Origin Stories: Falyn Fonoimoana on Volleyball, Motherhood, Mental Health, Racism, and Body Image
An Interview with Mikaela Brewer
“Women — especially Black women — we take on so much. We don’t do enough for ourselves. We sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice. And we get to a point where we look around us and say, “What do I have for me?”
Now, I want to spread joy by self-care, transformation, and being a living example of: I may not have all my crap together, but you know what, at the end of the day, I’m happy, healthy, and safe because I did these things for me.”
The athlete ecosystem is one of the most vibrant, inspiring, and soulful. It is also submerged in an expectation that these things can only be maintained by a standard of mental toughness that deeply embeds mental health stigma. At Timeout, we’re deconstructing this barrier by painting the full picture — bringing you the humans beneath athletes, coaches, care provides, and anyone else immersed in this world. We’re exploring mental health research in a fresh and approachable way, welcoming our entire community into the conversation, and asking questions that will prompt change. Let’s redefine mental toughness together.
In this interview series called “Origin Stories,” we are talking with individuals living in the athlete ecosystem about their journey as a human, and the mental health challenges that come with it.
To begin, we had the pleasure of interviewing Falyn Fonoimoana, a professional beach volleyball player, health & beauty enthusiast, incredible advocate for mental health, and someone who energizes every room she walks into. Enjoy!
Share this interview on social media with the hashtag #Timeout4BHM
The beach, volleyball, and motherhood
MB: I would love to start at the beginning — growing up, maybe a little bit about your family, falling in love with volleyball, and how each of those things started and came together for you.
Well, I grew up in Hermosa Beach, California, to a single mom who did and provided everything for me. She put me in a great situation in the sense of where I grew up, where I went to school and the people around me. My family is a family of athletes — my aunt went to the Olympics in the butterfly and my uncle Eric [Fonoimoana] went to the Olympics in beach volleyball in 2000. My mom was also a volleyball player and all of my uncles played water polo, soccer — everything. It all stemmed when I was younger, you know, sports was just the thing to do.
I was probably 12 when I was always at my uncle Eric’s beach volleyball tournaments — he played on the AVP. It was just natural because it was always here down the coast of California. I instantly became a ball shagger and you know, just loved that life of being able to be on the beach with my family and watch my uncle. It was just a cool atmosphere. Later I went to high school, had a great career and was an all-American. I went to USC and had a great first year.
And then I decided to leave after that year — probably not one of my best decisions. I now am aware of how immature those decisions were. Quickly after I left USC, I got pregnant with my beautiful son. That changed everything for me.
Right after I had him in August 2012, I started training to play [volleyball] overseas. By December 31 , I was already playing [under] my first pro contract in Puerto Rico. It was very fast, but you know, it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re 20. And it was one of those things where I always felt that I had a chip on my shoulder — I always felt like I had something to prove because going from having all accolades to people thinking that you threw your life away to have a baby, I wanted to be the symbol that your life is not over once you have a child.
I played that way — with anger and frustration — kind of like you’re taking food out of my kid’s mouth. I played [with] that kind of mentality for four or five years until I had to retire from indoor [volleyball] to be able to get custody of my son in a custody battle. And I then fell into a depression.
I felt like I didn’t have anything and I finally said: you know what, I miss volleyball and I’m home. I need to expand on the God-given ability that I’ve been given and not waste it. I finally started playing beach on the AVP. I found my fire and my light back and I’ve been playing beach ever since.
MB: Amazing. Wow. What a journey. Thank you for sharing that and being willing to be vulnerable, because I’m sure some of those periods were really difficult times in your life. I’d love to ask: what was your journey like mental health-wise? How is each of the things you mentioned influencing your mental health? How have you grown or changed along your mental health journey alongside everything?
Depression, asking for help, and self-love
FF: You know, my whole life, I’ve had to be strong — a strong black woman, a strong woman, a strong example. I’ve always had to be the leader. Weakness has always been something that has been hard for me to show or share. To me, being vulnerable felt like weakness. But I’m about to turn 30, and in looking back at all of the things I’ve had to go through, I never acknowledged how much Depression had an effect on me. It literally took over my body.
I went through a period where I gained 40 pounds, my acne got to a point it never had before (and I’d never really had bad acne). My health was declining. I had to realize that I had to choose myself first. I had to start making moves because I was way too young to be withering away.
It was January. I was talking to a friend, I was like, “You know what, I want to do 30 days of happiness for Falyn — whatever makes me happy, every single day, I’m going to do that and make me love myself again, and all the things that I make excuses for, I’m going to do them.” And for 30 days, I made sure I did one or two things a day. And it could be so simple — just having a glass of wine and watching the sunset to just be at peace. Or maybe it was going to happy hour with friends who I haven’t seen in [a long time]. I made time and this was the turning point of my mentality — I have to stop living for the situation or the reason why I’m depressed.
