Todd Rogers received the hail of two cities Saturday afternoon when he arrived at the Santa Barbara airport with an Olympic gold medal adorning his torso.
About 100 family, friends, and fans from Santa Barbara and Solvang greeted the 34-year-old athlete, who two days earlier had won the men’s beach volleyball championship at Beijing with partner Phil Dalhausser.
Melissa Rogers, who accompanied her husband on the long journey from the Olympic city, said the reception caught him by surprise. “He was taking a power nap” on the last flight from San Francisco, she said. “Before he got off the plane, the pilot wanted to get a picture with Todd and his medal.”
Rogers was smiling from ear to ear as he walked across the tarmac to meet the crowd. He climbed a waist-high wall and surveyed the people who had known him as a San Marcos High standout, as an All-American setter at UCSB, and as a regular at the East Beach sand courts. They were joined by dozens of newer acquaintances from the Santa Ynez Valley, where Rogers and his family have resided the past six years.
“It’s just kind of hit me,” he said. “It hadn’t hit me before this . . . I saw you here . . . the American flags waving . . . I’m close to crying, actually.”
Although weary from 17 hours of travel, Rogers spent another hour accommodating well-wishers’ requests for pictures and autographs. Waiting patiently were his daughter, Hannah, 9, and son, Nate, 7. While their parents were overseas, they had watched the Olympics on TV with their aunt, Melissa’s sister Tara Ealand, and their grandmother Julie Masonheimer.
“There were a couple scares in it,” said Hannah. She was worried when Brazil’s Marcio Araujo and Fabio Luiz Magalhaes “started getting hard hits” and won game two of the gold-medal match. But in the deciding third set, Rogers and Dalhausser smothered the Brazilians by a 15-4 score.
Hannah said she would give her father the nickname “Wheels” because “he can run fast and get things.” His nickname on the professional beach tour is “The Professor,” and Hannah decided that was all right too. “He helps me in school so I guess it’s a smart name.”
Nate gave a local TV interview. What did he say? “My dad’s the bestest dad,” he said. “He’s a person you totally want for a dad. I’m glad I have him.”
Candi Villard, who taught the Rogers children in preschool, took it upon herself to put signs and banners around Solvang celebrating the community’s gold medalist. Several members of the Santa Ynez High girls volleyball team were at the airport. Rogers had helped coach them last year. “He’s so smart,” said Caitlin Wright. “We learned how to do better at passing and digging.”
One of Rogers’ smartest moves was to adopt Dalhausser, a 6’9″ athlete with exceptional agility, as his playing partner two years ago. Because they took separate flights, Dalhausser did not arrive at the local airport with Rogers. He wound up in Los Angeles, where his girlfriend met him and gave him a ride to his home in Ventura.
Dalhausser probably was happy to avoid the crowd. The shy 28-year-old, known as the “Thin Beast,” deflects attention off the court as relentlessly as he blocks shots above the net. “It’s going to be cool to be in Beijing with the (U.S.) basketball players,” he said before the Olympics. “They’re legitimate celebrities. I’m not. I like going out to dinner and not being mobbed.”
Tim Johnson of Santa Maria was somewhat disappointed that Dalhausser did not fly into Santa Barbara. With his bald head, he decided he looked like the volleyball star, and he made up a shirt that designated himself as the “mini-Phil.” He had hoped to meet the real Phil, who stands more than a foot taller.
Johnson will get a chance in two weeks. Rogers and Dalhausser will be returning to the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour, where they have won eight of 10 tournaments this year. They will compete in the AVP Cincinnati tournament next weekend, and on September 6-7, the tour comes to Santa Barbara’s West Beach. Two-time gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh will lead the women’s draw.