Uncharted Territory

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Players compete in Ypao Beach Park during the Marianas Cup.

Where in the world is Guam, anyway?

Ive fielded that question a lot over the past few weeks and, to be honest, I had to look up the answer before I traveled to the small island in late February.

While the geographical location of the 209-square-mile U.S. territory is roughly equidistant from Papua New Guinea to the south, the Philippines to the west, and Japan to the north, I found it easiest to express in terms of the hours of air travel it takes to get there. Five-plus hours from LA to Hawaii and then another seven-plus to Guam, Id say. And that was usually enough to make the person I was speaking to cringe and ask, Why?

The simple answer is I traveled to Guam to play in the 23rd-annual Marianas Cup Beach Volleyball Festival, a grassroots tournament that pairs top international pro beach volleyball players with amateur players. The Northern Mariana Islands Volleyball Association (NMIVA) and the Guam Volleyball Federation (GVBF) have jointly run the event since 2012 and it has been sanctioned by the FIVB since 2007. The tournament location alternates between Guam and Saipan, the second largest island of the Mariana archipelago. Players of all levels travel great distances to get in on the action. They come from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Italy, Russia, the Philippines, and, as in my case, the mainland United States.

The tournament has hosted dozens of Japanese and American pros over the years, and NMIVA president Laurie Peterka claims it’s had something of a Midas touch on a few. A relatively unknown Phil Dalhausser played in 2005 and 2006 then skyrocketed to stardom, winning multiple AVP and FIVB titles as well as Olympic gold in Beijing. More recently, Tri Bourne won the Marianas Cup in 2013 and went on to earn AVP Newcomer of the Year later that summer and snagging his first FIVB gold medal in Berlin in 2014.

As for me, I wanted to experience the life of a professional beach volleyball player. Top teams endure 12-hour flights, struggle with foreign languages, eat new foods, and play in bizarre conditions on a weekly basis during their competition season. Ill never take center court in Stavanger or The Hague, but playing a pro-am in Guam might come close.

Sonny Chelf, my travel companion and partner for the tournament, was celebrating his 10th-consecutive year at the event. He and I left SoCal on Wednesday, February 25, traveled the entire day, and then sacrificed most of the next day to the 17-hour time difference.

When we finally landed, checked into our hotel and got cleaned up, Sonny and I headed to a nearby Irish-themed pub for the players party. While the self-serve draught beer and all-you-can-eat finger food at Shamrock’s was reason enough to celebrate for this flight-weary traveler, I found one of the answers to the Why Guam? question in the bar’s entryway: Cramer.

Before he became Marianas Cup tournament director on Saipan 16 years ago, Jon Cramer served as president of my fraternity at the University of Southern California. Jon was a senior when I was a freshman, but he’s the type of person who makes more of an impression in one year than others do in 20. Cramer is short of stature but his personality is larger than life. He lifted me off the floor with a hug and bellowed, Garthoff! Jesus, man, what’s it been, 20 years? Actually, it had been 24.

When Sonny first told me about the Marianas Cup a few years ago, I said, I only know one guy who’s been to Guam, Jon Cramer. Sonny replied in disbelief, He’s the tournament director. I put the ingredients together and realized it was simply too tempting a package: Sonny worked for the airlines and could get me a buddy fare, I could be reunited with an old friend and energetic force in the volleyball universe, and I could play a tournament in a postcard setting. Why Guam? Why not?

Cramer and I spent much of Thursday night catching up and it soon felt like we had only been apart for a few months. I made some new friends as well and couldnt get over how welcoming everyone was. It was impossible to keep track of how much beer Id consumed because every time my cup was half empty, someone grabbed it from me and filled it up.

One of the nice folks I met was Jeff Carlucci, a pro player I had watched on the AVP Tour. Looch as he’s known, lives in Saipan now and flew over for the tournament. Hanging out with him, his partner for the tournament Brandon Chance, local player Larry Sharry, and Sonny all weekend was one of the highlights of the trip. That first night was enough to convince me that the hafa adai (think aloha) spirit was more than a T-shirt slogan in Guam.

After some much-needed sleep Thursday night, I awoke to a phenomenal view outside our ninth-story balcony. Puffy clouds speckled the skyline and I looked for little bits of beach between lush, leafy palm trees. An arching line of whitewater stretched across the bay revealing the location of a reef below. This is what I came for, I thought, and we headed out to the tournament site.

The setting for the event was spectacular. The stress of 13 hours of nearly non-stop flying evaporated into the hot, humid air and was quickly whisked away by the gusting trade winds. This was paradise.

All weekend long, and especially after hard-fought matches in the scorching sun, Id take short walks across the white sands of Ypao Beach to float weightlessly in the crystal clear waters of Tumon Bay. The calm, shallow water teemed with tropical fish and coral and illuminated the horizon with a turquoise hue that looked more like a travel poster than reality. My view of Two Lovers Point, a legendary cliff plunging into the Pacific, was unobstructed but for the occasional Japanese tourist popping up to the water’s surface from a leisurely snorkel. Large resort hotels dotted the beach, including the Pacific Islands Club where the Marianas Cup was born as a just for fun tournament back in 1990.

