The morning sunlight caressed her bronzed face, the warm wind
tossed her blonde hair, and the lesson she was getting opened
her green eyes. Gabrielle Reece, an 18-year-old sophomore
volleyball player at Florida State, sat in the passenger seat of
a black Chrysler LeBaron convertible while an older, shorter and
soon-to-be richer schoolmate gave her a lecture she will never
forget. The place was Tallahassee, the year was 1988, and the
driver was senior Deion Sanders, an All-America football player
in the process of remaking himself.
This is an article from the Feb. 21, 1997 issue
Reece remembers the scene vividly: "We were on our way to speak
at a Say No to Drugs function, and he looked very ordinary--no
jewelry, no flash. He said, 'Gabby, there are a lot of brothers
out there more talented than me, but I'm going to go higher in
the draft, and you know why? Because I'm giving people what they
want. They may make fun of me and call me a dumb n-----, but
they won't realize it's all a show, and I'll be laughing all the
way to the bank.' He kept talking about how sports are
entertainment, and as he was doing this, he was putting on gold
chains and rings and touching up his hair. He transformed
himself into Prime Time before my very eyes."
As she recounts that conversation eight years later, Reece is
once again battling the wind while riding in a convertible, this
time one driven by her boyfriend, big-wave surfing icon Laird
Hamilton, along the Kamehameha Highway on the Hawaiian island of
Kauai. Reece, 27, is heading to a photo shoot at Polihali Beach
on a paradisiacal September morning. The world's most
recognizable women's volleyball player because of her work as a
top fashion model, Reece protects her hair by using a T-shirt as
a babushka. Like Sanders, she has created a persona that
transcends her athletic achievements while still retaining the
respect of most of her fellow players.
"Deion taught me the importance of selling yourself and your
sport, and he also taught me that, while it's O.K. to have fun
along the way, it's definitely a business," Reece says. "That's
sort of where we're at with beach volleyball. Though no one can
deny the athleticism, beach volleyball has nothing to do with
sports; it has to do with entertainment. Our challenge now is to
market it, to get it to the next level."
Whatever level it eventually attains, few sports in modern times
have ascended as improbably as beach volleyball, which 15 years
ago was mostly a California phenomenon whose top players battled
for beer money, surf-shop T-shirts and mythical
king-of-the-beach status. Now, it's an Olympic sport that drew
sold-out crowds in Atlanta last summer and whose competitions
appear more often on American TV than soccer's, gymnastics' or
even indoor volleyball's. And while the men's Association of
Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour is by far the richest on
domestic sands, the women are gaining ground. A 1995 study
showed that the Women's Professional Volleyball Association
(WPVA), which is to start its 11th season in April, ranked
behind only the pro tours of tennis, golf and bowling in purses
for female athletes in the U.S. And the less lucrative Women's
Beach Volleyball League (WBVL), which has teams of four players,
rather than the WPVA's two, has also increased exposure for
women in the sport, largely on the strength of Reece's
What, exactly, is the appeal of women's beach volleyball? For
starters its games are fast paced and exciting, played by
graceful, well-conditioned athletes. Because the women use a net
that is eight inches lower than the one used on the men's tour,
there's no apparent drop-off in athleticism from the men's game,
the way there is in, say, women's basketball. Like NASCAR, the
beach volleyball circuit has proven adept at courting corporate
sponsors without alienating the rank and file. Fans get a casual
atmosphere and free admission.
Oh, and one other thing: Tanned, well-toned, scantily-clad women
are on display. And though Reece is the only one who has been
named "one of the five most beautiful women in the world" by
Elle, there are plenty of prominent players who look terrific in
Sex appeal is women's beach volleyball's greatest selling point;
it is also its biggest headache inducer and its greatest source
of debate. Some players believe the sport should succeed
strictly on its athletic merits, while others view its sexiness
as a welcome means of attracting viewers. "If people want to
come check us out because they're scoping our bodies, I don't
have a problem with that, because I guarantee they'll go home
talking about our athleticism," says Holly McPeak, an Olympian
who was the WPVA's top-ranked player in each of the past two
seasons. "It's not such a bizarre notion. Does Michael Jordan
look good in his basketball uniform? Definitely. The sex appeal
is unavoidable, but it's not the basis of the sport."
