RAROTONGA, Cook Islands — It’s about 7:30 a.m. in the Cook Islands, and I’m sitting on the wrong side of our rental car, driving on the wrong side of the road.
I suppose it’s become a habit of mine, these past two seasons, to begin my (beach) volleyball season in the strangest of manners when it comes to driving. A little less than a year ago, I was in Austria and Italy, beginning my (beach) volleyball season on the snow –hence the parentheses above — commandeering a manual Fiat that neither I nor the rest of our crew knew how to drive.
So here we are again.
I’m in the Cook Islands, on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road, with Adam Roberts riding shotgun where shotgun shouldn’t be, for a one-star FIVB.
It’s the first international event hosted by the Cook Islands, a little map dot three hours southwest of Hawai’i that looks and feels an awful lot like Hawai’i, only with a population of 17,000 and an area so small that Adam and I have driven around the entire, abundantly green island in 40 total minutes.
It’s part of an ongoing effort of the FIVB to grow the game even more globally than it already has. Just last week, the Qeshm Islands in Iran hosted its inaugural event, and Iran will host another in February that will be the first for that city. It’s fitting that 2020 should begin with so many new spots, since the 2019 season concluded with a one-star in Tel Aviv, which marked the first time Israel had hosted an FIVB as well.
While the United States continues to have a dearth of promoters, the Cook Islands has somehow found the funds to bring the world tour to its lovely, rainy little island for the first time.
As it goes with one-stars, and events in the middle of the Pacific that are neither easy nor cheap to reach, it’s attracted a good field, not a great one, but it’s also the only thing currently happening in beach volleyball at the moment, which is why I’m here.
The only other Americans in the men’s-only field are Chris Austin and Earl Schultz, and if you haven’t heard of either, I can assure you that it is more than likely you will many times throughout this season. Austin is a national-champion setter out of UC Irvine with a brilliant mind for the game. He made main draw of the Manhattan Beach Open last year with Kris Johnson and took Ricardo Santos and Sean Rosenthal to three. Schultz was a dual-sport athlete at Pitzer College — basketball and volleyball — and has, with considerable help of multiple sessions with the p1440 Developmental Program, developed the skill set that has finally caught up to his ridiculous athleticism.
Headlining the field is Norway’s Jorre Andre Kjemperud, a three-time Olympian (2000, 2004, 2008) who was eliminated in two Games by the eventual gold medalists — Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana in 2000 and Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos in 2004. He’s playing with 31-year-old Stian Opsahl, who doesn’t quite have that resume, but still: a 51-year-old three-time Olympian is playing in a one-star event in the Cook Islands.
Japan, too, is sending one of its most recognizable veterans in Koichi Nishimura. He’s been playing in FIVBs since 2002 and regularly trains in California, playing two AVPs in 2015 with Ty Loomis and Marty Lorenz. The 46-year-old is playing with 25-year-old Daisuke Shibata, and the pair made six FIVB main draws last season.
Canada is sending two sets of up-and-comers in Liam Kopp, a 24-year-old defender. He’s partnered with 6-foot-11 Alexander Russell, who played the Seaside Open with Canada’s No. 2 defender Grant O’Gorman.
New Zealand’s Sam O’Dea is also making an appearance. His last medal on the World Tour came in 2017, with a bronze at the Shepparton one-star. He’s picked up Griffin Muller, who’s playing his first FIVB since 2016.
As for the rest of the field, little is known. It’s a one-star, after all. The first rung of the ladder, the first stepping stone to players’ international careers.
Main draw begins Wednesday, and the finals are Friday.
Perhaps by then, Adam and I will remember that the left side of the road is the right one.