QINGDAO, China — Now I have a better understanding of what they were talking about.
They’d peek out of their rooms and wait.
Sarah Sponcil was the lookout, Kelly Claes the stealthy thief.
Just when the maids weren’t looking at their carts in Claes’ and Sponcil’s hotel in China — it could have been in Qinzhou or Jinjiang, they can’t remember exactly — Sponcil would give the signal, and Claes would spring forth.
“Sarah’s looking around like ‘Go go go!’ ” Claes said, cracking up at the memory. “And I grab two cases and run and bring it back to the room. Each day we would take a case.”
Cases of water. It was one of the partnership’s first of soon to be many lessons in how to travel to China: Find any source of bottled water, and figure out a way to attain it.
The hotel did provide water, mind you, though as Sponcil says, it was maybe a gulp full, essentially a shot of water. Not enough for any human being, let alone two professional athletes vying for one of two American Olympic spots.
When considering that tap water is out of the question — an early lesson from Claes: Don’t even brush your teeth using the tap water — and with no local currency since the ATMs weren’t working, they couldn’t buy any bottles at the store. A gulp from the hotel maids simply wasn’t enough.
“We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do, how we’re going to survive out here,” Claes said. “We watched the maids and figured out where they were hiding the water.”
This is a fairly regular adventure among American beach volleyball players traveling to China, long held as one of the more difficult places to play for myriad reasons.
Traveling is an extravaganza, with buses regularly breaking down, flights changed, canceled, or delayed, a difficult language barrier supplemented by the lack of typical resources like Google or any sort of search engine to find a fast solution.
I, for example, am writing this story from an airport in Qingdao. I am not supposed to be in Qingdao. I am supposed to be in Qinzhou — a six-hour flight and two-hour bus ride away from here — but, due to a mind-numbing stroke of ‘What in the world just happened?’ –more on this to come — on our flight into China, Mike Boag and I missed our connector to Nanning and thus, a little less than 24 hours later, are still in the Qingdao airport.
The travel, though, is sort of — and I say this crossing my fingers, holding my breath, hoping we finish today in Qinzhou — the easy part. Finding appropriate — and healthy –manners in which to feed and hydrate oneself is another adventure in and of itself.
“Pack food,” Sponcil said, shaking her head.
Pack all of the food.
It has been rumored that some athletes test positive after eating the meat in China, it’s so pumped full of hormones that it shows up on doping tests. I don’t know how much truth there is to it — Billy Allen shrugged and said he eats the meat just fine — but I’ve heard it enough to know generally to stay away from it, as much to avoid testing positive as it is to avoid spending my week in China curled up on the bathroom floor.
Tri Bourne advised to stick mostly to rice and maybe eggs. He sent me on my way with a handful of RX Bars, a PowerCrunch bar, some gummies for morale, enough EmergenC to armor the immune systems of every player on tour, and a sympathetic “Good luck.”
He is not playing in this tournament, the FIVB Qinzhou three-star, for a reason, despite winning this very same one a year ago.
Here, however, I do want to note that, while, yes, the food and the water situation is a bit adverse, as is getting anywhere here, every single individual I’ve met here has been remarkably helpful and lovely.
They giggle wildly using phone translators to have conversations. The heroes on Xiamen Airlines, who had to deal with the craziest in-flight scenario I’ve ever seen, booked a hotel for Mike and me and put us on a flight to Nanning the next morning. Even the security guards got a kick out of us having to bend over a full foot for the facial recognition security thing, seeing as it’s not made for a pair of 6-foot-5 American men.
Traveling to China is difficult on the athletes, to be sure, as is performing, and while the advice on packing food and stocking up on bottled water has proved invaluable, the No. 1 piece of advice has come from Megan Burgdorf, who used to work for USA Volleyball and is now starting an agency to represent beach volleyball players.
“Be as nice as you can,” she said. “They all just want to help you.”
It’s as sound a lesson for China as it is for life.
Good things happen.
Good things already are. For now.
Qinzhou, here we — hopefully — come.