For Hermosa Beach’s Matthew and Joy Fuerbringer, passion runs deep … both at home and on the volleyball court. Balancing both requires fancy footwork and much more.
- Written byKatrina Zawojski
Before there were wedding bands, before there was an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, there were two NCAA National Championship rings, each taking up residence on separate hands playing on opposite ends of California. The Stanford University and Long Beach State volleyball alums met somewhere in middle, settling in charming Hermosa Beach where they always imagined planting solid roots.
Neither would tell you that they set out to become one of the community’s most influential couples—yet that’s exactly what ended up happening. Whether coaching tiny jerseys in front of moms and dads or members of the national team in sold-out arenas, Matthew Fuerbringer and his wife, Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer, cover the entire volleyball spectrum.
After attending college, Joy started the Mizuno Volleyball Club, now a highly competitive and thriving program that includes several girls teams as well as Team Rockstar, the boys division that Matthew founded three years ago. Housed under The Mac Athletic Club in Carson, which they jointly own and operate, the Mizuno Volleyball Club is an incubator for Junior National Championship medals and All-Americans. This fall, Joy is entering her fourth season as the assistant coach for the UCLA women’s indoor volleyball team, and Matthew’s recent role serving as assistant coach for the USA Volleyball men’s national indoor team is well underway.
Considering their respective accomplishments as former players, combined with decades of experience as coaches and mentors to all ages, Joy and Matthew easily slid into the shoes they now fill. Yet as any high-level coach could tell you, there is no playbook that can prepare you for parenthood and raising a family.
With so much on their plate, how do Joy and Matthew manage to harmoniously balance career and family life? The answer, surprisingly, doesn’t lie in the details.
“It’s funny, because we always talked about using a calendar to stay organized, but literally so much of it ends up being so fluid,” reveals Joy, which comes off as an extremely ironic comment considering they have an oversized monthly planner splayed open on the kitchen table—as if trying to re-introduce the tool into their lives one last time. But truth be told, square boxes with the words Monday and Tuesday do not stand a chance against the Fuerbringer family’s ever-changing schedule.
Practices get moved around and cancelled, travel itineraries have to be rebooked, and opportunities arise that have to be seized. So in lieu of traditional datebooks that project far into the future, Matthew and Joy embrace a mantra to “take it one day at a time” and rely heavily on their shared ability to adapt. Oh, and a little-known angel called “Elvie.”
“Who is Elvie?” ask friends of the couple, hoping to snatch one up themselves. Elvie is the name of Joy’s mother, and she won’t be outsourcing her skills anytime soon. “My mother moved in with us around the time Mateo was born, in 2008, and she is an unbelievable asset when it comes to raising the kids and taking care of the home,” says Joy.
Her presence allows the dynamic duo to more easily bounce from one commitment to the next. “Whether Charlie has a guitar lesson, Mateo has jiu-jitsu or they both need a ride to soccer practice, it really helps to have her there for the picking up and dropping off duties,” explains Matthew. “Having Joy’s mother around means we are able to not be as organized and get away with it. It really takes a lot of stress off and affords us with freedom despite our busy schedules.”
Juggling schedules is nothing new for two individuals who attended demanding universities, competed abroad and continue to manage several teams simultaneously. Playing at the professional level requires flexibility and acceptance of the often feared and ever-present “Plan B.”
While he was still playing on the professional beach volleyball circuit, Matthew recalls moments when his partner-in-crime, Casey Jennings, would call up and throw their training session off-kilter. “He’d say, ‘I got some photo shoot I have to go to; can we move practice to Wednesday at 1:00?’” says Matthew, discussing recurring themes you have to be able to deal with as an athlete and as a parent—especially considering the fluid nature of the beach lifestyle. “All of a sudden I’ll have a two-hour window to go surf with a buddy, and I’ll be thinking, can I get somebody to watch the kids?!”
Because a career in coaching requires long weekends and extended trips, Joy and Matthew like to make traveling a family affair whenever possible. Consider their 8-year-old daughter Charlie’s passport, which is stamped with destinations like Austria, Spain and Italy and rivals any jet-setting adult’s. Like her parents, Charlie is a seasoned traveler and has had the opportunity to catch both her parents in action.
