From retirement thoughts to Tokyo: How McHugh turned the tables on Australia's beach volleyball return

Australian beach volleyball player Christopher McHugh is making his long-awaited Olympics debut at the Tokyo Games Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Thoughts of retirement swirled for Christopher McHugh as his knee blew out time and time again.

The Australian beach volleyball player had endured four surgeries in 10 months to help fix an overuse injury, but as if on cue the cartilage would retear itself at about the 12-week mark.

From that McHugh developed a Baker's cyst at the back of his knee which caused its own issues.

Leading into the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it was being drained every three weeks on top of having cortisone injections. Hardly a long-term solution.

So his dream of leading Australia back to the men's beach volleyball tournament at the Olympic Games at times felt dim.

But it was also his motivation.

"I've been on the world tour now for 14 years and [had] failed to qualify for an Olympics, the pinnacle of our sport, so that drive to represent my country at the Games is the strongest and biggest carrot that I have," McHugh told ESPN.

"But also the belief in the team and Damien [Schumann] that we can compete with the best in the world on our day, you really want to test yourself in those environments.

"When you're having to do all the rehab, it's that excitement and energy from playing at the highest level that keeps you pushing through the hard times."

Then there's the heartbreaking memory of being on the flipside of qualification in 2012, when McHugh and three-time Olympian Josh Slack fell a few points shy from going to London in a golden set.

Not since Beijing has Australia had a men's team in the Olympic beach volleyball tournament, with McHugh and playing partner Schumann turning the tables for the Tokyo cycle.

With just 25 days to go, Australia secured the final quota spot of the Olympic event arena by winning the Asian Volleyball Continental Cup in Thailand.

Two Australian teams won their final matches against Indonesia to secure the berth, with 2018 Commonwealth Games victors McHugh and Schumann later given the nod by the AOC for selection.

They join women's pairing Mariafe Artacho del Solar and Taliqua Clancy to complete the nation's four-strong team for Tokyo.

"For the men's side not to be back in the Olympics until now has been a real challenge for us to compete internationally, so returning to the Games after 13 years of not having a men's team represent Australia is something really special for all the guys," McHugh said.

"Damien and I are forever indebted to the other four players, Max [Guehrer], Zach [Schubert], Paul [Burnett] and Tom [Hodges] - who came to Thailand and played.

"Only one team was qualified, Damien and I were lucky enough to be selected for that team but without their efforts over the last 18 months - we wouldn't be where we are today."

McHugh and Schumann came together at the end of the Rio cycle, with the South Australian returning from a shoulder reconstruction and the latter's partner had retired.

The 33-year-old describes their relationship as "more like a marriage," saying he spends more time with Schumann than his own wife.

They won beach volleyball's first Commonwealth Games title in 2018 and had an unbeaten 2020-21 summer, which laid the foundations of their triumph at the Continental Cup.

The short turnaround between the tournament and Olympics is optimal for the pair to carry their fine form through to Tokyo, with the preliminary rounds to start on Saturday at Shiokaze Park.

"I think we're one of the last sports to qualify for the Olympics which is both a good and bad thing," McHugh said.

"In terms of it being a good thing, we're going into the Games having played in one of the most pressure-filled environments in the Continental Cup where it's live or die.

"We've given ourselves a ticket to the big dance, taking that momentum and energy forward into the Games is surely nothing but a positive for us."

But McHugh is also under no illusion about how difficult their task ahead is.

Although the beach volleyball team is carrying momentum in terms of results into Tokyo, two weeks of their lead in was spent in hotel quarantine.

McHugh and Schumann returned to Australia following the Continental Cup. They had just five days of training on sand before jetting off again for the Olympics.

"It's not ideal but also at the same time, we're extremely lucky to be travelling internationally right now. Damien and I have kept in the best shape possible and we're ready to give it a crack at the Olympics," he said.

"The Olympics is a bit of a unique event for beach volleyball in that we're only playing one game per day, whereas at a usual tournament you're playing up to three or four a day... so the physical load isn't as high as it would be usually which plays into our hands a little bit as well.

"I think we can definitely use our experiences over the last month to our advantage, Thailand was the tightest competition volleyball has had around the world. And Tokyo is going to be tight, no doubt, but we'll probably have a bit more freedom than what we did in Thailand.

"I think the ability for us to be able to keep our team game going and deal with whatever the day throws up, that's probably going to the best key in Tokyo because nothing is going to go to plan.

"It's going to be a pressure-filled environment no matter if you're locked in a room or can wander around the village freely. For us, we can use it as a massive positive moving forward."

Australia has drawn a tough fixture with McHugh and Schumann to meet world No.1 Norway in the preliminary rounds, as well as the Russian Olympic Committee and Spain.

They'll face Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum on Saturday night, Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov of Russia on Monday, followed by Spain's Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira on Wednesday.

"Norway is going to be a massive challenge first up, but you never know what can happen and we'll give a red-hot chase," McHugh said.

"Russia are a very good team, the block [Semenov] is seven foot so he's a big boy. Spain have been around for a long time, Pablo is an Olympic silver medalist and this is his fifth Games. He's one of the legends of our sport and his partner has done some amazing things as well.

"So there's no easy games in our pool whatsoever. Everybody has to be at the top of their game for a chance to win.

"If we're not firing at all cylinders then we're probably in a bit of trouble, but Damien and I are confident we can put our best foot forward and challenge those teams - give it the best shake we can."