Whether you’re a beach pro or just someone looking for fun games in scenic (and warm) surroundings, a South of the Border Volleyball Vacation is an unforgettable experience. And it’s about a lot more than just volleyball.
By Geena Urango
“You never know when you’re going to meet someone who could change your life.” – Tom Davenport, founder of South of the Border Volleyball Vacations
These were the first words spoken to the athletes at our initial staff meeting shortly after first arriving in Ixtapa, Mexico. As we gathered around a table in Tom’s rooftop suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the Park Royal hotel, I hung onto those words as he continued along with the meeting going over what South of the Border Volleyball Vacations is all about and what exactly the week would entail. Sitting at the table were veterans and newcomers of the sport, as well as veterans and newcomers of the SOB trips. The 12 of us formed the largest pro group ever brought on one of these trips. From the first pro, Brent Doble, at an SOB in 2002, to this year having April Ross, Sean Rosenthal, Billy Allen, Janelle Allen, Ty Tramblie, Ty Loomis, Caitlin Ledoux, Kelley Larsen, Miles Evans, Kerri Schuh, Troy Field and myself, I’d have to say things have come a long way.
This trip to Ixtapa marked the 50th SOB trip and the 25th year Tom has been running these vacations. At one point during the week, Tom told the guests and athletes new to Ixtapa the story of how SOB was started. He explained how in 1993, a few players from his league in Denver (Volleyball of the Rockies) went to Cancun and played volleyball on the beaches there for a whole week, but with the same four players the entire time. They suggested VOTR organize a bigger group to take to Cancun, and thus the SOB Volleyball Vacations was born. In 1994, the first SOB was held in Cancun with 34 guests. While it was a great start, Cancun was not the best place for beach volleyball. Let’s just say lots of wind ball was played. Tom explained to us that he decided to drive the entire west coast of Mexico in search of “the perfect volleyball beach” and stumbled upon the Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo area. As Tom was telling us this part of the story, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne has just escaped prison and is driving to Zihuatanejo in the convertible with the top down. I could imagine that’s what Tom looked and felt like upon arriving at that beach. I have to agree, though, Ixtapa is the perfect beach for beach volleyball. The sand is great, the weather is even better, and the water is refreshing. What more could you want?
I have been lucky enough to have gone to all three of the SOB trips now: Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa. Each one is similar but unique at the same time. My first trip was in Cabo in 2017, which happened within a day of knowing I was going. I had traveled to Dallas to train for a week with my beach partner at the time, Angela Bensend. I had only been in Dallas for a day or two before I got a call from Tom. They were in desperate need of a female pro to come to Cabo to work the trip, as someone last minute wasn’t able to make it. I explained that I was in Dallas to train with Angela, but before I could say anything else he responded, “She can come too!” And that was that. I had my parents overnight my passport, and the next day we were on our way to Cabo!
All three cities have great hotels that we stay in each year, with an amazing staff, and local businesses that personally know the SOB crew. Supporting those people and giving back to the community is something SOB always encourages. Before each trip, Tom asks the athletes to bring items for a silent auction he holds on the last evening during the awards banquet. Whether it’s old jerseys, signed hats, balls, etc. the guests bid on the items, and the money made from the auction is donated to local organizations in Mexico. I can’t help but think how many lives this has helped over the 25 years they have been doing this.
“I’m just happy to play,” one guest told me. “I don’t get many opportunities to play where I live.” Many people on these trips come from areas that have very cold winters. Playing beach volleyball is often just a summer occurrence for them, so having the chance to escape the cold and play the sport they love remains true for many of them. Not only that, but the amount of pick-up games, pro games, tournament games, etc. that the guests play during the week are beyond me! It’s impressive and admirable, to say the least.
Another guest said this to me at dinner one night: “There are 200 amazing people here, and we all support each other.” I had to write it down. It’s true. The support, the compassion, it all shines so genuinely through every single guest. The support goes beyond just the SOB trips too. If you ever see those neon and black hats congregated together at any AVP event, those are SOBers. Not only are they cheering on pros they know from the trips, but they also wear those hats for fellow guests and athletes to find one another and have that SOB connection and commonality.
Tom also talked about impressions and how important they are on these trips. He mentioned how big of an impact we pros have on the guests and how we are often seen as being on a pedestal. If it’s playing a pick-up game with them or even simply just buying them a beer, we could make their day. In reality, I see the guests as being on the pedestal. I go back to that first statement Tom made in our initial staff meeting in Ixtapa: “You never know when you’ll meet someone who could change your life.” If that doesn’t perfectly embody what South of the Border Volleyball Vacations stands for, then I don’t know what does.
I have met someone who has changed my life forever, but not just one – many. Since meeting Tom and his staff, since having the chance to get to know other pros outside of competition, and since getting to meet all of the people on the SOB trips, my life has been changed forever, not just as a volleyball player, but as a human being. All of these people make me want to be a better person, and in my eyes, there’s nothing more special than that.
Happy 50th event and 25th year!
Geena Urango was the eighth-ranked player on the AVP Tour in 2018. She played both indoor and beach in college at the University of Southern California.