Top American volleyball players must play around world

Friday , June 01, 2012 - 2:18 PM

David Wharton

Long plane flights and cramped hotel rooms. Strange food and no familiar faces.

This country's top beach volleyball talent has faced some challenges on the way to the 2012 London Olympics.

With no dominant pro tour in the United States, the best male and female players have been traveling to tournaments around the world to hone their skills and, more important, gain the points they need to qualify for the Games.

That could make it more difficult for them to defend the gold medals they won in Beijing four years ago. It could also mean trouble down the road.

"We want nothing more than to have another big U.S. tour," said Jen Kessy, who is headed to London with partner April Ross. "We need to have that tradition and have those up-and-coming players."

The situation was vastly different four years ago. Back then, Americans could enter half a dozen international tournaments in between plenty of events closer to home on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour.

Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser followed this formula to a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor won the women's title.

"The AVP was huge for our sport," Dalhausser said. "Now it's gone."

The tour was founded in 1983 and, in the afterglow of the Beijing Games, grew to as many as 31 events a year. But it collapsed under mounting financial losses partway through the 2010 season.

Since then, players have had far fewer American tournaments to choose from on circuits such as the National Volleyball League and the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball series.

"Beach fans don't really know what to follow because it's all split up," Dalhausser said. "Whichever tour is going to be the strongest needs to survive and hopefully turn into a domestic tour."

In the meantime, the FIVB world tour offers the most opportunities, albeit in locales such as Brasilia and Shanghai.

Walsh and May-Treanor played 11 events on the international tour last year, finishing second in the rankings. Kessy and Ross played 14, finishing fourth.

"It can get a little bit tiring, but we've been doing it so long that we have the routine down," Ross said. "We know how to get over jet lag."

Global competition has some advantages.

Rogers and Dalhausser won the FIVB season opener in Brasilia last month, defeating several Brazilian teams that will rank among their toughest competitors in London.

"The more times we play them, the more comfortable we become," Dalhausser said. "FIVB is really highly competitive."

But there are drawbacks to playing on the road for much of the year. The rigors of travel can be especially tough on Dalhausser, a 6-foot-9 veteran known as "Thin Beast."

"If I'm in an economy (class) seat, I'm all legs and there is nowhere for my legs to go," he said. "And then with the small European beds, my feet are hanging off the end."

Familiar foods can be difficult to find abroad. Also, travel knocks a player off his or her training routine.

"When I'm at home, I can lift weights, I can see my chiropractor and my massage therapist," Dalhausser said. "All of that helps."

For the Americans, scheduling hasn't been the only bump in the road to London.

A minor storm brewed within the U.S. volleyball federation over which staff members would accompany the players to the Games. There was a more significant controversy over the manner in which teams qualified.

In the recent past, tournament points were the deciding factor, but officials briefly considered holding trials as other sports do. A contingent of players successfully argued against the change.

"I thought it was great how the athletes solidified and fought for the same thing," Ross said. "It was actually pretty cool."

More good news arrived this spring when former technology executive Donald Sun spent $2 million to buy what was left of the AVP.

Sun hoped to schedule a few tournaments this summer and rebuild the tour from there. Veteran players say domestic events are crucial for developing young prospects who cannot qualify for or afford international play.

In the meantime, a somewhat road-weary group of Americans will head for the Olympics as favorites to medal on both the men's and women's sides.

A strong showing could give their sport a much-needed boost back home.

"It's alive," Ross said of beach volleyball. "The heartbeat is just a little soft right now."

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