"Why does it have to be about sex appeal at all?" counters
Angela Rock, another of the WPVA's top players. "To me it's more
of a lifestyle appeal. I think people model themselves after the
fitness, the youth, the energy, the playing outdoors and the
freedom of beach life. Other sports have attractive women in
skimpy uniforms, but ours is the one that gets stereotyped as a
skinfest, and that's not the image we're trying to project."
If some players object to their sport's being portrayed as
Baywatch with Balls, they can partly trace that reputation to
the early years of the men's tour. There's nothing inherently
sexist about beach culture--generally, people are comfortable in
their bathing suits, and men and women tend to admire one
another without gawking. But until five or six years ago, the
AVP tour seemed to be saddled with a beer-commercial mentality.
"They were still doing the bikini contests between matches,"
says Olympian Linda Hanley, a 36-year-old mother of two. "We've
been fighting the image that the only reason our sport is
selling is because we're wearing the skimpiest possible
uniforms. But think about it--if you're at the beach, you wear a
bathing suit. This is my office, and it's a little tough for me
to play in pumps and panty hose."
Perhaps because the topic is so loaded, the WPVA has been
careful not to cultivate a beach-babe image. As a result the
spectators at matches have been much less boisterous. "The men's
tour still has more of a party atmosphere," McPeak says. "People
drink beer and rock out to loud music. You have women in the
crowd who get all dolled up to impress the guy players, and then
guys who come out to check out the women. Our crowds are much
more sedate, and that's a shame."
McPeak is quick to point out that at the 1996 Olympics the
atmosphere at the beach volleyball venue, which was used by both
women and men, was rowdy and festive. But again, there were
Baywatch overtones. Much of the U.S. media coverage of women's
matches focused on reports that McPeak, a 27-year-old with a
perfectly sculpted build, had received breast implants, and on
the nasty feud between then partners McPeak and Nancy Reno, who
make Pamela Anderson Lee and Gloria Steinem seem compatible.
Formerly the world's No. 1-ranked team and a favorite for the
gold in Atlanta, McPeak and Reno struggled to a fifth-place
finish, and all three U.S. women's teams failed to medal.
But the U.S.'s loss was the world's gain: Two Brazilian teams,
Jackie Silva-Sandra Pires and Adriana Samuel-Monica Rodrigues,
won the gold and the silver, respectively, becoming the first
women from their country ever to medal in the Olympics. It made
them cult heroes in Brazil, where even prominent U.S. players
have long been besieged by autograph seekers. "You need
bodyguards to walk from the arena to the hotel," says U.S.
Olympian Barbra Fontana Harris, who six years ago put a career
as a civil-defense lawyer on hold to play on the WPVA tour. "And
Jackie Silva is like Madonna there." Samuel, a former indoor
player who has extensive modeling experience, says Brazilian
audiences are more comfortable with the idea of athletes clad in
revealing uniforms. "People in Brazil are a lot more at ease
with showing their bodies," she says. "Women walk the streets in
bikinis or skimpy outfits. It's an accepted part of the culture."
The U.S. women players would gladly settle for the same degree
of acceptance their male counterparts enjoy. "Of course men's
beach volleyball is sexy," says WPVA player Patty Dodd, who
should know--her husband, Mike Dodd, is a longtime AVP star who
won a silver medal in Atlanta. "Ninety-five percent of the guys
have great bodies, and they're wearing the minimum." Interjects
Hanley, "Well, not quite the minimum."
"Men's volleyball sells sex, and it does it effortlessly,
without being judged, whereas our game is much more shy about
it," McPeak says. "That has to do with societal differences
between the sexes. Men aren't uncomfortable being perceived as
sexy, because no one questions their legitimacy as athletes.
With women athletes, there's always the question of whether
we're sex objects who aren't being taken seriously."
While McPeak, who grew up playing on Manhattan Beach's fabled
Marine Street courts, is hardly shy about showing her body, the
6'3" Reece is surprisingly self-conscious. She plays in a
jogging bra and men's running tights. "That way," she says, "I
can dive, spread my legs and not worry about it at all." The
majority of players wear sporty two-piece bikinis or one-piece
Reece has a marketing acumen that rivals that of Sanders, who is
still a friend and a fellow Nike client. In addition to her
modeling stardom, she became a hero to the extreme-sports crowd
as the host of two TV shows, MTV Sports and The Extremists, on
which she performed gonzo activities such as whitewater
kayaking, drag racing, skydiving and road luging. She has
sponsorship agreements with Oakley sunglasses and Coppertone and
has helped design five lightweight cross-trainer shoes for Nike.
