Oct. 30, 2009

Notre Dame, Ind. – EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature article originally appeared in the Oct. 24 Notre Dame-Boston College football game program.

By Craig Chval (special contributor to Notre Dame Sports Information)

When it was time to select a college to attend, Angie Harris had lots of options. Thanks to breathtaking talent in both basketball and volleyball, Harris had opportunities to earn a degree while playing either sport, or both.

In the end, despite the allure of several California schools, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native chose to play volleyball at Notre Dame.

“I was a little bit scared of being that far from home,” Harris confesses. “It ended up being a great decision.”

It’s difficult to argue with that characterization. During her four years at Notre Dame, Harris earned a degree in sociology, led the Irish to four straight undefeated conference championships and NCAA berths and won a bushel full of individual honors, including freshman All-American. She also met her future husband, former Notre Dame All-American offensive lineman Jeremy Akers.

She also conquered her fear of relocating great distances.

The couple married immediately after Harris graduated and moved to Atlanta, where Jeremy was in off-season workouts with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Just a few months later, however, the new Mrs. Akers was off to Switzerland to play professional volleyball.

“I became way more independent during my four years of college,” says Akers. “(Playing overseas) was really, really hard when I did it, but it helped create more independence.”

After three months, though, Akers decided that she’d had enough of volleyball.

“I just didn’t want to play anymore,” she says. “I was pretty much burned out.” Akers turned next to running to get her competitive fix. She competed in distances ranging from one mile to marathons, posting a personal best 3:24 in the 2001 Boston Marathon.

Meanwhile, Akers obtained her Series 7 license and began working as a general securities representative for Lehman Brothers in San Francisco. “Working in the corporate world was miserable for me,” she says. “I hated sitting at my desk all day.”

Deliverance from Akers’ 9-to-5 existence came via a telephone call from Jamie Lee, her former Notre Dame roommate and volleyball teammate. Lee attempted to sell Akers on the idea of playing professional beach volleyball.

“Growing up in Indiana, I never saw it on TV, it didn’t come to town, I had absolutely no exposure to it,” says Akers.

“I didn’t think I’d like it – getting sweaty and playing in the sand,” she says. “But anything to get me out of an office.”

Akers’ skepticism didn’t last very long.

“I loved it from day one,” she says. “It involved the skill of volleyball, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.”

But scratch might have been just a court or two down the beach. Used to playing with five teammates at a time during her previous volleyball career, Akers needed to adapt to playing with just a single teammate on the beach.

“You have to be able to do every skill,” she explains. “If you have weaknesses, they will be exploited on the beach.”

And breaking into professional beach volleyball isn’t quite the same as lining up a few job interviews.

“It’s much harder than I ever imagined,” Akers says. “We started practicing and we didn’t know anyone, we didn’t know anything.”

Fortunately, Lee was able to persuade a couple of her friends to help the pair negotiate the learning curve. Before long, Akers was working three days a week with Jeff Nygaard, an Olympic volleyball veteran and former UCLA All-American.

A chance telephone call led to a spot in a rookie camp run by volleyball legend Holly McPeak, who also began to mentor Akers.

Akers made a spectacular debut on the AVP tour in 2002, earning rookie of the year honors. Now in her eighth season on the AVP tour, Akers also plays on the FIVB international tour and has become one of the best beach volleyball players in the world.

Being one of the best beach volleyball players in the world is more than an empty platitude – Akers plays in more than a dozen countries each season, which stretches from April through November, not counting preseason training.

“I absolutely love to travel and see places,” she says. “And all of our tournaments are in amazing places.”

Despite those incredible business trips, “the home office” in Southern California is where Akers’ heart and home remain.

“It’s Southern California,” she says. “The weather is beautiful and the sun is always shining – that’s your office.

“That’s the best thing in the world for me.”

With the continuing emergence of professional beach volleyball, players rely heavily on sponsorships to supplement tournament earnings. Akers strives to build relationships that are compatible with her health-conscious lifestyle, and her creative side comes in handy.

“It’s a matter of trying to find a good match,” she says. “And you can be however creative you want to be.

“But in this tough economic climate, it seems that marketing dollars are the first thing cut, and we’re all kind of fighting for the same sponsorship dollars.”

Akers has found a great match with Fubar, a producer of energy drinks and bars. Beyond the obvious connection between Fubar’s products and Akers’ focus on fitness, Fubar and Akers share a deep commitment to supporting U.S. military personnel.

An unsolicited request to organize a trip to visit U.S. troops in Kosovo piqued Akers’ interest.

“It sounded like a neat opportunity,” she says. “It turned out to be an absolutely amazing life-changing experience.

“Before the trip, I was wondering how I was making the world a better place by playing beach volleyball,” says Akers. “Going on that trip and seeing how grateful and happy they were that we came, I was completely shocked.

“It just blew me away,” she says. “I saw that we can have this effect on people. I said to myself, `We have to do this more.'”

Since that first trip to Kosovo in 2007, Akers has led groups of pro beach volleyball players to five different military bases in three countries.

“What the troops do is such a hard thing, and hearing their stories, I was so touched,” she says. “This just seems like a really simple thing for me to do in return.”

Additional information regarding Akers’ military work, including contact information to learn how to support that work can be obtained via her web site at www.angieakers.com

As Akers travels the globe earning a living and supporting the U.S. military, finding balance with her home life is a never-ending challenge.

“The distance is the hardest part,” she says of her marriage to Jeremy.

The fact that each knows what it’s like to pursue a professional sports career makes it easier.

“From the beginning, we had the understanding that we were going to pursue our dreams so that we wouldn’t have regrets later,” she says. “It’s worked really well. Instead of holding one another back, we’ve lifted each other up.

“When Jeremy was moving from place to place playing football, I could have very easily said, `It’s time for you to get a real job,’ but I didn’t,” she says. “I told him, `As long as you want to do this, I’ll support you,’ and he’s the same way with me.

“We’ve been married 11 years now, and we’ve talked every single day, no matter where we are in the world.”

Akers anticipates that some day in the future, she and Jeremy will be ready to start a family, but that doesn’t seem to be imminent.

“I can’t imagine trying to play and raise children at the same time,” she says. “Right now, my thoughts are to make a living at this as long as I can.”

Along with continuing to enjoy success on both the AVP and FIVB tours, Akers and her current playing partner Tyra Turner have set their sights on qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London. Qualifying for the Olympics has previously been through those two professional tours, but recent changes have vested power in individual nations to select the teams to represent them in the Olympics. How that will work in the United States has yet to be determined.

“That’s the major thing I’ve learned from playing this sport, is to roll with the punches,” she says.

“And there are a lot of punches.”