AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico — Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander will play one of the most important matches of their beach volleyball careers on Saturday. They’ll play against Puerto Rico’s Kevin Rodriguez and Juan Ribas, in what is certainly the most critical match of their careers.
The winner will qualify for the World Championships this summer.
They’ll be doing so in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
They should not be in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
In truth, this match should have been played a little more than 2,000 miles East, in the Dominican Republic. And it should have been played last Sunday, as it was initially scheduled. But a cavalcade of issues, both controllable and not, forced the match to be moved, to a different weekend, in a different country, a continental berth into the World Championships dangling in the six days between.
Crabb, who has played in seven events on the North America, Central America, and Caribbean continental beach volleyball federation (NORCECA), took to Instagram to blast the unprofessional manner in which a World Championship qualifier is being played.
“To whom it may concern,” he wrote in an open letter. “The unprofessional manner with which the NORCECA has elected to run its events and the negative impact it has had on the professional beach volleyball athletes who compete on it are unacceptable and egregious. The tournament held this past week at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is the worst competition I have ever been a part of as a professional athlete. The irresponsible, mindless administration of that event has now had a profound impact on many athletes from several countries…
“As a professional, the only option I see that makes sense to rectify this situation, due to the NORCECA’s inability to run a professional World Championship qualifying event, is to grant wild cards for the 2022 World Championships to the four teams that had chances to earn World Championship berths from the referenced tournament through fair and professional competition (USA, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico).
“These four men’s teams should not have to travel somewhere else to finish this tournament that could have been completed as scheduled on its own.
“At 2:33 p.m. on Sunday, April 17, the event operators were allowing a local 3 on 3 tournament to take place on our court. Our matches were supposed to start at 2 p.m.! Another local match was scheduled after as well. How do you not have courts blocked off for your 2022 World Championship qualifying event?
“As a result, our teams were not allowed to compete until 4 p.m. that evening – lightning and heavy rain, which had already been predicted and discussed, forced us to retire and end the tournament. A players meeting was even held when we arrived to the courts and it was communicated to everyone that, ‘heavy rain and storms are forecasted to hit us – we need to finish this tournament before 6 p.m.’ yet we were forced to sit and watch this unacceptable interruption of a professional, World Championship qualifying event by local amateurs.
“Let me list a few reasons why giving all four teams a 2022 World Championship berth seems to make the most sense: There was a tournament held in Punta Cana that finished at 2 p.m. For some reason, our side of the tournament didn’t start until 2 p.m. Because of the 3 on 3 tournament, it didn’t start until after 4 p.m.
“We were not playing beach volleyball. They had us playing on concrete. A girl was carted off the courts. When was the last time you saw a person carted off a beach volleyball court? Meanwhile, the other side of the tournament was playing on actual sand. These conditions are unacceptable and unsafe for any event, much less a professional beach volleyball tournament on the NORCECA Tour.
“Our lunch was provided at 12 p.m. Our shuttle to the venue was at 12:30 p.m. We were then stuck at the venue for the remainder of the day with an apple and Oreos as our food until 9:30 p.m. after which some pizza was ordered.
“The night before the second day/playoffs, I had checked the schedule. We would play the winner of Guatemala vs. Mexico. We proceeded to warm up on the concrete before our match. Aright before the whistle was blown to start the match, all four teams were called over to the delegates area to be told that there was a change of opponents, after we had warmed up. Supposedly, these changes were made two hours before the match, yet the teams were unaware of the situation and were not communicated with.
“I hope you can see this option I have recommended is best suited and fair for everyone due to the fact that NORCECA is unable to execute on a professionally run World Championship qualifying event. I not only implore you to make this qualifying situation right, but also to raise your standards and the quality of NORCECA events moving forward. These are appalling conditions and unprofessional decisions affecting the health any livelihood of many professional athletes around the world.
“Your ridiculous proposal of all these athletes being forced to travel to Aguascalientes, Mexico on April 23, 2022 to play this one match is not a valid option for anyone.”
See his Instagram post here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cci7ngAupKq/
NORCECA has a long-standing reputation amongst beach volleyball players as an underfunded, ragtag entry level doorway onto the World Tour. The comment section on Crabb’s Instagram post quickly became rich in material from players around the continental region, relaying their experiences on the continental tour.
There was that time Emily Day and Claire D’Amore flew into an event, only to discover that the airport athletes were recommended to fly into had been switched at the last minute, and suddenly Day and D’Amore were on a public bus for five hours to get to the event. It didn’t improve much when they arrived: There was no food on site, so the only option was to have pizza delivered (Crabb’s apple and Oreos predicament is not all together new).
My first NORCECA, on the breathtaking island of Martinique in 2018, was no small adventure, either. Ben Vaught and I were scheduled to play at 9 a.m. against Puerto Rico on Friday, the first day of competition. Yet when we arrived at the site, which were two courts in a clearing of trees, we walked into quite a scene: A crew of people cutting down trees in the middle of the court. Play was delayed until the afternoon, though even when it began, the surface, which was primarily dirt, was so hard that many of the players wore shoes during the competition. An improvement from the concrete on which Crabb and Sander had to play, but still: A beach volleyball tournament in which players wear shoes is a sight, indeed.
