To cowering opponents — and most of the sports-loving world for that matter — Phil Dalhausser is one of the most intimidating players ever to stomp the sand. At 6-foot-9 inches, with the build of a well toned ball point pen, he’s known as the Thin Beast. A freak of nature. The bald-headed bullet.

To those closest to him, like teammate Todd “The Professor” Rogers, he is quite the opposite. Laid back. Rarely serious. And kind of dorky.

Guess he’s not so eminent when he’s standing on your side of the net.

It’s the perfect partnership — offensive juggernaut and skillful teacher —that catapulted the dynamic pair to Olympic victory this summer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In case you weren’t part of the wild, 12,000-person crowd (think Brazilians in green and yellow wigs mixed with American flags and a guy sporting an Evel Knievel jumpsuit) or the 4 million fans cheering from their couches, here’s a quick replay.

It’s a sticky, sunny morning at Chaoyang Park. More than 10,000 tons of silky gold and white sand surround Dalhausser’s monster-size feet.

The battle begins.

Pitted against Brazilians Marcio Araujo and Fabio “Jaws” Magalhaes the Olympic rookies win the first set 23-21. The second set goes to the Brazilians at 17-21. A nail-bitter, indeed. The sportscasters keep the mood light, however, with their nonchalant banter: “…unfortunately, the Thin Beast isn’t getting many serves…” “…Jaws is just getting harpooned by the Thin Beast…” “…what do we think the Professor just said to Jaws up at the net?” And possibly the best comment of the game: “Jaws is upset.”

As he should be. In the final set Jaws is shut down repeatedly by Dalhausser’s power blocks. By point 14 — game point — the sun is beating down, and Dalhausser is hotter than a twice-baked potato. Rogers serves the ball. The Brazilians return it. Dalhausser leaps near the net, pounds the sweat-drenched ball hitting Jaws on the way down. It’s over. The Brazilians are left with clenched fists and utter indignation.

Long-limbed Dalhausser barrels toward Rogers. The perfectly golden tanned duo crashes to the ground in an enthusiastic man-hug as Dalhausser lets loose a beastly yell. The jarring cheers that rocked the stands, he will never forget. The years of painstaking work have paid off.

Time to relax. Time to soak it in. Time to chow down a giant hamburger.

Or not.

Whisked away, Dalhausser and Rogers star in a smattering of interviews before they don their patriotic podium gear, flash their pearlies and show off the six grams of gold they worked so hard for.

Shuffled into a special room, the two are immediately yanked from cloud nine. Momentarily. They are drug tested. Scrutinized by anti-doping agents. All clear.

Whirlwind of Attention

Soon after, they are back at their hotel for a quick bite to eat before cameos on the Today Show and MTV News. Suddenly in the spotlight and hearing reporters dub him the world’s best player, you’d think Dalhausser would have an ego of epic proportions. Not the case.

“I just kind of chuckle,” he says. “I’m not really one to pat myself on the back. It’s pretty cool I guess. It’s always nice to get respect from your colleagues.”

As the guy with the killer 55 mph serve explains the biggest day of his life he is true to his style — easygoing. That’s part of what makes him so appealing. No sports snobbery here. He’s still the regular, fun-loving Phil he was back on the UCF sand courts.

Just busier.

The day after winning gold, he zips back to his home in Santa Barbara for a few days to decompress before an AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) tournament in Cincinnati. For Dalhausser that’s plenty of time to master his favorite video game du jour, Call of Duty 4, and time for a Fantasy Football draft, which he plays while sporting his new golden luck charm.

Here’s the zinger though: after the draft, he tucks the medal away in his closet. “I don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “I’m supposed to take it with me to all the events, but I’m too scared I’ll lose it.”

After much debate, he takes the medal to the Oprah Show season premiere taping later that week and to a Santa Barbara elementary school. But, as he finishes up the stellar year with tournaments in Manhattan Beach, San Francisco, Dubai and China, the gold medal — the symbol that sums up his electrifying career thus far — will likely remain on the shelf, in the closet, among other international trophies and medals, including the 2007 AVP’s Most Valuable Player award and the 2007 FIVB (Federation of International Volleyball) World Championships award.