I have to start living the life that I’m blessed to have. I’m blessed that I’m able to wake up. I’m blessed that I’m able to have a roof over my head. I’m blessed that I can say I have a job where all I have to do is work out and grind in my craft. This was the first part of me learning that I could get depressed. I had little spurts of it, you know, throughout my life. And I don’t wish custody battles on anyone — mine has been pretty awful — but I am so blessed that I had a support system. My best friends along with my significant other have been there through the whole ride. They’ve seen the transformation — I’m able to ask for help more, I’m able to vent, let it be, and go on instead of letting things implode inside. It’s [still] really hard to say I need help. But I think the strongest individuals are the people who can handle so much but also be able to say “I need help.” Especially being a mom, it takes a village to raise a kid. It takes a village to survive life. You need people to be able to bounce off of.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. Gave me chills. That’s the biggest thing we have to learn— it’s not a weakness to need help. It’s one of the strongest things, like you said, that you can do: recognize that you need help and ask for it. Thank you again for sharing and being vulnerable, because I know it’s terrifying sometimes. Definitely terrifying for me. It’s a work in progress.
Racism, body image, and unfair judgement
MB: You mentioned this a little bit — volleyball is predominantly a white sport, and I’m sure you’ve experienced racism because of that. Could you expand on your experience as a Black woman in volleyball and being unfairly judged?
FF: Of course. We know beach and indoor [volleyball] are white sports. When I started to become good, around 12 or 13, I was a tall, lanky kid who was just athletic. It was really obvious to me once we started travelling around the country with a top team. People were saying, “Why is this black girl getting all this attention?” I was grateful to have my mom to protect me, but in a certain way, it sheltered me. When I got to about 13 or 14, I started to get hips and a butt. My shape was different, and by this time I was about 6'3" or 6'4". I was playing with 18-year-olds and against 18-year-olds. That is a huge age difference because my mental state was so different from theirs.
The biggest thing I noticed was that the racism came from parents first. Then it [came from] coaches who [made statements] about my weight, body figure, and that I needed to train more. The biggest thing was that people had the audacity to tell me how to eat, how to work out more than I needed, and that I wasn’t working hard enough. To be honest, looking back at it, they had no right to speak at all. They had no right to even put themselves in a position where they could say these things. The problem is that people think they have the opportunity so they take it. I think the biggest mistake that people make is that it’s none of your business, first. And second, having a strong mother helped me a lot, but it turned me from being a nice kid into an alpha female because I had to constantly protect myself — I had to make sure that people weren’t talking about me, and it [turned] into insecurity.
Being [around] girls who are literally the same size — who can go to the beach and not really get too much attention — really bothered me for about three years. And then I started to notice that people would pay for a body like mine — they were going to get butt and boob jobs. I finally realized that because I’m causing so much attention, they’re uncomfortable, and I shouldn’t be uncomfortable because they’re uncomfortable. I have to take up space because God gave me this body. God gave me this ability. God gave me this light that I need to shine through.
Now that I’m a coach, I see how many body types are different. I actually coach at a club called Mizuno Long Beach, and we have all different ethnicities in our club. I try to push my thick girls, and over-emphasize: we need to be strong and healthy and we need to work with our bodies. It’s all about how you present yourself. I always try to be an example of: look, if you want a dessert, great, but you need to make sure you’re doing a, b and c to make sure you’re fueling your body so that you’re playing to your best ability. These are things that we need to be saying to not only Black girls, but girls in general. If I had someone supporting me in that way, I probably wouldn’t have been as mean as I was. But I had to protect myself because no one else would other than my mom.
MB: I love what you said at the end there — that messaging is so important. You can’t change who you are and how your body works. And you should love it, regardless of what it looks like, how it feels, or what size it is.
FF: If God wanted everyone to look the same, we would all be the same. We’re all different because we are perfect in His eyes. And that’s where we should be overemphasizing in life. If He wanted us to all look like the Kardashians, we would all look like the Kardashians.
Action, conversations, and spirituality in anti-racism work
MB: I so appreciate your insight here. I was reading one of the other interviews that you’ve done, and you said you hope to be a warrior for truth and change, looking to educate and activate your community. I know you’ve touched on it a little bit with messaging for girls and coaching, but what changes — if you could pinpoint a couple — do you want to see in both society and in your sport, whether that’s related to body image or race?
FF: I mean, there’s so much that we could get into but just from the Black Lives Matter movement to now, I wish that people would stop saying, “I donated or I did this” and take more action in learning, educating themselves and asking people they trust [questions]. I hate to say it, but maybe you have a Black friend, maybe you have a Black cousin, maybe you have a Black teacher who you really trust — there has to be someone, and if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong. You need to go outside of your group, and go talk to people who are ready to talk. You can’t force people to talk about things that they’re not ready for. But I want more people to talk to other people instead of reading articles. The personal conversation about what [someone] has gone through, what their history is, or what they go through on a normal day is so important — it is a personal conversation that they are relating to their life. If we can have more one-on-one conversations like this it’s going to impact more. It’s going to be one person multiplying what they learn to two more people into three more people and it’s going to spread like wildfire instead of being a constant battle of Black Lives Matter. And instead of it just being: “I learned something today” [it will be] “I’m going to apply it.” The biggest thing is, if we have more conversations like this, then [these people] are going to teach their children what they learned, instead of a constant cycle of racism, being naive, and “Really? There’s racism still?”
