DiG Classics: Where the Sand Meets the Shire

DiG Classics

Where the Sand Meets the Shire

Between the downs and hedgerows, beach volleyball is quietly growing across Mother England

by Connor Hastings

It’s 7 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m at the London-Gatwick airport going through customs. The customs officer takes my passport and looks at it. “What brings you to England, sir?” he asks. “I’m playing in a beach volleyball tournament in Brighton,” I tell him. The officer exchanges an amused look with his co-worker. “Beach volleyball? In Brighton?” he asks quizzically. He hands back my passport. “Better you than me.”

The Volleyball England Beach Tour has five events and a year-end championship. Many of the players in VEBT events are expats from other countries now living in London, but British natives are increasingly holding their own. This year’s tour finals in Margate were won by Jake Sheaf and Chris Gregory, the top-ranked British team on the world tour. Sheaf and Gregory are hoping to win a medal for Britain at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. (Photo: Volleyball England, Yellow Beach Sports)

The tournament I’m playing in is a co-ed event held at Yellowave Beach Sports, located a half-mile east of downtown Brighton along the seafront. As I make my way down to the courts on Sunday morning, rain and wind are lashing the coast mercilessly. I reel in my umbrella before the wind tears it apart. After descending the stairs from the promenade to the beach, I arrive at Yellowave, which has six nice sand courts and a pleasant cafe to boot. I learn that the co-ed tournament doesn’t start until noon, so I go inside the cafe to take refuge from the weather.

A beginner’s class is starting up on one of the courts outside and I watch its progress along with a young man named Tom sitting in an adjacent booth. Tom usually takes the class himself but is a bit under the weather this week. “It’s a bit like P.E. in school,” he says about the classes. “They have you run around a lot, then try and hit the ball over the net. It’s quite fun.”

Katie Mintram started working on the concept for Yellowave Beach Sports Venue in 2002 after spending a year playing beach volleyball in Southern California. Mintram wanted to give players in England an easy way to “give it a go.” (Photo: Volleyball England, Yellow Beach Sports)

Fifty miles north of the Yellowave cafe lies London itself. At the time of Yellowave’s launch in 2007, London had just one public sand volleyball court to its name. Then in 2011, London held a test event for beach volleyball in preparation to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The sand brought in for that event was later used to construct sand volleyball courts at three sites around the city: Leyton Park, Crystal Palace, and Paddington. Leyton Park (or Leyton Beach) is the largest of these, with four courts, and is home to Sideout Beach Volleyball Club.

Sideout boasts over 200 members who train twice a week between April and September, and runs tournaments every weekend over that span (which are open to non-members). Most of Sideout’s members are students and young professionals who make the 15-minute tube ride from central London to play in the evenings. “We can’t take any more members,” says Mark Kontopoulos, a co-founder and managing director at Sideout. “Between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. every weeknight we’re jam-packed.” Kontopoulos hopes that more sand courts, particularly in the form of an indoor sand facility, will appear around London. “We’re getting close to max capacity as far as the facilities we have and the number of coaches,” Kontopoulos says.

There is only one indoor sand volleyball facility in all of the UK at present, and it stands in the coastal city of Bournemouth, over a 100 miles to the southwest of London. The facility is part of the LeAF Elite Athlete Academy, and serves as the training site for the top national beach players in Britain, as well as the junior players who attend the academy. Kirk Pitman, head coach of England’s national beach program, trains players year-round in Bournemouth, and has noticed a rise in interest in beach volleyball, particularly at the junior level. “The legacy of the Olympics is big,” says Pitman. “Kids are inspired by the Olympics.”

This past summer two brothers from the London area, Javier and Joaquin Bello, won the Under 17 Northern European Championships. “Results-wise those are things that have never happened before,” says Pitman. In addition to training players at the Academy, Pitman heads the beach volleyball program for Bournemouth University, one of over 50 schools in the UK that will field a beach volleyball team this year (there will be a one-off championship in June). Like Kontopoulos, Pitman sees a demand for more indoor sand courts across Britain. “We all want more of them,” he says. “But to keep them running is a big challenge. The sport still isn’t huge.”

