From My Perspective…

Is Beach Volleyball the GREATEST Professional Sport on the Planet????  Well yes, of course it is!!

 

Although I grew up on the Jersey Shore and was familiar with beach volleyball, I had absolutely no idea how my love, admiration and enthusiasm for this amazing sport was going to develop after volunteering at the AVP tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2006. Subsequently, in 2018, my wife Lesa and I toured at all 9 stops with the AVP as dedicated volunteers!

 

My passion for the sport all started when I was working as an Aerospace Engineer at GE Aircraft Engines and a good friend and co-worker asked if I would be interested in volunteering at an upcoming Community Service Fund events that GE was helping to host (GE encouraged all employees to help with these “CSF” events and volunteer our time whenever possible). I asked what we had to do and will never forget his response: “It’s fun, you hose off the girls when they finish playing and help get all the sand off them after the matches.”  I immediately asked how I could sign up.

 

My first volunteer job in 2006 was NOT hosing off the lady players as promised but rather as an usher in the big tennis stadium that they converted to a beach volleyball court at the Linder Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio. It was the perfect spot to learn about and watch these amazing athletes; yes, both men and women.  I was mesmerized from the very first match and could not believe the amazing athletic abilities I was watching from each and every one of them.

 

I started at 7:00 AM on Thursday and did not leave the venue until the last match was over each night at 10:00 PM (thanks to the lighted courts at the tennis stadium, I was able to watch and enjoy 15 hours of beach volleyball each day. The only part I did not like was getting the same exact question from hundreds of fans over and over and over again, all day and all night long as I was showing them to their seats. 

 

It went like this: As the fans with giant smiles and happy faces walked into the stadium, visibly excited to see some of the very best beach volleyball players in the world, they asked me, “Is that Phil Dalhausser? Is that Todd Rogers? Is that Mike Lambert and Stein Metzger? Is that Kerri Walsh-Jennings? Is that Misty May-Treanor? Is that really Karch Kiraly?” And over and over again, I had the same exact response. All I could say was, “I’m sorry but I have no idea.” It was horrible and I felt like a complete fool. What was I doing there not knowing these literal LEGENDS of beach volleyball??

April Ross on the left and Kerri Walsh Jennings to the right!

Luckily for me, I ran into a soon-to-be good friend and beach volleyball expert Patrick Mann. I was able to save him a seat early Sunday morning and he spent the entire day explaining the sport, the history, and the athletes’ stories and even some of the “drama.”  For me, it was exactly what I needed and I’m forever grateful for his kindness and friendship.

 

There is no doubt that the highlight of this first event was when Patrick asked if I would be interested in staying after the women’s Championship match to meet Misty May-Treanor (they announced that Misty was going to stay after the match to meet fans but that Kerri had to leave right away to catch a plane). 

 

After learning from Patrick exactly who she was and what she had accomplished during her career, I immediately said yes, yes I would very much like to meet this legend, the very best female beach volleyball player on the planet, all the way back from the time the sport started in Santa Monica so many years ago.

 

We were not in a hurry so we made our way to the back of the line that wrapped around the entire stadium. There must have been over 300 fans standing in line on that hot and humid Sunday afternoon waiting to meet this icon, and I was happy to wait. 

 

As we got closer, we saw her sitting on a small plastic chair on the hot pavement. She was sitting there for hours happily meeting her fans after competing with the very best the USA had to offer over the last few days.  Rather than cleaning up and leaving as soon as she could, it appeared her fans were more important, worth the time and effort to stay and meet them.

 

I got more excited as we got closer. When it was my turn, I walked up and before I could say anything, she noticed I still had my volunteer shirt on. She said, “Thank you so much for volunteering. We could not do this without you.” I was literally speechless. And for those who know me, that is not usually the case.

 

Here I was standing in front of the Michael Jordan of beach volleyball (or Wayne Gretzky or Jack Nicklaus or Tom Brady), and she was thanking me for being there?? I still get emotional just recalling this moment 14 years later. I was both stunned and overwhelmed. What other sport in the world can you approach such a legend and not only say hello and tell them how amazing they are to watch, but then they take the time and effort to respond so kindly??  She signed my visor, took a couple photos, and thanked me again before I headed off. That was it. I was hooked.

The legend herself, Misty May-Treanor. Three-time Olympic Gold Medalist and 66-time AVP champion!

At first, my wife Lesa thought I was crazy. I had just spent four days and nights volunteering at a professional beach volleyball tournament and I came home bouncing off the walls with excitement.  Then my head almost exploded when I found out that earlier that year, they had played a tournament on the Jersey Shore where I grew up (in Belmar) and they were going back in 2007 to Seaside Heights (just across the bay from my old house in Toms River). 

 

There was no doubt where we were going that next year, not as a volunteer but as a fan. It didn’t matter how much it was going to cost— we were going back home to see the athletes play on the beach where I grew up.

 

After I calmed down a bit, my head exploded yet again when I checked the AVP website and found a link to sign up as a volunteer in the New Jersey tournament the following year. Lesa had no choice; we were going home to visit and she was going to join me as an AVP volunteer the following year on the Jersey Shore (luckily for me, she was almost as happy and excited as I was when we volunteered that year).

Lesa with the AVP Chicago Open champs, Mike Lambert and Stein Metzger!

