It was never Mark Paaluhi’s intent to get into the increasingly vast and increasingly murky world of organizational beach volleyball. He’d played long enough, beginning full-time on the AVP in 1995, when the Tour was booming, with 20-plus stops and millions in prize money, and therefore seen enough, to know that “I was afraid to get into beach volleyball, period,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I knew all the baloney and the hoopla and all the politics. I said ‘There’s no way I’d get involved.’
“Then I got lucky.”
At the time, Paaluhi was happy slinging stand-up paddleboards, organizing events on the water, working for legendary surfer Laird Hamilton. He was not incorrect when he predicted that stand-up paddleboarding was going to be the next big outdoor sports boom. Happy as he was with his gig, a beach volleyball enthusiast named Evan Silberstein was happier to cajole him off the water and back onto the beach.
Silberstein, an assistant with the University of Hawai’i beach team, speaks in a lilting accent that is a bizarre mix of Hawai’ian and New York City. He is as likable as they come, with a passion second to none. This makes it almost impossible to say no to him. Yet Paaluhi did, for a month straight. Told Silberstein he wasn’t interested in a recent job opening at USA Volleyball — “but the seed was planted,” Paaluhi said. Soon, he figured, why not? Might as well throw his name in the hat.
By the time he did, the job at USA was no longer open, but another one soon popped up, and Paaluhi’s name was at the top of the list.
Into the corporate, political side of the sport he went, beginning with as the Manager of Junior Beach Volleyball, which was later renamed Beach Events.
“It was a little tough for me, a guy who grew up on the beach, doing beach stuff, to work with a lot of people on the indoor side who didn’t really know the beach as well,” Paaluhi, 50, said. “So it was a little frustrating dealing with that and there was a lot of zig zagging going on with no real direction.
“The beach side I feel never really got the true love. We never feel like we got the true support that beach volleyball should have, and the attention that will help.”
Now out of the corporate world — his job at USA Volleyball was discontinued because of COVID-19 — there are few who are giving more attention and help to the sport than Paaluhi. The perfect nets, groomed courts, and precise lines you see all the top professionals training on at 16th Street? Those are the work of Paaluhi, alongside lovable locals Greg Delgado and Ed Keller. The miniature tournaments prior to FIVB events, featuring the top American teams and a smattering of other elite talent? Also Paaluhi.
The one who built a tremendous rapport with the Hermosa Beach Chief of Police, to allow the professionals to train even when the beaches were closed and COVID-19 restrictions were rampant? Paaluhi.
“The players needed a place, and you guys needed a place to train for AVP events last year,” said Paaluhi, who competed in more than 100 AVPs, with a career-high finish of seventh. “Beach volleyball, the culture of it, has had these locations that were your home spot. You had 16th street, you had Hermosa Pier, you had State Beach and Marine Street, and all the way down to San Diego with Mission. So you competed against other guys, but you were competing for your local spot. If you were playing State Beach guys, you wanted to win for 16th or Marine. We always had that stuff going on, we’ve had local tournaments that started in the 50s that are still going on.
“When this all hit, and all the players didn’t have a place to go, we made a compound, four of the six courts we made for only the pros to train. The chief of Hermosa is an amazing guy. He understood what we were trying to do and how we were trying to help you guys. He said ‘Do as much as you can, and we’ll make it happen.’”
There has been very little happening in the world of beach volleyball of late. When the rare tournament arises, it is often Paaluhi, with the help of several others — Delgado, Keller, coaches Scott Davenport and Mark Fishman — who are providing the proper preparation. The miniature tournaments have been a smash hit amongst the players, opportunities to alas feel the thrill of competition but in a low-stakes environment where new offensive adjustments can be tested, defensive strategies tried, wrinkles added.
Prior to the Doha four-star in early March, the final of the Hermosa Beach tournament featured April Ross and Alix Klineman vs. Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan. Two weeks later, the final in Doha featured those exact two teams.
Before the finals in Doha even took place, however, for the first time in more than a decade, four American teams were in the semifinals, and two — Ross and Klineman, Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb — came home with medals.
“It was a no-brainer when it came to the Olympic stuff and you guys hadn’t had a competition in such a long time, and we’re sending our teams out to go play the FIVB, and those guys, who knows where they were training,” Paaluhi said. “We said ‘We gotta make an opportunity for these guys.’ So we hosted another one, then Mark Fishman and Scott Davenport said ‘I heard you helped with the other one, we’d like to do this again.’ The 16th street guys, we’ve been there before, we know, and we want to send our guys out there prepared. That’s why I try to take care of the nets and set it up for you guys. Every opportunity counts.”
And it especially counts in the college game, which Paaluhi says “is saving our sport.”
All those new beach facilities and home courts you see popping up across the country? Many are built by Sand Court Experts, where Paaluhi is a Chief Marketing Officer and partner. None of this is intended or planned. Paaluhi never wanted to become ingrained in this side of the sport, yet here he is, putting on tournaments, building courts, finding himself talking with the Chief of Police, as deep into politics as it gets in this town.
Giving beach volleyball the attention he always thought it needed.