In the far western reaches of England is a small town called Croyde, where you’re unlikely to hear any talk of indoor sand facilities. Croyde sits on the coast of North Devon. It has a mile-long beach with four to six volleyball courts surrounded by sand dunes. It also has two courts on the village green if it’s too windy to play at the beach. It has 5,000 year-round residents. One of those residents is Denise Austin, who has lived in Croyde since 1984. Austin could be considered the queen mum of beach volleyball in Great Britain.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, she represented England on the FIVB World Tour, and still owns the highest finish of any British player in a world tour event (7th). Austin, 48, now coaches local junior clubs in the Croyde area as well as junior national team players.

Junior athletes in the North Devon area have benefitted from Denise Austin’s leadership for years. Austin trains players in beach volleyball through her Academy of Beach Sports, and continues to turn out some of the top young talent in the country. (Photo: Rob Tibbles)

Outside of Bournemouth and London, more top junior beach volleyball players come out of North Devon than anywhere else in England. Austin has been pleased to see the sport grow across her home country in recent years. “There are more places springing up offering beach volleyball facilities and training, as opposed to just transferring indoor volleyball to the beach … jungle ball you might say,” observes Austin. In addition to her work with junior players, Austin also runs camps at Croyde for adults. She enjoys introducing her students to a sport that can stay with them for a lifetime. “I’m always telling my students that I’m giving them a gift for life,” Austin says. “When you travel, beach volleyball is one of the few sports where you can get a pick-up game wherever you go.”

Austin (in red on defense) still plays regularly in addition to her busy coaching schedule, competing in events on England’s professional beach tour as well as the GoldCoast Oceanfest tournament in her hometown of Croyde. (Photo: Rob Tibbles)

Austin doesn’t think much of Great Britain’s Olympic chances in beach volleyball (“If we win the Commonwealth Cup that’s a really big deal,” she says), but is happy that Brits are getting more opportunities to enjoy the sport at the recreational level, particularly at the Yellowave facility in Brighton. “Yellowave is the only place in England that’s really growing the recreational game, getting new people involved in the sport,” Austin says. “Most of the hardcore players in the UK are in Brighton. It’s got everything you want as a beach volleyball player.”

Back at the Yellowave cafe, Tom and I are watching the beginners class try to serve over the net in thirty-knot winds. “Californians would not believe the weather conditions we play in,” says Katie Mintram, who operates Yellowave with her husband and a core team of employees. “Our players are a hardy bunch. People will play unless it’s gail force winds. They’ll be the only people playing in all of England some nights.” Yellowave is open year-round aside from Christmas Day and two weeks in January, and offers private lessons, courts for rent, and group classes. It addition to the six man-made sand courts and cafe, it has showers and a multi-purpose room that can be used for parties and other events. Mintram believes the presence of the facility keeps people playing and coming back. “We wouldn’t have this many people coming down if it was just a public beach with some net posts up,” she says.

The players at Yellowave Beach Sports Venue in Brighton will play well into the night. Most players at Yellowave are in the 25-45 age range and coming to the game later in life. “We’re getting people who’ve never played and are coming because they like what beach volleyball provides, a mixed-gender, non-contact sport in a casual environment,” says owner Katie Mintram.   (Photo: Rob Tibbles)

The focus at Yellowave is to make it as easy as possible for people to give beach volleyball a try. “Here you can come down and give it a go, try a few lessons, then stop if you want,” says Mintram. “But people never stop. I just had someone call to sign up to play at 7 p.m. tonight who’s never played before. I’m sure they’ll be back next week playing.” The frequency of classes, leagues, tournaments, and events at Yellowave has turned it into a community hub for players in Brighton. “People have moved to Brighton because of Yellowave,” says Mintram, who raised 600,000 pounds to start Yellowave in 2007. “We’ve had Yellowave people get married, have babies, then bring them to the courts.” Elly Sulc, who’s working the front desk the day of the co-ed tournament, agrees that Yellowave has offered a prime environment for British singles to meet. “We were trying to count the other day, I think we’ve had fifty relationships start at Yellowave,” says Sulc. “We should advertise ourselves as a dating site.”