A book on her career, Big Girl in the Middle, is due out later
That's quite a portfolio for someone who has yet to prove
herself on the more prestigious WPVA tour, though her
attainments in the four-person game cannot be disputed. She has
led the WBVL in kills in each of the past four seasons, was the
Offensive Player of the Year in 1994 and '95 and was the leader
in blocks in '93. Though there is a small streak of jealousy
toward Reece, most players regard her commercial success as a
blueprint for what the sport must do to increase its popularity.
"There doesn't have to be such a complete division between
'You're beautiful and sexy' and 'You're athletic and strong,'"
Hanley says. "The Reeboks and the Nikes are starting to realize
that the athletic body is sexy, and Gabrielle Reece has a lot to
do with that." Even Rock, one of the more staunch feminists on
the tour, says, "It's good that the most recognizable name in
volleyball is a woman. Unfortunately, she's not a three-time
gold medalist, like Karch Kiraly is. She's fashion model
Gabrielle Reece. But it's a start."
Because of her modeling, Reece hardly needs the income that
beach volleyball provides. But she is committed to promoting the
sport and is even interested in assuming a leadership role in it
when her playing career ends. She has some strong opinions on
how to improve women's volleyball, beginning with consolidation
of the two tours into a single, larger one. A few years ago, the
WPVA survived a two-year war with the AVP, which had launched a
competing women's tour. Now Reece says, "We should be set up
like tennis, because neither tour is strong enough alone to get
to the next level. We could have twos and fours at the same
event, just like tennis has singles, doubles and mixed doubles."
By the same token, she and other players would like to see the
creation of grand-slam-caliber tournaments at which the men's
and women's tours would converge, a concept that WPVA tour
director Le Valley Pattison says is in the works. And Pattison
says that an admission fee, another change advocated by Reece,
is likely to be instituted in the next couple of years, though
probably for the center-court matches only. "Part of a sport's
appeal is that it's a little bit unattainable, and we need to
create that aura," Reece says. "People believe that if you pay
for it, it's worth something. Sometimes beach volleyball is
still sort of backyard."
Of all the players on the WPVA, Hanley understands why. A
protegee of fabled beach player Nina Matthies, who along with
Kathy Gregory dominated the pre-WPVA game, Hanley remembers
playing matches mostly for pride. "The losing team of the
previous game had to ref the next match," Hanley recalls. "I'd
play for dinners at The Charthouse and T-shirts, and I'd have a
crowd of friends hanging out for the finals, because they knew
if I won $500, I'd buy the beer. Now that we're bigger, I want
to reap some of the benefits."
The question now, as Reece says, is how to grow the sport and
what role sexuality should play in doing that. Rock, Reno and
others identify more with the Title IX generation of women who
had to fight for equality in the sports world and believe
sexiness should be an afterthought. Many younger players, such
as Reece and McPeak, are more inclined to market whatever is
attractive. But rather than drawing a line in the sand, the two
factions now seem willing to tolerate one another's
excesses--such as players posing for sexy photo spreads--in
pursuit of a common cause. Says Hanley, "Angela and I will have
heated discussions about this, but we always come back to the
final goal of selling the sport, and that's the truly important
"Look," Reece says, "men's basketball has the great fortune
that all the players have to do is go out and play and that's
enough. Women's sports need something else to sell, and if
that's women who are incredibly fit and attractive, so be it."
The convertible is charging ahead to the photo shoot, and Reece
squints her eyes into the wind as she ducks down in the
backseat. She applies mascara as she speaks, beginning a
transformation as complete as the one Sanders treated her to
eight years earlier. "There's this whole dichotomy of strength
and beauty that we're playing on," Reece says as Hamilton pulls
into a parking place at the beach. "The game is very balletic,
and the beach players are evolved women. You get the feeling
these women have a real defined sense of themselves. The
athleticism overrides the sexuality, but then the athleticism
makes them sexier. Women normally are looked at as objects, and
the moment the object is functional, it becomes threatening--and
that can be very sexual."
She smiles, punches Hamilton in the shoulder for effect and
prepares to go frolic on the beach.
DON'T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT"
GETS STEREOTYPED AS A SKINFEST"
WHEREAS OUR GAME IS MUCH MORE SHY ABOUT IT"
AND SEXY' AND 'YOU'RE ATHLETIC AND STRONG'"
INCREDIBLY FIT AND ATTRACTIVE, SO BE IT"