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On a balmy August afternoon in Chicago, Raffe Paulis mingles among a crowd of professional volleyball players at North Avenue Beach. In about 20 minutes, Paulis and his playing partner will compete in their first match of the AVP Chicago Open.
Calm and cool behind a pair of sunglasses, Paulis prepares for the grueling day ahead by stretching and dousing himself in sunscreen. When the whistle blows, Paulis sheds his calm demeanor and enters full attack mode, flowing in rhythm with his partner. Paulis, who is long and lean at 6-foot-2, soars for spikes and dives for digs. In less than an hour, the match is won. Paulis and his playing partner, Spencer McLachlin, move on to the next round of the professional beach volleyball tournament.
This is not just another stop on the tour for the athlete—it’s in his home city, and only a few miles from where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Finance at Northeastern Illinois University in 2009. Three years after earning his degree, Paulis moved to California to pursue his beach volleyball dreams.
“The college degree is the base for everything,” said Paulis, who plans to become a financial analyst after his volleyball career is over—whether that’s next year or in 10 years. “If volleyball doesn’t work out I have a base, and Northeastern provided me with that base.”
While Northeastern doesn’t have an athletics program, Paulis still found ways to feed his desire for competition.
“I loved the flexibility that I had with my class schedule at Northeastern,” said Paulis, who transferred to Northeastern after two years at Oakton Community College. “I would take one of the hardest classes—like a financial management class—and then I would follow that up with a class like basketball just to keep me levelheaded and not stressing too much.”
He has fond memories of his experiences in the classroom, too.
“The one thing that was different about Northeastern was that the teachers are smart, helpful and caring individuals,” Paulis said. “They want you to succeed and will help you find ways to improve if you need it.”
Now with a college degree, Paulis is all about the working beach life.
“California is the place to be for beach volleyball,” said Paulis, who currently works as a transportation security officer at Los Angeles International Airport. “Anyone who is anyone trains there.”
Raised on Chicago’s North Side, Paulis never envisioned himself playing pro beach volleyball. He grew up playing basketball and competed at Mather High School in the West Ridge neighborhood. Near the end of his time at Mather, Paulis switched to volleyball, where his quickness and agility translated well from basketball, and stuck with the sport while playing on intramural teams at Northeastern.
“He’s energetic, and his experience helps us both,” said McLachlin, a former indoor volleyball player at Stanford.
McLachlin, who recently made the switch to beach volleyball, said he has appreciated learning about the sport from Paulis. “He’s helped me a lot,” said McLachlin, a Honolulu native. “We had talked for a while about getting to play together, and it has been great so far.”
Slowed down early in his career with injuries, Paulis is now making great strides. During the 2015 season, he competed in a career-high seven AVP events and had a career-best ninth-place finish at the AVP Pro Beach Tour New York, earning $1,250. In Chicago, Paulis and McLachlin finished 17th out of 60 teams.
“I’m on track,” said Paulis, 29, who trains four times a week for nearly five hours a day during the offseason.
Paulis said he figured only a few people get to do exactly what they want early in life, so he feels particularly fortunate to have an opportunity to travel and play around the country. He has competed in more than 100 different cities, from New York to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
His next stop: international destinations. “I have not played internationally at all, but I am going to try to pursue that in the upcoming years,” he said. “It’s fun. I like interacting with the fans and competing.”
Especially in Chicago. “It’s my hometown,” Paulis said. “The tournament makes seven stops, and this is the one that I won’t miss.”