After five seasons on the Farm, Charlie Ekstrom has proven to be a stand-out player and has helped elevate the beach volleyball program to new heights. She was a main contributor as the team scored its first-ever win in the NCAA tournament this year. She started her collegiate career strong and was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team (2019). A plethora of awards followed: All-Pac-12 Second Team (2019, 2020, 2022, 2023), AVCA Collegiate Beach Second Team All-American (2022) and even the AVCA Collegiate Beach Top Flight Award with partner Maddi Kriz (2022). For her efforts in the classroom, Ekstrom is a three time Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll (2020, 2021, 2022) recipient.
The Daily’s Chantal Eiwanger sat down with Ekstrom to reflect on her time at Stanford, what she will take away from five years with the Cardinal and what her future looks like as a professional.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What made you choose beach volleyball? Did you play any other sports growing up?
Charlie Ekstrom (CE): I guess I can start with the other sports that I played and then explain why I ended up choosing beach. My first sport growing up was karate. I played rec tennis and rec sports leagues, but the thing that I was definitely the most invested in was karate. I trained for nine and a half years. And then when I was in the seventh or eighth year of karate is when I discovered volleyball. Because I’m from San Diego, I started playing indoor and beach volleyball, and I was fortunate enough to live in a place where beach volleyball was really present and very easily accessible. When I started playing indoor, it was kind of the natural tendency to also play beach. I always really loved beach more than indoor volleyball. It was really easy for me to decide to leave indoor. There were some pretty bad things like bullying that ended up having me lose my love for indoor volleyball. I was already way more passionate about beach, so I took that passion and ran with it. I went full-time beach when I was 15 years old. I’ve been training, traveling and doing all of these things ever since.
TSD: Did you always know you wanted to play beach volleyball in college?
CE: I think from the second I started playing it, yes. When I was a little and I didn’t know what beach volleyball was, all I wanted to do was go to Stanford. I didn’t know anything about the school at all. I was just like, ‘Gabriella from High School Musical went there, so I have to go there.’ And then I started playing volleyball and I actually had a family friend whose cousin played Stanford indoor volleyball. I remember thinking that it would be so fun to play volleyball at Stanford. And then I started playing beach like three months later, and once I started playing beach, it was all I wanted to do. But beach volleyball was still trying to work towards being an NCAA sport. Once beach volleyball was named an NCAA sport [in 2015], that was when I was all in for beach volleyball. I didn’t care where I went. I just wanted to play. I had been committed elsewhere for a year and then after some changes to their program, I reached out to Stanford on a whim. I had the realization that I should reach out to Stanford and see if I could follow that pipe dream.
TSD: What has been the highlight of your time here at Stanford, both on the beach volleyball team and off?
CE: I think the highlight of being on the team was being able to see the program grow. We started out as a very tiny team that was not expected to really win anything, being unranked my freshman year. From there, we’ve elevated into this top 10 program for the last three years. Some basic highlights include when we upset UCLA and LSU this year. These were probably the two coolest moments when we upset two top-five programs. We had never done that before.
My highlight at Stanford in general are the friends that I have made here. I have been able to do a lot of pretty cool things and be a part of some cool leadership roles, but I think the most important piece of all is the friends that I’ve made along the way. A huge piece of my own personal growth came from the people that I met at Stanford, and I know for a fact that I’m going to be close to these people for the rest of my life.
TSD: What advice would you give your freshman self?
CE: Let the adversity be what it is. It will allow you to grow and to not only become a more skilled volleyball player, but become an overall more well-rounded human being.
TSD: Looking back at your time at Stanford, is there anything you would change?
CE: No, I really like the person that I am today. I feel that if I changed anything that would be one of those things that causes a chain reaction. I think during COVID when our season was canceled, [that] would have been the easy answer but I think that year was the most vital year for me. I was able to grow closer with my friendships and I got to take my priority away from volleyball and figure out what I wanted to do beyond and what level I wanted to pursue it at. Upon reflection, I am really grateful because I don’t think that I would have gotten the chance to step back and also would not be doing a master’s degree, because I don’t think I would have done an additional degree without the volleyball with it. All the things that have happened, all the reasons and the things they’ve produced from them, I’m really grateful for.
TSD: Your first year on the team you went 11-18 and were unranked nationally, and then the team made the NCAA tournament your fifth season. What do you credit that growth to?
CE: I think our team culture has really shifted over the years since I came in my freshman year. A lot of us knew that we were part of something to build. I also think that we have shifted from looking at the idea that we’re building something into the idea that we have now set the foundation so let’s grow from there. We are always looking for more, we’re always hungry for more, we’re always searching and looking to grow and improve ourselves. I think that the piece of culture that we have produced has caused us to be able to elevate a lot. The other answer to that is that we just have a lot more talent now. We have a bigger team, we’re much more developed and it’s easier to recruit. Since my freshman year, Stanford beach volleyball has been able to elevate with the game and bring in some pretty incredible talents that have just elevated us that much more.
TSD: What made you decide to take your fifth year? Was that ever not on the table?
CE: I think getting the COVID redshirt back was a pretty positive indication that I would play a fifth year. Once COVID happened, I was thinking, ‘Am I really going to be ready to say goodbye after senior year?’ In a lot of ways, I was ready to say goodbye and I did say goodbye to a lot of people that made up what Stanford was for me. But I think taking the fifth year gave me a cool opportunity to say goodbye to the place as well. This year gave me the closure of being ready to say goodbye. I knew that I didn’t want my college experience to be over and I knew I preferred to stay at Stanford because I love it here so much.
TSD: Do you see yourself being involved in beach volleyball in the future?
CE: I’m actually currently playing in tournaments on the professional tour. The pro season started when college season started, so I basically took like a week between when the college season ended and the next pro tour event started. I’ll be finishing up my degree and then after that, I’ll go right back to playing tournaments pretty consistently. I’ll play professionally for as long as my body lets me and as long as I’m still loving it. I think that a huge reason why I play beach volleyball is because I have such a strong passion and love for it. If there is any point in time where I feel that there is a love loss, then that’s when I’ll probably step away.
TSD: What are your plans post-graduation?
CE: I’m moving to Los Angeles to train full-time to play professional beach volleyball. But also since professional beach volleyball unfortunately does not pay, I will be working as well.
TSD: What are you going to miss most about being on the Stanford beach volleyball team?
CE: I’m going to miss the team aspects of college beach volleyball because professional beach volleyball is very individual. I’m going to miss not having a team to fall back to in life. Everybody on the team is such incredible human beings, and so that’s a hard goodbye for sure. I was very teary-eyed after we were eliminated [from the NCAA tournament] in Gulf Shores. Teary-eyed was a very light way to put that, I was a hot mess. But I think that I am ready, eager and excited to move into this next chapter of life. I think that this chapter has been such an important one to me and I’m gonna miss being part of the team for sure.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.