Over the next few years, we were able to expand our volunteering to include Cincinnati, Louisville, the Jersey Shore and Chicago.  From our very first tournament in Chicago, it became one of our favorites. The fans, the beach on Lake Michigan, the city and area, the AVP tournament staff, the players, the referees, the legendary announcer Chris Geeter McGee, the entire event was absolutely fantastic! 

 

So the spark that started our love affair with the AVP and professional beach volleyball was the players, but we soon learned that this sport is much, much more than watching amazing men and women athletes perform at the highest level of competition.

 

If I could use only one word that best describes this sport, it would be Family. It truly is our extended family.  The players are simply amazing, on and off the court. They are the best, friendliest, nicest professional athletes on the planet. The referees also travel with the players to all the AVP events across the country and are just as nice, friendly and terrific as the players. Their help, humor and friendship over the years has been wonderful, not to mention how well they do their jobs day in and day out. They are super professional while at the same time, a blast to be around, just pure fun and enjoyment.

 

Then there is the entire AVP Tournament staff, from Mr. Donald Sun and his beautiful wife Stephanie, who single-handedly brought the AVP back from extinction several years ago and continue to grow the sport year after year, to the volunteer coordinators, court maintenance crew, marketing team, AVP First team, the amazing announcers Chris Geeter McKee and now Mark Schuermann, DJ Roueche, who always has the stadium rocking, and the awesome Tournament Directors we have had the pleasure of meeting over the years (Matt Gage and Jeff Conover are just the best). It is our joy, privilege and pleasure to know these wonderful people.

 

Over the years, we have also been fortunate to meet many of the players’ families at the tournaments and sure enough, it is clear where the players learned to be so nice, friendly, amazing, and awesome.  Their families are some of the very best people you will ever meet.

Ed Ratledge with his #1 fan and son.

In addition to all of the people mentioned above, there is another group of extraordinary people that work all day in the hot sand. They are the photographers who love the sport as much as we do, but at the same time, they are able to capture truly outstanding photos of the athletes in action. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, they are also the nicest people you could meet and we are fortunate to call them our friends. 

 

Last, but certainly not least, are all the amazing fans and volunteers we have had the opportunity to meet over the past several years.  Some are just as excited, amazed and crazy for the athletes as we are and I would say nearly all are having as much fun as we are, no matter where the tournament is held. Sharing our love for this sport with so many fans across the USA, including our old friends we have known for years as well as our new friends we meet at each and every tournament is a joy.

 

While living in Cincinnati, we always said we were going to make it out to California one day to experience one of their tournaments.  Not surprising, most people told us if we could only come out for one tournament, it had to be Manhattan Beach (they were right, there is nothing like it).

 

Little did we know that in 2008, shortly after our son Keith moved to San Diego, we were going to join him and enjoy the Southern California sunshine and beaches full time. It did not take long before we were signed up for all the AVP tournaments on the California coast while still being able to fly home to New Jersey and our second home, Cincinnati to volunteer at those tournaments as well. 

 

It was only a matter of time, shortly after my early retirement from Goodrich Aerostuctures, that we would be able to accomplish our goal of volunteering at every one of the AVP tournaments in a single year, including the brand new addition in Honolulu, Hawaii. That came true last year and we had a blast at every single event.

At the 2018 NYC Open with Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty!

One of the most amazing things we witnessed last year at all those tournaments was the insane beach volleyball skills and ability of the young boys and girls participating in the AVP First program. Watching two young girls— say, 10 years old— play with the skill of the women at the NCAA level is mind blowing.  Thanks to the AVP for establishing such a wonderful program to help grow this fantastic sport. The passion and skill that these young players possess is amazing to watch and with the expansion of the beach volleyball programs at the NCAA level, we can’t wait to see how this sport continues to grow in the future. 

 

While we truly love to watch the USA players compete all over the country, we have also had the good fortune to volunteer at several of the international FIVB and NORCECA events over the past several years and had the opportunity to watch and meet truly outstanding players from all over the world.  Astonishingly, every one of these international players is just as nice, just as friendly, and just as fantastic as our USA players. It must be the water they all drink that makes them such amazing athletes, but even more importantly, such good people.

 

So when we got the opportunity to volunteer at the FIVB World Championships a couple weeks ago in Hamburg, Germany, we packed up our bags and off we went. Describing the venue as “electric” does not come close to describing what we experienced there cheering along side 13,000 excited and fanatic fans as the German men nearly won the Gold Medal against the outstanding team from Russia. It was just as exciting to watch our own April and Alix play fantastic all week long and capture the silver medal playing against the unstoppable team from Canada, Sarah Pavan and “girl-on-fire” Melissa Humana-Paredes who was the MVP and everywhere on Stadium Court.  

 

Another highlight of our beach volleyball adventure was spending two weeks in London in 2012 and watching 18 matches at the Summer Olympics, including the Gold Medal match where Misty and Kerri won Gold and Jen and April won Silver. The beach volleyball venue at the Horse Guards Parade Grounds was also electric, the staff and security were great, and the fans were simply fantastic.  Being around so many people from all over the world that appreciate and love this sport as much as we do was breathtaking.

2012 London Olympics.

Unfortunately, we were not able to attend the Summer Olympic games in Rio but we definitely plan to be in Tokyo next year to cheer on the USA. And if we are lucky, we might even be volunteering on the sand!!