Sitting volleyball event in Del Mar a big hit: “The smiles were infectious.”

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Patrick Young-Team USA-Paralympic team
USA Paralympic national team member Patrick Young warms up/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The worlds of standing and sitting volleyball met last Saturday when the Challenged Athletes Foundation hosted a sitting volleyball clinic Saturday with the WAVE volleyball club in Del Mar, Calif.

Jon Aharoni, the USA women’s sitting national team assistant coach, said the event went better than expected.

“I’m excited that we had over 100 people here,” Aharoni said. “The smiles were infectious. People were going for it and laughing, I think they were a little angry with me for having to shut it down. Leave them wanting more, as they say.”

FIVB beach star Kelly Claes and USA national Paralympic players Dan Regan, Patrick Young, Travis Ricks, Whitney Dosty, and 2016 Paralympics gold-medalists Katie Holloway and Bethany Zummo met to both entertain and inform the public about sitting volleyball.

Challenged Athletes Foundation-CAF-WAVE-WAVE Volleyball Club-Group photo
USA Paralympians take a group photo with WAVE volleyball juniors at the CAF/WAVE sitting volleyball exhibition/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The USA Paralympic team members scrimmaged against WAVE club coaches, and then treated the junior girls to a sitting volleyball clinic.

For those not familiar with sitting volleyball, there are five basic differences between standing and sitting volleyball, according to Holloway. 

“The court is smaller, 10 by 6 meters. The net is lower, 1.15 meters (3.75 feet) for men, 1.05 (3.44 feet) for women. You can block the serve. When you contact the ball, one cheek must be on the ground at all times, as defined by the top of your shoulders to the bottom of your bottom.

“Everything is defined by where your bottom is on the court, so your legs can go over the service line, but your butt has to be behind the line. Your legs can go underneath the net, and all the rest of the rules are the same.”

If you haven’t seen sitting volleyball, here’s a quick clip from the clinic:

“I love it. It’s very different from what I’m used to, but I love how fast-paced it is,” said Claes, who had never played before. “The national-team players are so friendly, and helped me through it, I really didn’t know what I was doing at first, and I had a really amazing time.

“You don’t get to use your legs as much, that’s one of the biggest things, the movement is obviously very different, I think my wrists are more sore than anything else because I don’t use my arms to move across the court in either indoor or beach as you do in sitting volleyball. Picking up aspects of different games is really cool, and this was just really fun.”

“For these athletes it was a lot of fun. But if you look a little deeper, you don’t really understand what adaptive sports is until you’ve tried them,” Aharoni said. “This is an opportunity for everyone to try them. There was a saying in a commercial, ‘We sit down so that they can stand up’, it’s giving everyone the opportunity to see them, touch them, smile at them, laugh at them, and it’s so amazingly important.”

Claes was a perfect example.

“It’s so fast paced. I love playing short court and this is very similar,” Claes said. “It’s so fast paced, and you just have to react. That’s one of my favorite things about volleyball in general, when I have more time to think, that’s when I usually make a mistake, and this is just reaction after reaction after reaction is what I love most about sitting volleyball.”

Aharoni saw the clinic as a way to advance the sport at a grass-roots level.

“We had an event at San Diego State this morning — they have a club — and the club wants to make it a varsity sport. With 300,000 adaptive athletes in the world, 30,000 in California, why can’t we be the first program in the nation to have adaptive sports for everyone?

“I want this to cause a ripple effect,” Aharoni continued. “I want us to be able to grow and regenerate limbs some day. But until that day, I want these guys to be my army of representatives that be inspirational to the next generation, that you can win, play sports, travel the world, wear the USA jersey on your back, win medals, and show what true adversity is.

“I’m proud to bring my kids and wife here. My daughter is two-foot-nothing and she can smash a ball in adaptive sports. We need to lower the net for the young ones. We need to get them in there playing so the game is for everyone, that’s how we grow the game. Yes, we want the Olympians, but in order to improve we have to improve the grass roots, and this is such an incredible part of that.

Although there aren’t a ton of opportunities to play sitting volleyball, they are out there, according to Aharoni.

“At the Challenged Athletes Foundation we have open gym every Wednesday. We have open nationals where we have Katie Holloway, Kevin Barnett, and Jeremy Roueche, all of the Paralympic gold medalists. We had a 7-foot tall guy come out and play. You have to hunt, it takes a little effort, but it is a recreational sport for able-bodied and disabled athletes. And it’s a lifetime sport.

“When Laura Webster played in her first Paralympic tournament at 16-years-old, she looked through the net at a Slovenian gal who was I believe 64-years-old. People who can’t play anymore, maybe who blew their knees out, can get out here and bang it around the same way they used to with a level of proficiency that they remember at that world level. Or they can get out here and monkey around and do a couple of butt lifts and do great things.”

Aharoni is obviously not lacking in enthusiasm about the sport.

“Some people say, ‘Support sitting volleyball.’ I don’t love that word. In my mind, I want people to try it, I want people to fall in love with the game, I want people to watch it, see it, get their butts on the floor, and don’t be afraid to ask national team athletes, ‘Hey, where can I do this, where can I try this?’ We have a map with representatives all over the country.”

For Holloway, Paralympic sports was a way to make her whole again. Holloway was born without a fibula bone, a condition called fibular hemomilia. The condition is typically treated by either undergoing a limb-lengthening procedure or amputating the foot. Holloway’s parents opted for amputation, so the 6-foot-3 Holloway has competed against able-bodied athletes most of her life, notably as a four-year basketball athlete at Cal State Northridge, where she was a two-time recipient of the Big West Sixth Woman of the Year award.

“I’ve been competing at a high level all my life,” Holloway said, “I’ve been a collegiate athlete and now Paralympian, and to me, to be able to compete at the Paralympics, at the top, being a person with a disability, feels so great.

“I’ve competed in able-bodied sports for so long, and I’ve felt that I’ve had to hide myself, and who I was as a person with a disability, competing against able-bodied athletes, and as a part of the Paralympic team, I’ve become a whole person. I’ve become a person who loves myself, and continue to be an athlete. All of it fits together in this sport and the Paralympics. The sport is about being a whole person and competing at a high level. We just do it in a different way than able-bodied sports do.”

Holloway believes that if more people had the opportunity to try sitting volleyball, they would appreciate it fully.

“We see sometimes in social media, ‘It just looks like a kid’s game’, but when people actually try it, they recognize that it’s a different way to play volleyball, and it’s still volleyball and it’s a lot of fun,” Holloway said.

“In reality, there is no normal. Playing volleyball normalizes everyone, whether you’re sitting or standing, and especially sitting normalizes it for everyone. People in the volleyball community have the opportunity to show everyone that it’s a sport for everyone. And volleyball is for everyone, whether you’re sitting, standing, or playing on the beach.”

Click here to view the USA Volleyball Sitting Team page. And click here for the San Diego ACES Facebook page. The ACES host on a six-on-six sitting tournament each year.

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