Friday, August 22, 2008

Kings Of The Beach

the block that got bigger and bigger

“I don’t think they should even call it beach volleyball anymore,” said Jon. “Because it’s really sand volleyball. Beaches no longer come into play.”

True enough. We were in the middle of Beijing, without a sea gull in sight, and about to watch the men’s “beach volleyball” medal matches. The sport that had grown up on the beaches of Southern California was now an Olympic phenomenon, played by countries world wide and at venues thousands of miles from the nearest ocean.

warming up as the crowd filtered in

Walking into the event, however, you’d never know it. The place really did resemble a beach. Right down to the smell of sunscreen. Music blared, bikini clad dancers paraded around, and the announcer spoke a perfect beach dialect of SoCal English. It was hard to believe we were in China. I even had to keep reminding myself that I couldn’t go cool off with a dip in the ocean.

For this reason, beach volleyball has become the number one ticket at these Olympics. And, somehow, we’d scored a couple. Not only were we there; we were a few rows from the action, right behind the players’ wives/girlfriends. However lucky, it was fitting if not serendipitous. Jon has played beach ball for years and had introduced me to the sport as well. Back in college we’d often roll out of bed, throw on some shorts, put a ball on the back of our motorcycles, and head to the beach. As long as we were in Beijing together, we had to be here.

"number one ticket in beijing" any questions why?

Also, in the small world that is sport, I knew one of the two American players. I used to work with Todd Rogers’ wife, Melissa, at a health club a decade or so ago. Back then Todd’s career was struggling as beach ball was going through an identity crises. Now here they were; playing for the gold medal in front of millions. Life can be so sweet sometimes.

we're a long way from GVAC, melissa

In their way were Brazilians. Lots of them. There were Brazilians from Brazil as well as Brazilians from Georgia, who had nationalized some who couldn’t make the Brazilian team. There would be no beach interlopers from places like Switzerland. This was an old school showdown. All it needed was a floating Cuervo balloon and the sound of crashing waves.

In the final we were treated to some of the best volleyball we’d seen. In a see-saw battle the Americans and Brazilians split the first two games. Rogers was amazing. By far the smallest guy on the court, the Brazilians would serve him every time. Yet his speed and savvy generally made this tactic look dubious, as over and over he’d use precision to overcome half a foot of disadvantage.

This actually put a lot of pressure on his partner, Phil Dalhausser. When the ball did head his direction, he needed to make the most of his opportunities. I suppose this could be frustrating but I’m sure they’re used to it. The Americans seemed calmer, more calculated. As the pressure mounted their tactics began to wear on Brazil. At one point Jon said that Dalhausser was “getting into their head” as his massive block seemed to get bigger and bigger as the match wore on.

In the final set it all came to fruition. Rogers dug everything and Dalhausser became a monster at the net. It seemed like every time the Brazilians set, they found Dalhausser hovering over them, ready to reject any shot down to the sand. After what seemed like five consecutive blocks, it was 9-1. Game over.

10 years later: todd and melissa look the same, but the crowd around them has changed

I was hot, sweaty, sun burnt; so I headed off in search of some waves to cool off.

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