Like most of you, I have an addiction. Five years ago, at the relatively advanced age of 28, I started playing beach volleyball. It had been a decade since I stepped off the court at the end of my high school indoor career, but as soon as I played my first match in the San Diego sand, I knew I was in love. I liked everything about the game: the cool ocean breeze and sunshine on my back, the welcoming and friendly community, and the lifestyle, on and off the court.
My new volleyball friends and teammates assured me that even though I had just picked up the game, I could compete at just about any level that I desired. For the next five years I played in a wide variety of tournaments: the annual Moonlight Mixed tournament, fundraisers, dress-up tournaments, the Polar Bear, the OMBAC Spirit of the Beach fours tournament, NVL and AVP qualifiers, and loads of CBVA events. Occasionally, I would hear stories from players who had gone overseas to compete, and I decided that my ultimate goal, having never been abroad, was to play internationally.
Last summer, one of the girls I train with, Esther Kim, came back from a trip to Bibione, Italy, and couldn’t stop talking about a tournament she played in called the Beach Volley Marathon.
“You have to come next year,” she gushed, and I vowed to make it happen.
Several months later I received an email from Federica Tonon—international volleyball rock star, studette, and winningest player of the Marathon—inviting me to Italy to coach a kids’ camp and then play on her team in the Marathon. Shaking away my disbelief, I typed “yes” and clicked send. I couldn’t wait to experience another country, see the beaches of Italy, taste their pizza and pasta and gelato, and, of course, compete in this tournament I had heard so much about.
Memorial Day Weekend in the states means honoring our veterans, cooking out, and for many of us, playing beach volleyball. In Italy, the last weekend in May just happens to be the date of the Marathon. Imagine the biggest volleyball event you have ever heard of (Seaside, perhaps, which had just under 1,300 teams last year), then double it and double it again. With over 15,000 participants and 250 courts, the Marathon is unlike anything I had ever seen. Courts spanned as far as I could see, Mikasa balls filled the air, and there were plenty of euros at stake for those who could prove themselves on this larger-than-life stage.
The tournament boasts the greatest prize pool of any Open tournament in all of Europe: 80,450 euros spread over three different events (men’s and women’s competitions in doubles and triples and single gender and mixed fours). Perhaps a little overeager, I wanted to play in every division possible so I joined teams for women’s doubles, women’s triples, and mixed fours. At the time, I didn’t realize this would mean playing more than 25 games to 21 points over a three-day period. All I can say is the Marathon certainly lived up to its billing.
The action began on a gorgeous Friday morning. The women’s doubles tournament boasted 210 teams, while the men kicked off pool play with over 300 teams. Despite the mind-blowing participation numbers, the tournament was smooth and organized from beginning to end. The map of the venue was easy to read, everyone showed up on time, and balls were in the air at 8 a.m. sharp.
Day two, Saturday, was really when things accelerated into high gear, especially for me, the genius who’d decided to play in three different divisions. I had back-to-back games from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in women’s doubles, women’s threes, and mixed fours. At the end of each game, I sprinted to the bracket boards to see where my next one was being played. Luckily all my teams had subs in order to complete the games that took place simultaneously, otherwise I don’t know if we could have pulled it off.
After 11 games that second day, I was ready to see how Italian volleyball players let loose.
Don’t allow the massive purse and ridiculous turnout fool you. These ballers are just as serious about the after party as they are about breaking pool. Each night, players and spectators took over the beach for an unforgettable “Spritz Party.”
A Venetian creation, spritz is a wine-based cocktail prepared with prosecco and a dash of some bitter liqueur, topped off with mineral water and a slice of orange. On the beach, spritz was sold in pitchers not meant to be shared. Thousands of players and spectators packed onto the sand, dancing barefoot, pitchers in hand, to beats spun by Bibione’s hottest DJs.
Playoffs for triples and quads took place the next day. It was a sluggish start for many who had indulged the night before, but my women’s threes team just kept winning and advancing. We made it to the quarters, then the semis, and to my delight, all the way to the final.
There we were on center court, five strong. Our roster included the women’s doubles champs (Kaui Salzman and Keao Burdine), the tournament’s winningest player Federica, 6-foot-4 Vivi Sparrow from France, and me.
I’ll never forget what it was like to play on stadium court for the title in the world’s largest beach volleyball tournament. Spectators surrounded the court and rows and rows of unfamiliar faces stared in at us. Sponsor banners sprinkled the baselines and announcers’ voices blared on the loud speaker—though I have no idea what they were saying since they were speaking Italian. We were to play one game to 21 to determine the winner. All five of us had our time to shine in the close game, and we pulled out the win 21-18.
So this is what it feels like up here, I thought as the five of us squished on top of the podium to receive our prizes. I could get used to this.
The Marathon was an unforgettable tournament and an amazing life experience that I would highly recommend to any volleyball enthusiast. Only five years ago, I was a complete beach volleyball rookie, and now, I’m an international title-holder. What a journey!
Originally published in October 2014