Like many Wisconsin residents these days, Mariah Whalen has found herself thinking about being on a beach.
But rather than just working on her tan, Whalen’s thoughts are of playing beach volleyball.
With that in mind, she has decided to leave the University of Wisconsin volleyball program and transfer to another school to pursue a career in beach volleyball.
“I grew up playing sand and I loved it,” said Whalen, who completed her redshirt freshman season with the Badgers in 2018. “I love being outside and it kind of fits more of my skill set.
“I just missed it. It’s a game I wanted to eventually get back to. I wanted to play beach after college so we kind of decided why not get that started earlier.”
The tough part of that for her will be leaving the UW program.
“It’s honestly so hard,” she said. “It’s wrenching just because I love this team so much and I love my teammates. It helped a lot that they were all really supportive because they understand that it’s a game I love equally as much. They were supportive, the coaches were really supportive and that helped a lot, but it’s still going to bother me a lot to leave them.”
Whalen, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Wausau, was plagued by knee issues throughout her two seasons with the Badgers.
She played just the first three matches as a freshman before being sidelined and eventually undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. It would be the first of three procedures on the knee, forcing her to sit out 48 consecutive matches.
She returned to see action in five matches this past season. She finishes her UW career with 12 kills in 14 total sets.
The move to sand should make it easier on her knee. She played in a sand tournament last summer with teammate Grace Loberg and experienced no problems.
“That’s really something to look forward to, the health that’s going to come along with landing on a soft surface,” Whalen said. “I’m definitely bummed because I wish there would’ve been more opportunity to be on the court, but I also believe that things in life happen for a reason and there are different paths that you pursue. I feel this is the path I’ve been led to.
“Eventually, it was something I wanted to do but it’s an opportunity that’s opening up sooner than expected so I’ve just got to take it and pursue the opportunity.”
UW coach Kelly Sheffield said he valued Whalen’s contributions to the program, even though her time on the court was limited.
“Mariah is one of those kids you wish there were more of,” Sheffield said, “with how much love for the game she has and how passionate she is for it and how she goes about learning and competing and embracing challenges and what type of teammate she is. She’s a gold medal across the board in all of those.
“You listen to our team and she’s the most inspiring player on our team to each and every one of them. But she’s wanting to go and play beach. It’s a game she played a lot growing up and in high school and was really successful at. We’re all supportive of her goals and dreams and wish her all the luck in the world.”
Whalen had success on both the court and the sand before coming to UW. She led Wausau Newman to four consecutive WIAA Division 4 state championships, setting tournament records with 67 kills in 2014 and a .576 hitting percentage in 2016.
She also excelled on the sand, winning the USA Volleyball Junior Beach National Championship in 2014 with teammate Rylie Vaughn and placing third in 2016.
“Beach is still a power game but a lot of it is being smart and being able to see the court,” Whalen said. “I feel like that’s a part of my game that I’ve had because of sand. I just like the strategy that’s behind the beach game and figuring out the best way to beat teams. I’ve just got to get my sand legs back and get training.”
Whalen’s sister Carissa is a professional beach volleyball player and trains with an exclusive group with three-time Olympic gold medal winner Kerri Walsh Jennings’ program in Southern California.
Whalen, who will remain at UW for the spring semester, will have 2½ years of eligibility remaining. While she wouldn’t mind ending up near her sister, she’s keeping her options open to any program that might be interested in her. There are 55 NCAA Division I beach programs.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been a part of a recruiting process but I’m excited to talk to some coaches and see what’s out there,” Whalen said. “I’m sad to be leaving my teammates and the coaches and the program, but I think this is a good opportunity for me and I’ve just got to take it and go see what’s out there.”