Big AVP happenings: 8-city league starts in 2024, plus new tour format
November 13, 2023
September 26, 2023
By John Kriescher for VolleyballMag.com
John Kriescher is an adaptive athlete, fundraising professional, writer, and soon-to-be father based in Houston. Through work with It’s Called Normal Athletics (ICN), he is helping to create opportunities for people with disabilities to get active and excel in beach volleyball. Thanks to sponsorship from ICN, Kriescher was part of the first team of adaptive athletes to compete in a national volleyball tournament at the recent Motherlode Volleyball Classic in Aspen, Colorado.
Motherlode began as a barbecue event, but it turned 50 this year and is one of the oldest outdoor pro/am volleyball tournaments in the U.S.
I’ve always described my experience with volleyball as unusual. Born missing my left arm below the elbow, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago spending nearly every moment of my free time playing basketball.
In fact, it wasn’t until around 2019, after a pretty girl invited me to play in a 4’s beach volleyball league in Houston, that I fell in love with the sport at the spry age of 30.
It was like an addiction. Every missed block and each shanked pass was an opportunity to learn and get better, and I was a sponge.
I quickly learned that the most extraordinary part of beach volleyball is the community. It didn’t matter that I was missing an arm and had less experience than kids half my age, there was always a group welcoming me to play.
At the time, I didn’t know the significance beach volleyball would have in my life, I just knew that I wanted to — needed to — get better. If you told me then that I would end up competing in Aspen at the 50th annual Motherlode Volleyball Classic with a team of adaptive athletes with limb differences like mine, I would have laughed you off the court. But over this past Labor Day weekend, that’s exactly what happened.
Thanks to It’s Called Normal (ICN) Athletics, led by founder Jon Aharoni and three-time Paralympian Dave Newkirk, and Motherlode Volleyball Classic organizers spearheaded by Corey Bryndal, this year’s tournament not only celebrated a historic milestone of 50 years, it also welcomed the first-ever team of adaptive athletes.
Volleyball represents an incredible opportunity for people with disabilities to get active and excel, and ICN provides training opportunities, educational programs, and equipment support to make it normal for adaptive athletes to step onto any volleyball court and to excel in life.
Sponsored by ICN, our team — coached by Aharoni and featuring Newkirk (missing his left arm below the elbow), Abram Gornik (missing his right leg below the knee), and me — competed in grass triples, grass doubles, and an exhibition beach volleyball match before the open division championship. Additionally, Aharoni partnered with Newkirk in the masters 50+ division as well as with Gornik in grass A doubles.
In the grass divisions, the thunk of Mikasa King of the Beach volleyballs bouncing off carbon fiber prostheses captivated spectators, while Gornik soaring off one leg to notch kill after kill earned the respect of competitors.
But some of the brightest moments happened between competitions.
After a match, a team approached me to ask about my prosthetic arm. They became curious after they saw me hurriedly eject it and chuck it to the sideline during a heated rally after a hearty spike dislodged the lock.
“What is it made of?” “How heavy is it?” “How do you even get one?”
These were the important conversations. These were the questions I wish I could’ve asked someone when I was growing up.
Motherlode created the space and impetus for countless interactions like these.
With each match and each discussion, the abnormality of adaptive athletes competing alongside able-bodied athletes diminished. We were athletes competing, and we were part of the community.
Missing limbs or not, grass volleyball punishes the body. Following the triples tournament on Friday, our ICN crew “MacGyver-ed” a cold plunge in our ski bunk at the Mountain Chalet Aspen by choo-chooing recycling bins filled with ice from the machine on the ground floor to our bathtub on the second floor.
Alternating between our cold plunge and the communal jacuzzi, we bumped into opposing teams from earlier that day. It wasn’t long before the opponents we recently competed against became fast friends who joined in our makeshift contrast therapy.
There were even more opportunities for these connections and conversations at the Saturday evening player’s party at Harper and Hudson — from discussing the transition from basketball to beach volleyball with open player Adam Roberts, to picking the brain of Randy Stoklos, one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the beach.