There are so many things that you can say about what’s happening. Obviously it’s also about your demographic and where you live. There are certain people who really don’t have any black people in their town. Something that I think is really important is, through faith, I feel that you can also learn [about] more opportunities, because you’re more open-minded when you have your guard down. If you’re able to reach out to a church [it might] also help because people aren’t attacking, they’re just speaking their truth.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s such an important piece too about faith or even some form of spirituality in general because you’re connected by that common humanity. It brings people together. I’ve definitely been guilty of [feeling like] I need to reshare certain things on social media, and try to help spread education or something that I didn’t know and learned, but you’re right — those conversations are really where things happen and where that “love as an action” comes through if you really care about making change.
Centering mental health for Black women and girls
MB: All these changes will ideally support people and the Black community. And I’d love to know how you think some of those implementations — and maybe some of those conversations — would center mental health for Black women in predominantly white spaces and sports, because I know you’re left behind in a lot of conversations, and in a lot of ways.
FF: You know, what’s really hard — and this is something that I also want to pinpoint — is that a lot of Black girls are pinned to a bubble of, “Oh, she has attitude, she’s difficult, she’s angry” and you can’t just isolate them and alienate them.
What people don’t understand is that Black girls are not supposed to show weakness. They’re not supposed to show emotion. They’re not supposed to have feelings. And what most people don’t realize is that our “attitude” or our “difficult” really stems from what’s happening at home, the anger that we feel when we’re not performing, or the sadness that we’re going through in life. If people would just take more time to get to know these girls or women, their life will be forever changed.
I was labelled this difficult person, [hearing] “Oh, you don’t want to play with her.” And, you know, there might be some truth to that — I was difficult because I worked so hard. I worked my ass off. I never could understand why people couldn’t give me the same effort that I was giving. But these girls need mentors. They need friends, a safe space, a safe haven. If they don’t feel that, then they’re going to have a shell or layers.
I hope that more white, Asian, Mexican — everyone — takes more time to tap into, “Who are you? What do you like? Do you need someone to talk to?” It may be uncomfortable and 10 times out of 10 it might be something that you weren’t ready for, but the fact that you asked — the fact that you care — is going to help that girl be able to be who she’s destined to be because she feels safe.
MB: So well said. We spend so much time at the surface of things versus [understanding] that mental health is, in so many ways, social determinants of health. Especially for athletes — there is a person under there, and you have to make an effort to get to know who that person is, see what they need and make them feel safe in expressing that.
Black joy, self-care, and transformation
MB: Speaking of things that are needed. My very last question is, with Black History Month, one thing that gets left out a lot is joy, and Black joy, and I don’t think we highlight and celebrate that enough. So I wanted to ask, how are you finding and centering joy in your life and taking care of your mental health these days?
FF: You know, it’s not just Black History Month. I’m turning 30 this year, and I had to go through so much in my 20's that I think something finally woke up in me. It was a realization that I needed to love myself more. And the word that I use for this year is transformation — I want this year to be a transformation year. And this transformation year is not just physical. For me, it’s also mental, spiritual, and just so much more of being present in my life right now, instead of always looking to push forward to what I can do in the future. I want to be more present for my son, I want to be more present for my significant other, I will be more present for myself, I want to be more present for my loved ones. And I want to be able to say that I have been with my family and my loved ones all year long and I didn’t miss a beat.
There’s a lot of times that I call my friends and I just ask them, “What did you do for yourself today?” The biggest thing about joy is that we don’t know what joy is until we tap into it. Self-care is huge, and it is not working out. Self-care is not meditating. It is not just taking the time to clean your house. Even if you enjoy it, that is not self-care. Self-care is, did you wash your hair and face, brush your teeth, maybe you exfoliated, you put your extra good lotion on, you took time to embrace yourself. The biggest thing — and it’s not just for moms — is if something happens to you, who’s going to take care of you?
Women — especially Black women — we take on so much. We don’t do enough for ourselves. We sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice. And we get to a point where we look around us and say, “What do I have for me?”
Now, I want to spread joy by self-care, transformation, and being a living example of: I may not have all my crap together, but you know what, at the end of the day, I’m happy, healthy, and safe because I did these things for me. My family knows that I’m here and I’m present. I’m doing all the things I need to and my loved ones are also able to communicate back and forth and see me. That’s a healthy balance that I’ve never had before. And I love tapping into it and we’re only in February. So I want to do that more and spread it.
MB: Absolutely. Mic drop. Yes. That’s so good to hear, and I’m just soaking all of that in. I appreciate you correcting me too because it’s not just Black History Month — it’s all the time.
Love, getting to know people, and creating safe spaces
MB: I just wanted to ask if there’s anything else that you’d like to share, that you’d maybe like to [leave] as a message to whoever is going to read this interview?
FF: Just over-emphasizing taking time to get to know people and taking time to make sure that we have time to digest what they’ve said. Taking time to ask questions if we don’t understand. Creating safe spaces. That’s just so important. And, you know, a lot of mental health is not something that you just take a pill for and feel better. It’s having the love and support around you so that you know you’re going to get through this, and [see that] there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.