The sport has come a long way since it was an excuse to hang out at the beach with a beer. The skills of its athletes are breathtaking
Not many people know that my friend and mentor Wilt Chamberlain was not just one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, he was also a world-class volleyball player. Although he didn’t start playing volleyball until he was 33 and still with the Los Angeles Lakers, he sponsored his own team, was a board member of the International Volleyball Association, and was eventually named to the Volleyball Hall of Fame. “For a long time, volleyball became as big a part of my life as basketball once was,” he said. “Being able to hold my own against the best in the world, on the beach or indoors, is something I’m very proud of.” Although he played both indoors and beach volleyball, I think beach suited his personality more.
I was reminded of his intense passion while watching the beach volleyball world championships in Germany this summer. Forty-eight men’s teams and 48 women’s teams competed in one of the most grueling, graceful, explosive, and entertaining sports being played today. Watching the men and women spike, block, and dive around a court that is almost impossible for two people to adequately cover makes one appreciate the elite level of athleticism necessary to be competitive on an international level. After basketball, it may very well may be the second-most exciting international sport.
Originating in Hawaii, beach volleyball has been around since 1895. But that was merely the indoor version of six-person teams transferred to sand. The modern beach volleyball game of two-person teams was invented in 1930 by Paul “Pablo” Johnson on the Santa Monica beach. Bored with waiting for the rest of the players to arrive, he and three others mapped out a smaller court and began playing the first recorded game of two-a-side beach volleyball. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that beach volleyball became popular as, not just a sport, but a representative of beach culture. Surfing and volleyball became intertwined in the public’s mind and watching either came to represent an endless summer vibe of beach parties that lasted long into the night. If 1960s movies popularized the teen surfing scene as innocent Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello romping in the sand, the addition of beach volleyball in the 1980s added a bad-boy element, like remaking Beach Blanket Bingo but directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.
The professional beach volleyball stars of the 1980s played like pioneers of any sport: passionate and freewheeling, knowing they were defining the sport as it grew. Sometimes making it up as they went along. Sinjin Smith, Karch Kiraly, and Randy Stoklos were big personalities as well as big players. Tim Hovland was known for emotional outbursts, sometimes ripping off his shirt in anger. Kiraly once tore down a net during a match. These hormonal hijinks were good for popularizing the sport, bringing fans out to see a sport where anything could happen. Stoklos and Smith were even featured in the 1988 video game Kings of the Beach.
Beach volleyball started to become popular outside the United States and in 1996, it became an official Olympic sport. In the six summer Olympics since the sport’s introduction, the US has won six of the available 12 gold medals. But as the sport’s popularity continues to grow, Americans are facing tougher and tougher competition. This makes the sport even more exciting because the play has become much more sophisticated. The old style of simply passing, setting, and crushing the ball is no longer as effective against 6ft 7in blockers and whipsaw fast diggers. Players are adapting by training all year around and by playing smarter and more strategically. As the prize money has grown, they’ve come to treat the sport like a serious profession and not just a fun lifestyle. A point won with an easy lob is worth just as much as a point won through a powerhouse spike. This more enlightened approach is due in part to the maturation of the aging players. Many of the top athletes are married with children, no longer representing the swinging single beach lifestyle, but family men and women striving to excel in a challenging sport.
One of the most significant contributors to the sport’s growing popularity is the dynamic play of the women. Although their games are generally not as explosive as the men’s, they play with greater technique, variety of shots, and chess-like thinking, often making their matches more compelling. This was certainly true during this year’s world championships.
Watching the FIVB finals demonstrates why the sport is so riveting. Although, the US team of April Ross and Alix Klineman were defeated by Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, it was one of the most nail-biting finals of any sport. The final score of 23-21, 23-21 shows the Americans had opportunities to win in both sets, but were ultimately unable to capitalize. Despite each team having a 6ft 5in player blocking at the net, the standout player was Canada’s 5ft 9in Pavan, who dug meteoric spikes and placed shots with surgical precision. The men’s gold medal match between Russia and Germany was equally thrilling, with Russia winning the tie-breaking set. In both finals – and in all the matches leading up to them – fans witnessed amazing feats of athleticism. Hits that seemed impossible to even touch were dug by players diving through the sand, then popping up to hit the set. You can’t watch for more than a minute without seeing an extraordinary play that seems to defy what the human body is capable of doing.
Beach volleyball may no longer be a celebration of the laid-back, hang-loose, beers around the beach fire pit that it was a few decades ago. But shedding that weight has turned it into a sport that constantly challenges the physical and mental limitations of athletes and finds them up to that challenge. I certainly understand why Wilt loved the game so much.