Walking home from the party, surrounded by silhouettes of mountains and a sky littered with stars, I couldn’t believe that we just got to hang with some of the country’s best beach volleyball players and meet a legend of the game.
All I could muster was, “That was amazing.”
Aharoni turned to us and said, “No, this is normal. You belong here, this is your community.”
The pinnacle of our Motherlode experience happened Monday just before the open beach volleyball division championships at Koch Lumber Park, where our ICN team partnered with top open players for a 3’s exhibition game.
Why 3’s instead of 2’s?
While beach volleyball is traditionally played 2v2, beach paravolley is the three-person adaptive format of beach volleyball that works within the Paralympic classification system. World ParaVolley, the international organization affiliated with the International Paralympic Committee, continues to build the sport for potential inclusion in the Paralympics.
In the exhibition game, Newkirk and Gornik partnered with Coloradan Randall Ball, while I partnered with powerhouse duo and 2023 Motherlode semifinalists Katie Pyles and Carly Wopat.
The ensuing game featured explosive spikes, stratospheric skyballs, big blocks, and savvy plays.
For many in the crowd, it was their first time seeing adaptive athletes compete. For everyone, it was their first time seeing top-tier open players compete alongside adaptive players with limb differences.
After a neck-and-neck game ending 22-20 with Newkirk, Gornik, and Ball on top, Stoklos and Dibelius brought in the ICN crew for a postgame interview to discuss the representation of athletes with physical disabilities in beach volleyball.
“Jon and I have this vision through ICN where we’re going to reach beach clubs around the country, finding those kids and adults with disabilities who need an outlet,” said Newkirk. “Whether it’s getting off the couch or becoming a Division I player, we want to find them.”
In the United States alone, more than 2 million people are living with limb loss, not including other physical disabilities like cerebral palsy. These individuals often face tremendous barriers to physical activity, including a lack of knowledge of how to exercise, inability to obtain adaptive equipment, social exclusion from sports, and more.
In fact, about 25% of individuals with any disability report being inactive during the week.
While the beach volleyball community is known for acceptance and inclusion, it is not known for a strong representation of individuals with disabilities, and there are few ways for these individuals to get involved.
ICN is working to change that.
“This is where we talk about sponsorship and the ability to bring in money to raise awareness of what we’re trying to do,” said Stoklos during the postgame interview. “That’s what it’s all about until we really get the ball going, and the ball will get going.”
ICN serves as a bridge for adaptive athletes, making it normal for any athlete to step onto any court and excel.
A gift to ICN will empower adaptive athletes to compete in—and fall in love with—the sport of beach volleyball by advancing programs, funding specialized equipment for athletes, and supporting training clinics.
While my path with volleyball has been unusual, competing at Motherlode as part of ICN represented an opportunity to normalize adaptive athletes competing at the highest levels for the next generation. Kids with physical disabilities will be able to ask the questions I wish I could have and find the community I wish I knew existed.
That pretty girl who introduced me to beach volleyball a few years ago? She’s now my wife and we’re expecting our first child — a boy — by Thanksgiving. My son will grow up seeing adaptive athletes represented in this beautiful sport because of opportunities like the ones ICN creates.
This is a defining tenet of ICN’s mission:
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in,” so the Greek proverb goes.
After my plane touched down and I exited into Houston’s late-summer dog’s-breath weather, I switched off my phone’s “Airplane Mode” and saw a text from a co-worker I hadn’t heard from in several years.
Her son, now 4 years old, was born with a limb difference like mine. She saw the livestream of our exhibition and felt compelled to reach out.
While watching volleyball a few days before, her son commented that he’d never play because he was missing his hand. Now, he can see there is a community of people like him doing something he is interested in.
This is normal.
And maybe, just maybe, this boy will become that adaptive athlete to do the extraordinary.
When he’s not building support for organizations like ICN, you’ll find John Kriescher in the sand playing beach volleyball or training to qualify for the USA beach paravolley team. Connect with Kriescher on Instagram: @knub_a_dub_dub