At the age of 4, she watched her father win the bronze in Holland, then again two years later in Poland, which ended up being the last Federation Internationale de Volleyball event of Matthew’s career. In addition to watching her mother coach the UCLA Bruins close to home, Charlie also accompanies Joy on Club Mizuno’s Junior National Qualifiers and internationally with the squad once every two years.
With all that experience traveling, it’s no wonder that Charlie and Mateo have adjusted handsomely to life when their parents aren’t around. As Matthew observes, “We’ve both been gone on trips since they were babies, and they are used to us traveling and not always being here. I notice that a lot of kids hit a full panic when their parents are absent, but ours have adapted well. They can go over and play at a friend’s house all day and be perfectly content.”
That’s reassuring news for any parent, yet the reunions are always sweet. “I just love when we are all home and get to enjoy each other’s company and hang out,” admits Joy. One of their favorite family activities is to take a bike ride along The Strand or around the neighborhood.
When Matthew’s and Joy’s careers put thousands of miles and oceans between them and the children, the power of loved ones can still be heard and felt—even between adversaries on the international stage. A good example was in 2012, an Olympic year, when Matthew and his partner at the time, Nick Lucena, faced fellow Americans Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal. With both teams still chasing a qualifying berth into the Olympic Games and neck-and-neck in points, every match of every tournament could decide which pair of Americans would earn a slot alongside Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers—who had already clinched a berth—in London.
In a grueling, three-set battle, Matthew and Nick came out victorious, yet this isn’t the reason why the experience still burns a flame in his memory. “Following that match, I was talking with Jake—who was my friend and had just had his firstborn son not that long ago. And he said to me, ‘Man, just unbelievable how talking to your family brings you back to reality.’ That conversation really put it all into perspective for me, as I could relate to Jake as a father.”
He continues, “Athletes can sometimes get caught in a sort of tunnel vision from the high-intensity and high-pressure environment we thrive in. It takes something outside of that world to bring us back to what’s really the most important in life. My family continues to be a source of warmth and light when the road is long, tough and competitive.”
Yes, the Fuerbringers share quite a colorful past when it comes to volleyball, yet they thoroughly enjoy their current roles molding the next generation of stars. “The most fulfilling part of my job is being a part of these kids’ lives and their families, seeing them grow and getting to teach a sport that I love,” says Joy.
That’s not to say, however, that we won’t see a surprise or two come from their direction. Consider this past August, when everyone—including Matthew himself—thought he had hung up his sunglasses for good to wear red, white and blue from the sidelines of an indoor stadium.
But there he appeared, south of the Manhattan Pier, to compete in the most cherished tournament known to the sport: the Manhattan Beach Open. Reunited with Casey Jennings once again, Matthew—the “retired” coach—battled his way through every match, watched by his family (and the rest of the town) through layers of vibrant beach chairs and umbrellas. In case you live under a rock, Matthew and Casey won the title, and the ensuing celebration was a sight for sore eyes.
“Embracing each of my children after winning the MB Open was one of the top moments of my life,” reflects Matthew. “Getting to share that journey with them was indescribable.”
The one common thing that brought them together—volleyball—remains as central to their lives as ever before, with Hermosa’s deeply-rooted passion for the sport acting as an extended support system in and of itself. “Sometimes I scratch my head at how they do it,” admits Casey, who has known the couple for nearly 20 years. “I’m very impressed with all that they accomplish together as a family.”
If you’re still scratching your head, too, don’t expect an official parenting philosophy to provide you with an “aha” moment. “Our motto is: ‘Just don’t lose a kid,’” Joy says with a smirk, which helps the couple focus on the bigger picture and not the trivial, everyday details. Chalk it up in favor of that quintessential, laid-back, California lifestyle—with the help of an invaluable grandmother, of course.
What’s next, you ask, for the Fuerbringers? “The plan is that we still don’t really have one.” Good luck marking that on your calendars.
For more on the Fuerbringers' Mizuno Volleyball Club for both boys and girls, visit them online at mizunovolleyballclub.com.