The man-made courts at Yellowave are reflective of the fact that, while there are many wonderful beaches in the UK, a lot of them don’t have the wide expanses of sand that are optimal for beach volleyball (the public beach in Brighton is composed of small pebbles). This means that the national beach volleyball tour in the UK, called the VEBT (Volleyball England Beach Tour), has only a handful of options for places to hold tournaments. The VEBT has five events a year, and all are held on beaches on England’s south and east coasts. Most of the people who play VEBT events are from London and the south, with a few players coming down from Scotland for tournaments.

“Most of the hardcore players in the UK are in Brighton. It’s got everything you want as a beach volleyball player.”

The prizes for winning VEBT events are not lucrative (a few hundred pounds is standard), and the competition is not as stiff as you might see on the American or Brazilian tours (Denise Austin and her daughter Ellie finished second at the tour finals in Margate last year). I asked Rohan West, director of participation at Volleyball England, what percent of Londoners are aware that there’s a professional beach volleyball tour in England. “Oh now that’s a nasty question, Connor,” he replied. “Maybe one percent, two percent, half a percent. We struggle to get mainstream media coverage.”

On the bright side, entries to VEBT events are growing, and there are hopes to expand the tour into inland cities. “We need more events, more teams, and more regional qualifiers,” says Mark Kontopoulos with Sideout, who helps run the VEBT. “Everybody wants a national tour event in London, but there’s nowhere in London that has six to eight courts.”

Beach volleyball remains outside the consciousness of the average Londoner walking down Tottenham Court Road in winter, but its growth in Great Britain is real and appears likely to continue, especially at the recreational and junior levels. “In four years we’ll be at a point where we can really start competing at the junior international level,” says Gregg Weaver, who grew up on England’s south coast and now plays on the AVP pro beach tour in the United States. “If the funding is there we can start being competitive on the world tour.”

As for future Olympic medals, it will be a journey of at least a thousand steps, but Rohan West with Volleyball England is staying optimistic. “Nothing’s impossible, Connor,” says West. “If we continue with the growth and performance trajectory we’re on, qualifying for the Olympics will be in the cards.”

Regardless of what happens with funding at the top level, Britain’s pool of junior and recreational players will continue to expand. “I think the recreational side is really important,” says Carl Harwood, who started a beach volleyball center at a public park in Cardiff, Wales in 2015. “Growing the recreational side is how you get new good players.” Katie Mintram at Yellowave notes that beach volleyball is unique in its ability to attract both genders, and doesn’t see why it can’t succeed in the UK. “Initially people will start playing just because they think it’s a bit of a laugh to do. Then they’ll start enjoying it and carry on and get quite good,” says Mintram. “It’s a healthy alternative to the majority of UK living.”

The most prestigious event on the Volleyball England Beach Tour is the Weymouth Beach Classic on the south coast. Graeme Sawyer, a director for the Weymouth tournament, says beach volleyball is on the upswing in the UK. “We now have some very good up-and-coming teams who are getting out and entering European events and are well supported by universities, so I think in the next few years we will see a rapid rise in standard,” predicts Graham.  (Weymouth Beach Volleyball Classic)

As I chase the yellow and purple FIVB ball around the court during the co-ed tournament at Yellowave on Sunday afternoon, I begin to understand what Katie Mintram meant when she said that there’s a real sense of fun from playing in extreme weather conditions. The air gusting off the Atlantic forces you to really concentrate during serve receive, and makes hitting on two an adventurous proposition.

Fortunately I never hit on two, until my partner Alex intentionally starts passing so tight to the net that I have no other choice. Alex and I manage to navigate through pool play and playoffs to reach the final, where a young women’s player named Millie digs me an average of three times a rally, but Alex and I manage to prevail in the end. As I sit off to the side wondering what to do with my first-place bottle of wine, players rush onto the court and start a four’s game. They simply can’t get enough. After a few minutes one of them turns towards me and calls out, “Want to play with us?”

“Alright,” I reply in my adopted British accent, and rise to join them.