Friday turned out to be a mixture of work and play. Several people grumbled to me about regional volleyball politics and how tournament preparations werent entirely complete. However last minute some of the site prep had been, it only took a half-day of pitching in with other players to get Ypao Beach Park ready for action. We laid lines, put up poles, and made a few trips to the hardware store, but by mid-afternoon we were playing pick-up games to get acquainted with the venue, conditions, and each other.

While the beach is beautiful, it isnt playable. The fairly narrow strip of oceanfront sand is covered by broken bits of coral, so the tournament was held at the park a few yards inland. The grassy park contained four courts, which had been recently tilled and piled high with fresh sand. The sand came from several different off-island locations, giving each court a distinctive feel. One court was dusty, another had rocks, and the third court got so hot it burned the skin off my feet. Fortunately, Im from Long Beach, California, so dirty, rocky sand and strong winds made me feel right at home.

After all the preparations and practice games were complete, players and local spectators were treated to an all-pro women’s exhibition match between Japan and China. This marked the first year Chinese pro players have attended the Marianas Cup and they put on an incredible show under the lights. Japan came back from a set down to beat the taller Chinese team in three. A men’s exhibition followed with Japanese pros taking down the American pro-am team of Carlucci and last year’s champion Misaki Cramer (son of TD Jon Cramer). Amateur players purchased $10 raffle tickets for a chance to be paired with a pro for the weekend. A drawing was held and a few lucky teams were split up and given pro partner upgrades.
The day was a perfect blend of high-level volleyball and a laid-back atmosphere.

After the exhibition, a group of us headed to a local pizza joint where we made toasts to the weekend over a few pies and cocktails. Guam’s nightlife reinforced my impression from the day that in addition to the native people of Guam, the island was largely populated by Japanese tourists and American military personnel. It was intriguing to think about how strategic decisions dating back to World War II were so influential 70 years later. At least that’s what I was thinking after a double Jack and Coke.

The tournament kicked off Saturday morning with pool-play matches for both genders occupying all four courts. Being the new guy, I saw a lot of serves. Okay, I saw all of the serves. After a shaky start that resulted in an opening-match loss, I gradually worked our team back to 2-2 for the day. It wasnt easy to concentrate on playing with so many distractions around. There were pros to watch, an ocean to explore, Spam musubi to eat (a slice of Spam on top of sushi rice, held together by a strip of seaweed), and Air Force jets flying overhead. While there were a few swings Id like to have back, there wasnt much else about the day I wouldve changed.

Sonny and I hiked back to our hotel while the tournament directors seeded Sunday’s double-elimination brackets. All I wanted in the world was a shower, but Guam had other ideas. A break in a nearby water main left our hotel without water and the front desk attendant predicted the repair would take a few hours. As tired as I was, despite the sand, sweat, and salt water still on my body, I collapsed in my bed and fell instantly asleep.

Fortunately, the water was back on by morning and Sunday was a fresh start in every sense of the phrase. The playoff was a blast to compete in and watch as eliminated teams formed larger and larger crowds around the courts as the day progressed. My Sunday played out with an early defeat, two wins, and then a loss. While being eliminated was a bummer, there was something nice about moving on to the pure enjoyment part of the vacation. A swim, some spectating, more Spam, and souvenirs were in order.

Turns out, I wasnt done playing yet, though. Cramer recruited me into an inexplicable ritual, a hysterical pre-finals exhibition called the Ruettiger. Named for the Notre Dame football player famous for his unflappable spirit, the six-person, coed mini-tournament was played on a women’s net with players being awarded pointsand issued a variety of punishmentsfor making good plays. For instance, after a diving dig to save a point, I was given a pair of swimming goggles with one eye blacked out to wear for the rest of the match. As if that handicap wasnt enough, I was later wrapped in duct tape from the chest up to prevent me from making any more positive contributions to my team. Punishments for other players included having their hands tied together, wearing snorkeling flippers, and being tethered to the pole by a short rope. The tournament-within-a-tournament was a ton of fun until the referee declared, all punishments removed! and my duct tape was ripped off, taking much of my body hair with it. (References to the waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin were plentiful.) My team won the Ruettiger, so I can now officially call myself a Marianas Cup champion.

Both the men’s and women’s finals were ultra competitive and fun to watch. Tyler Willsey and Takashi Tsuchiya won the men’s division and Tatiana Sablan and Ana Vidal took the women’s title. The event culminated in a catered banquet where medals and checks were distributed to the top finishers. While thousands of dollars in prize money was doled out in a grand ballroom with a massive stage, the gathering maintained the soulful, intimate vibe of a beach volleyball event as beer cans, sunburns, and boardshorts mingled effortlessly with exquisite food, linen tablecloths, and sundresses. Despite a cultural faux pas on my part, where I downed an offering of sake from a Japanese pro as if it were a tequila shot, the night was full of laughter and photographs, hugs and handshakesa fitting end to a fantastic time.

After an unscheduled overnight stay at the Honolulu airport, Sonny and I made it back to Southern California in time to see a white blanket of hail cover the Huntington Beach Pier. It made me wonder if the whole trip had been a dream. Before long, we returned to our routines and, as I reflected on my experiences in Guam, only one thing truly bothered me about it. It was a phrase I must have heard 20 times from 15 different people at the Marianas Cup. And it always came out in the same few words, If you liked Guam, youll love Saipan! So who knows, maybe Ill be back at the Marianas Cup next year. Which begs the question, Where in the world is Saipan, anyway?

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