The Pre-Beast Years

Just five years ago, those impressive titles were merely a pipe dream. Dalhausser was playing club volleyball at UCF on the sand courts (next to where the UCF Recreation and Wellness Center now stands). “Volleyball was my hobby,” he says. In fact he didn’t start playing until his senior year at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach. Compared to his 34-year-old teammate Rogers, who began competing at 14, it was a late start.

He was hooked and by 2002, fresh out of college with a UCF business administration degree, he was staging his next move. Would this volleyball thing pan out? His parents weren’t convinced. As luck would have it though a recently befriended pal — a pro player from Myrtle Beach, S.C. — asked him to live and train there for the summer. “I didn’t really have much going on,” he admits. “I was working on construction in Daytona and I was like sure I’ll move up there.”

For the next two years he learned the ropes. After that it was on to Santa Barbara, Calif., when he realized “I couldn’t get much better living in Myrtle,” he says. “You practice against the best players in the country in California so your game automatically becomes better.”

Dynamic Duo

The move proved prosperous. He was playing nearly every day, soaking up the vibrant California volleyball scene. And in a 2004 tournament, Dalhausser played against his future partner, Rogers. “He was super tall, obviously, and somewhat of an offensive juggernaut,” Rogers remembers. “My first impression of him was ‘gosh this guy’s kind of a dorky guy,’ but then as I saw him play I was like, ‘wow, he’s actually pretty talented.’ He can move well and do all those things he needs to do to be successful in this sport.”

From there the two trained against each other often. Rogers saw on a daily basis the rookie mistakes Dalhausser made and, more importantly, the tremendous potential of this sleeping giant. “I said, ‘Hey I think you can be the best player in the world,’” says Rogers. “Are you interested in playing with me?” In his typical laid-back style, Dalhausser said “yeah, you know, I don’t have a lot of other things on my plate.”

As simple as that, the partnership began. And so did the grueling weight lifting regimen and beach workouts that included Dalhausser’s most-dreaded exercise — the drag pull where he dragged two sets of 25-pound weights about 40 yards down the soft sand and back.

It didn’t end there. Four-hundred yard sprints. Hitting the ball three times a week for two-hour increments. Six hours a week in the weight room and cardio routines on the off days. Two-hour plyometrics workouts (intended to increase reactive strength and jumping skill) so tough they occasionally made Dalhausser toss his cookies.

“I told him, ‘if I’m going to play with you, you have to commit yourself,’” says Rogers.

Done deal. Dalhausser was game and the scales were tipping in the direction of flat-out good times. After he and Rogers won the 2007 FIVB World Championships, he knew they had a shot at Beijing gold. “He’s just absorbed everything I’ve had to give him,” says Rogers.

Typical Day

Now in the off-season, the training load has lightened up. Dalhausser starts each morning by slathering on some Banana Boat sunscreen, throwing on his Speedo trunks and noshing on a light breakfast — usually a banana and cereal. When asked to compare his eating habits with Michael Phelps, he says, “I guess I eat more than the average person, maybe around 4,000 calories. I heard the whole 12,000 calories thing from Michael Phelps. I kind of find that hard to believe because that’s actually about six times the average diet.”

Next, he treks about a half-hour over to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to meet up with Rogers around 9 a.m. “We’re not even picking up the ball during practice,” says Rogers. “We’ve played so much in the past five months we force ourselves not to play. That way, when you get to the actual tournament you get fired up for it because you are really stoked.”

By noon he’s off to the gym for an hour or so in the weight room. Then maybe a burrito for lunch. From there, it’s smooth sailing. His day is virtually done. The afternoon is wide open for video gaming and TV watching. Not bad.

The cushy lifestyle won’t last for long. He’ll be training full-time again soon. London (where the 2012 Olympics will be held) is calling.