Each year many players and coaches bring friends and loved ones to share the unique experience of this season-ending resort-style tournament stop. This is the third time I’ve been to the FIVB Phuket Open and I loved coming back. Being in a foreign country with a group of international volleyball players—and having a very light agenda after such a heavily scheduled season—allowed everyone to kick back and absorb the carefree, smiley and fun-loving vibe of Phuket, Thailand. Thai culture lives up to the most positive reputation of an island community. The people of Phuket are mellow, laidback and ceaselessly welcoming. While we initially had desires to have wild, “The Beach”-esque adventures, we largely suppressed those urges and did a perfect amount of nothing.
Thailand’s modest price tags on just about everything opened up opportunities that otherwise would be cost-prohibitive in the States. We all indulged in Thailand’s abundance of healthy and delicious food options. However, despite the fresh and tasty offerings, several American players contracted food poisoning this year. The worst victim was April Ross. Her debilitating food poisoning was no secret—every play we wondered if she’d manage to get out of her sickly, drooped-head stance, but eventually she would lift her head to side out another ball. She showed amazing resolve and will power, as she completely drained her entire energy supply for each play. Her partner, Jen Kessy, displayed her dynamic athleticism with some ridiculous “on-two” balls from the right side. Going up to hit passes that would surely tear the rotator cuff off of lesser humans, Jen pulled out a dizzying array of options, from spaghetti-arm snap-backs to left-handed pokeys. Jen was walking a fine line of insanity and aggression, which resulted in some brilliant plays, and all with a stadium full of Russian tourists cheering “Rooos-eee-uhh!”
Leading the Americans were Nicole Branagh and Kerri Walsh, back in only her second FIVB tournament after the birth of her two boys. The pair managed to bounce back from a second round loss to win the tournament. In the finals, they faced a newly formed Italian duo that played with passionate intensity and determination. The mature 20-year-old Marta Menegatti showed her incredible athleticism and talent under pressure. With partner Valeria Rosso, their finish marked the first finals appearance for an Italian team and her play was evidence of a bright future for Italy’s beach program. Even though Nicole and Kerri were not yet polished in their play, they managed to beat some great teams playing at their best. This tournament was witness to the fact that even Nicole and Kerri’s bad days are good enough to beat most teams in the world.
Only a ten-minute walk up Karon Beach from the tournament site is the official tournament hotel, the Phuket Orchid. With more than adequate accommodations and a beautiful resort-style pool with a swim-up bar beneath a giant Buddha statue, the sixty-dollar-a-night hotel is a bargain. Adding to the charm was finding our favorite restaurant and massage spa within 200 yards of our room. Baan-Sailam, an every-meal eatery, served up fast and fresh $3 Pad See Ew and Pad Thai, and $1.50 fresh fruit shakes, which were simply fresh fruit blended with ice. My partner, Brooke Hanson, thrived on the Shrimp Pad Thai and watermelon shakes. The restaurant’s most popular offering, however, was the free Wi-Fi, which spawned many late night Skype sessions for the players. Photos of joyous customers covered the restaurant walls, and we joined the ranks in a photo with our server, “Aa.”
Some of my greatest memories from the trip were the communal meals we shared with great company. From playing “Mafia”—a group psychological game—over pizza to Kerri and Nicole’s victory dinner, it was nice to spend quality time with the other players. It must be noted that this time together also revealed that Angie Aker’s psychological prowess on the court did not translate to strength as a Mafia player. Additionally, Kelly Woods showed that her physical therapy expertise and training would not lead to a future in the CIA.
With a tip from fellow massage-hunter Tyra Turner, we were led to Tum Rub Thai Massage. We were instructed to seek out “the old lady” and “the one with bangs.” We found them, and our search was not in vain. Andrew Fuller, Kelly Woods, Jen and Ryan Kessy and I built a great rapport with the masseuses at Tum Rub. We shared a lot of laughs as these petite ladies maneuvered to stretch and manipulate our massive American bodies. After an hour of twisting, kneading, and being walked on, we were rejuvenated, re-aligned, and ready to do more of nothing. At $7 an hour, we visited Tum Rub Thai Massage just about every day.
Motor scooters and tuk-tuks (a three-wheeled auto rickshaw) are the preferred means of transportation on the island. Using both means we explored the nearby towns of Kata to the south, which boasted more beautiful beaches, great restaurants (e.g. the Boathouse), and great local shopping. To the north is Patong where you can find a very open, very crazy nighttime scene that can be quite humorous—or just lewd—depending on your taste and mood. Coach Jeff Conover captured the atmosphere succinctly saying: “If there were human wonders of the world, this would be one of them.”
Something that would intermittently pop into our tourist psyches was that these people were only six years removed from one of the worst natural disasters in modern human history. The tsunami of 2004 devastated the island of Phuket, yet there were no visible scars of the disaster and while I don’t dare assume that they’ve forgotten the tsunami, their actions and attitude point to uncommon resilience and infectious optimism.
Originally published in February 2011