phil Dalhausser. Photo: Getty Images
One of the greatest beach volleyballers of all time is playing on the domestic tour in Christchurch this weekend, thanks to a bond with a New Zealander who coached him at the height of his career.

Four-time Olympian and gold medallist Phil Dalhausser is teaming up with fellow American Olympian Taylor Crabb for the three-day Christchurch leg of the NZ Beach Tour, which takes place from Friday to Sunday at the Pioneer Sport and Recreation Centre outdoor sand courts.

The pair will also compete in the tour finals next weekend.

Volleyball New Zealand high performance beach coach Jason Lochhead has a close friendship with Dalhausser, having coached him for five years from 2017 to 2021.

Knowing that Dalhausser was keen to make it out to New Zealand at some stage, Lochhead put the idea to him last year.

Lochhead said it was a huge coup to get an international team of that quality to New Zealand.

"I might be slightly biased since I coached him but he'll go down as one of the greatest players ever in beach volleyball. I would argue he might be the greatest of all time so it's kind of like having a Michael Jordan come out and play a little bit of basketball in New Zealand," Lochhead said.

Known as 'The Thin Beast', the 2m-tall Dalhausser won USA Volleyball's men's beach player of the year seven times and was added to the Volleyball Hall of Fame last year.

"It's pretty awesome for our top players to get a chance to play against him. He's not playing on the world tour anymore, he's playing just on the American tour so they would never get a chance to play him otherwise."

It was also a coup for Volleyball New Zealand to get Lochhead on the books after he reinvented himself as one of the most sought after coaches in the world.

Lochhead played on the World Tour from 2004 to 2012 and finished with 116 international tournaments - a record for a New Zealander.

He and long-time partner Kirk Pittman brutally just missed out on qualifying for the Olympics twice.

During his playing years he never really saw himself getting into coaching.

"My Mum always said that I would make a great coach but I was still playing at the time so in my mind I was like 'don't be silly I'm a player, I'm not a coach' but it kind of just happened.

"When I finished playing I wasn't actually thinking of coaching, I was doing a little bit of private lessons just on the side while I was figuring out what I was going to do next."

Then he got approached to coach the Vanuatu women's team of Miller Pata and Linline Matauatu.

They were ranked 65th in the world and wanted to make top 16 to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

In two years he helped them to eight top-10 finishes on the World Tour and the pair rose to 17th in the rankings, missing out on Rio by just one place.

While working with them, he was approached by highly regarded Canadians Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk. He coached them to ninth at the 2016 Rio Olympics and finally achieved his Olympic dream.

"We were super close to making it in 2008 and 2012 and barely missed out so that was pretty gutting but to make it as a coach was pretty awesome."

While working with the Canadians he received a phone call from one of the best men's teams in the world, if not the best.

Dalhausser and Nick Lucena wanted him to coach them and it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

As Lochhead rose up the coaching ranks he saw first hand the contrast in resources available to teams.

"It was a massive difference going from those steps. With Vanuatu and Canada I was having to do everything from video analysis to all their planning and logistics.

"With the USA I could focus purely on just coaching the guys. We had video guys doing all of that, we had people doing all the stats for me.

"It's pretty crazy the difference and obviously it helps a tonne but at the end of the day no matter the team you still have to go out there and win the points."

Four-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser will team up with fellow American Olympian Taylor Crabb for...
Four-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser will team up with fellow American Olympian Taylor Crabb for the three day Christchurch leg. Photo: Getty Images
He's not the first New Zealander to have a successful volleyball coaching career.

New Zealander Hugh McCutcheon coached the USA men's indoor volleyball team to gold at the 2008 Olympics, and its women's team which won silver at the 2012 Olympics.

So what makes Lochhead such a good coach?

Standing at just 1.77m tall, as a player Lochhead had to find ways to compete against mostly taller players.

Dalhausser, who won gold at the 2008 Olympics, first met Lochhead around 2005 when they were both playing on the World Tour and remembers the tenacious defender was a good reader of the game.

When he and his partner were looking for a new coach, Lochhead ticked all the boxes for them.

"I think he has a great mentality, he's a really calm guy. And he isn't exactly a tall guy so a smaller player has to be a little smarter so we recognised his talent as a player so we figured that it would translate into coaching as well," Dalhausser said.

"And me and my previous partner got along with him and that's huge because you're travelling the world with these two other people and you're spending a good five six months with them so that's important as well."

The 44-year-old will do a bit of sightseeing with his family while he's in New Zealand and hopes to get to some disc golf courses.

"My new obsession is disc golf and you guys have some incredible courses here so I was going to try to sneak off and play a little disc golf as well."

When Lochhead's beach volleyball career ended he actually thought about becoming a professional golfer.

"I had always wanted to give it a crack. In 2013 I was doing some private coaching lessons for beach volleyball and then pretty much trying to play golf as much as I could and I had a couple of good finishes," Lochhead said.

A couple of bad holes forced him to question if he could afford to keep going.

"I was playing at the Nevada Championship, I was second or third after two rounds and then had a couple of really bad holes and ended up finishing 30th. The cost of pursing a golfing career was too massive, who knows what might have happened if I didn't take that Vanuatu job but I think it all worked out pretty good."

During his playing career Lochhead would spend five to seven months on the road, travelling to Europe, America, and Asia.

From 2014 he started living out of a suitcase again for large chunks of the year when he was coaching on the World Tour.

Knowing that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was going to be Dalhausser and Lucena's last, when Volleyball New Zealand reached out about him returning to work for them, the timing made sense.

At the end of 2021 Lochhead moved back to New Zealand.

Lochhead coaches the high performance women's team and the three men's teams. He also helps coach the NZA teams and a big part of his job is to help develop coaches in Aotearoa.

New Zealand has only qualified for the Olympics in beach volleyball once - when brothers Reid and Glen Hamilton competed at the 1996 Games - the first time the sport was introduced to the Olympic programme.

Lochhead was hopeful New Zealand would qualify a team to this year's Paris Olympics.

To qualify a team has to either break into the top 16 in the world or win their continent final.

"We're part of Asia, which is a pretty massive continent. Last year we won the first phase so that took us straight to the final tournament, which is in June, a month before the Olympics, if we win that then we're in the Olympics.

"We'll be going up against China, Thailand, Australia, Japan, those will be our big opponents. I would say Alice Zeimann and Shaunna Polley are probably the favourites, they are probably the strongest team going in.

"On the men's side, we'd probably be going in as third favourites but it's just a one off tournament and you have to win it so anything can happen on the day."

The New Zealand Beach Tour finals are in Mount Maunganui next weekend.

By Bridget Tunnicliffe