Ask virtually any player who has competed in a NORCECA about their experiences, and you’ll be hardpressed to find one who won’t have a chuckle and a story to tell. Karissa Cook and Katie Spieler once played in standing water. When Tri Bourne played a NORCECA in Pigeon Point, Saint Lucia, with John Hyden, the surface was so hard that Hyden implemented a “no-dive rule,” one of two times Bourne has enforced that standard. After the event, they boarded the bus back to the hotel, though on the bus they were reminded by a fellow player to collect their prize money, which is given in cash.
If they didn’t collect that cash on site?
That money would not have been deposited into their bank accounts. It would not get sent to USA Volleyball.
That money would have been long gone.
Where would it go? And to whom? Who knows.
“We just stayed on the bus until we got back to the site,” Bourne said. “And when we got there, they were like ‘Almost gotcha!’ ”
Such is life on the NORCECA Tour.
“Sounds exactly like every NORCECA I’ve played in,” Jake Gibb said of Crabb’s experience in the Dominican.
But a continental system is necessary. Strange as these events may be, NORCECA has provided the events and points necessary for dozens of players from the American, Canadian, Puerto Rican, and Cuban federations, among others, to break onto the World Tour.
“NORCECA has given me and so many others a chance to be on the World Tour,” said Betsi Flint, who has played in six NORCECAs and won five medals.
True enough, as I wrote most ofthis, I was en route to a NORCECA in Aguascalientes, where I’m joined by Evan Cory, Savvy Simo, and Megan Gebhard, all of whom will be earning their first international points, climbing the first rung of the World Tour ladder (Zana Muno, Tim Brewster and Bill Kolinske are also on the trip, though all have international points already).
It is through NORCECA that longtime Puerto Rican player Rafu Rodriguez, now an AVP mainstay, qualified for the World Championships in 2015, where he and Eric Haddock nearly upset Bourne and Hyden. It was through NORCECA that the Cuban team of Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games and won arguably the most difficult pool, stunning top-seeded Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, Canadians Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton, and Brazilians Pedro and Evandro. They’d eventually take fifth in Rio, losing in an epic quarterfinal to Russians Konstantin Semenov and Viacheslav Krasilnikov, 20-22, 24-22, 16-18.
It was through NORCECA that young Mexicans Jose Rubio and Josue Gaxiola accrued enough points to get into the Doha four-star in 2020, where they’d emerge from the qualifier and win a silver medal. In 2021, they qualified for the Tokyo Olympics via NORCECA, beating out Saxton and Grant O’Gorman for the final continental berth.
This is true for continental systems all over the world. The hottest team on the planet at the moment, Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam of the Netherlands, qualified for Tokyo via the CEV, Europe’s continental tour. Morocco, headed by Washington coach Derek Olson, placed its first team in an Olympic Games this past summer via the African continental tour. Australians Chris McHugh and Damien Schumann, too, appeared in Tokyo thanks to the Asian continental tour, and McHugh and Paul Burnett have since proven their mettle against the best in the world, winning the Asian Championships this past fall, upsetting Qatar’s Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba, who are currently the No. 1 ranked team on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour.
Without NORCECA, many of the players from poorer countries, or countries where travel is difficult, such as Cuba, would never have the opportunity to play professional beach volleyball at all.
Oftentimes, these events are held in countries with low GDPs, where funding and resources are limited. Outside of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the next highest-ranked countries in the NORCECA system by GDP are Cuba (63), the Dominican Republic (68), Guatemala (69), and Costa Rica (76). El Salvador ranks 104, Trinidad and Tobago 108, Jamaica 120, Nicaragua — which qualified for World championships — 122, Bahamas 130, Saint Lucia 168, Saint Kitts and Nevis 178, Dominica 183. It has been six years since Canada hosted a NORCECA, and seven for the United States, although Canada is scheduled to host a NORCECA this August.
Occasionally, the amenities provided are staggering. When Vaught and I competed in Martinique, a pinprick of a map dot with less than 400,000 citizens, we stayed in a Club Med, which was paid for — as were the meals — by the host country.
Occasionally, there are superb events held, such as the NORCECA I played in La Paz, Mexico, with Kyle Friend in the summer of 2019. There was an opening ceremony. Thousands of fans. An entire city that rallied around a single event.
It was the Manhattan Beach Open of Mexico.
And yet the Dominican Republic this past weekend, an event far bigger, with far more implications — a World Championship qualifier — was held in conditions that blew well past the realms of unacceptable. The fact that Crabb and Sander, as well as Puerto Rico, will be traveling to Mexico to play a single match of such a high magnitude and importance is beyond absurd.
Yes, there are weather delays in beach volleyball. Such is the nature of any outdoor sport. The 2020 European Championships, put on by the CEV, had to be moved off the natural beaches of Jurmala, Latvia, to a site inland because storms washed out the courts. But as Crabb mentioned:
The delays in the Dominican could have been avoided.
The weather was predicted, forecasted to the hour, even. And when the CEV moved its location, it did not move it onto concrete, but onto legitimate beach volleyball courts.
If there is one redeeming quality to the relocation of the event, it is that it will now be played on a legitimate court in Mexico, which has an excellent reputation among players for hosting events that are both well-run and well-attended, such as La Paz and the opening events of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour in Tlaxcala and Rosarito. And while Crabb and Sander should not have to play their World Championship qualifier in Mexico, there will, at the very least, be sand on which to play.
If nothing else, it’s a good place to start.
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