It's the beach that makes beach volleyball so difficult
MASON, Ohio (AP) Don't let the sun and the sand and the beach party atmosphere fool you: An Olympian is an athlete first, even when she's wearing a bikini.
While covering beach volleyball at two Summer Games, I heard plenty about the sex appeal of the sport, with the skimpy suits worn by the women attracting most of the attention. I knew there was much more to it, but it wasn't until I got on a court with an Olympic gold medalist that I understood just what makes the sport so difficult: It's the sand itself - slowing every step, cutting short every jump and conspiring with the beating sun to wear down even the fittest bodies.
Or even one belonging to a fortysomething sports writer.
During a professional tour event outside Cincinnati this spring, I had a chance to hit the ball around with two-time Olympian and 2008 gold medalist Todd Rogers. Aptly nicknamed ''The Professor,'' Rogers is the coach at Cal Poly, where he took over a team that had won one match in each of its previous two seasons and led it to an 11-12 record in his first year.
This would prove to be an even bigger challenge.
I gave Rogers and his teammate, Robbie Page, a ride over to the practice facility that was the warmup area for players in the AVP Cincinnati Open, the last American stop for the FIVB tour before the close of Olympic qualification. Page, at 7-feet tall, could barely avoid kissing his knees in my midsized rental car.
Rogers asked if I had ever played volleyball before, and I told him I had hit the ball around enough to know what I was supposed to do, if not how to do it. But my limited experience in a gym class on a hardwood basketball court did not prepare me to play outdoors, on the sand.
Rogers started out by just tossing the ball over the net to me, under-handed, and that proved easy enough; I was able to return a few serves back to him, and pass most others to where my partner would be waiting. Then he stepped back and lofted some easy serves in my direction, and I really figured out what makes the sport so challenging.
First there was the movement of the ball, which from a skillful server comes in like a knuckleball in baseball, darting around and confounding any attempt to hit it squarely. The wind also plays a part; many times I thought I had the ball lined up, only to see it drift off course.
The hardest part, though, proved to be just moving around.
While I lacked the spatial judgment and reaction time of the elite athletes on the courts next to me, even when I correctly determined where to go to hit the ball it just took me too long to get there. I seemed to be moving in slow motion in the 16-inch layer of sand, like in those movies where the sound didn't quite sync up with the actors' lips.
As Rogers began to speed up his serves - though still closer to batting practice than full-speed - more often than not the ball would bounce past me for an ace or, if I was lucky, carom wildly off my increasingly reddening forearms onto a nearby court.
On one serve, I didn't even bother. Instead, I watched the ball bounce off the sand a few feet away, turned back to Rogers and said: ''That was my partner's.'' (This is an old stand-by in beach volleyball, so common it has a name: ''The husband and wife.'')
My only problem: I didn't have a partner.
Still, Rogers was impressed at how quickly I was picking up the excuses, if not the actual skills.
Afterward, he told me some of the things I was doing wrong.
Although much of it was due to physical shortcomings, I was also awaiting the serves with my hands together, ready to pass. A pro - actually, pretty much everyone - knows that it's easier to move with his arms free and only lock them when the ball clears the net. (Young players who make this mistake are often told to run laps around the court with their hands locked, to remind them how much more difficult it is.)
I thanked Rogers for the lesson and wished him luck in the tournament. Later that day, I bumped into him back at the venue, where a fan was hoping for a picture with him. I offered to take it.
''You're really doing it all,'' he said, running through the tasks he had witnessed that day: Driver, writer, photographer.
And beach volleyball player, too, I reminded him.
''Nah,'' he said, ''better leave that off the list.''
Jimmy Golen has covered Olympic beach volleyball for The Associated Press since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jgolen.