Olivia Zelon competed in her first volleyball tournament at the age of 9 after picking the sport because she liked the uniforms.
"It was exciting, I had no idea what to expect. We beat these girls that I still play now," she said.
Now is four years later, a two-time AAU National Beach Volleyball champion. She stands just 5 feet, 4 inches tall and is en route to Hawaii with her partner Natalie Anselmo where they've qualified to go head-to-head with elite 18-year-olds in the Pan Pacific Championships.
"A lot of the tall girls are good at hitting," the 13-year-old Zelon said. "Me and my partner are short, but we’re really good passers and we're really good at defense."
Their coach is Anselmo's dad, John Anselmo. He played volleyball at UCLA, where he won two NCAA championships with the perennially strong Bruins squad. He also played on the AVP tour for many years, said Zelon's mother, Nancy Zelon.
Last weekend, the young duo was among the more than 150 two-person teams from across the country who competed in AAU National Beach Volleyball Championships in Hermosa Beach. The two-day tournament is the largest and oldest junior event on the AAU beach volleyball tour.
Zelon, a Santa Monica resident and eighth grader at , and Anselmo, also 13 and a freshman at La Reina High School, won the gold medal with a 28-24 win over two Texas girls who stood 6 feet tall, Zelon's mother said.
They notched the same victory two years ago, but were out last year when Zelon suffered a concussion just before the tournament got underway.
"As soon as the doctor said I could play, this is all we've been talking about. People come from so many places, because it's the national championships, and it's televised," she said.
To prepare for Hawaii, the girls trained with older 16-year-old players. Zelon and Anselmo kept wining, so the AAU tournament director suggested they go up another age group.
They played in a 18s tournament a month ago and received the bid to the Pan Pacific Championships.
"Our first game we played a girl at USC, we kept winning and winning," Zelon said, who intends to continue playing in high school and to eventually qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
"When I play, I just feel like I feel something different," Olivia Zelon said. "It’s not that I’m playing to win... I play for fun. When I play to win, of course, I’m happy."