Millions Take Up Beach Volleyball

If you plan to take up beach volleyball (search), you'll need to find your "sand legs." (search) That's no easy task, but apparently millions of Americans have taken up what was once a summer-only pastime and is now an Olympic (search) sport. And the players don't all live in beach towns.

At The Sand Bar, a tavern tucked in the middle of this old mill town near the Vermont line, the two outdoor courts are in use from April until October.

"There's nothing else I'd rather do," Chris Bowler, a chemical plant worker from Ballston Spa, N.Y., said after a recent "Battle of the Bars" tournament.

"What other thing can you do with your friends and have this much fun and camaraderie?" he said. "And anyone can do it, it's not just for the pros."

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimates about 7.5 million Americans play beach volleyball. Courts can be found from the Adirondacks to the desert Southwest — alongside inland lakes, in public parks, on college campuses, at bars — wherever there's enough room to dump some sand and set up a volleyball net.

Since its debut as a medal sport at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the beach volleyball event has been one of the hottest tickets at the Olympics. The sand-filled venues at Atlanta and at the Sydney Games in 2000 were packed with raucous fans who rocked out to the sport's beach party vibe while watching well-toned athletes battle two-on-two.

It's expected to be much the same at the Summer Games in Athens next month, where the sport's sex appeal factor is a strong selling point.

"Some of the greatest athletes and bodies come out of the workout we get" on the beach, said Dain Blanton, who won a gold medal in 2000 and who will team up with Jeff Nygaard in Athens.

Like the Olympic athletes, some ordinary Americans who love the sport don't stop playing it just because summer is over. In cold-weather states such as Wisconsin, indoor beach volleyball venues have become popular, catering to serious and casual players alike.

Dan Timmers co-owns three bars in northeast Wisconsin that have a total of 20 sand volleyball courts, a dozen of them indoors. For some in the land of "the frozen tundra," beach volleyball stays hot year-round.

"There's something more to it than just bowling or just sitting and guzzling beer. You're getting a workout," Timmers said from The Bar in Green Bay, where a 20,000-square-foot building houses four indoor sand courts. "Socially, it's great. We have teams that have been playing here for 15 years or better."

Beach volleyball requires its own kind of training. Just getting to the cout can be a workout in itself. That's a complaint Olympic gold medalist Eric Fonoimoana often hears from newcomers to the sport. Fonoimoana, known as "The Body," on the Association of Volleyball Professionals' circuit, was interviewed at the recent Belmar Open tournament in New Jersey.

Also at Belmar was Holly McPeak, one of four women on the two U.S. women's teams competing in the sport in Athens next month. She offers some advice to beach volleyball novices:

"The most important thing for any person to do is to get acclimated to the sand. It's hard to jump, it's hard to run," said McPeak, who at 35 recently became the most successful female player in beach volleyball history, earning her 68th title.

Jogging on the beach is a good way to get the feel of moving in sand while building up endurance, she said. Also important: core strength. She recommends crunches, sit-ups and other exercises that focus on the abdominals and lower back.

"Core is everything," McPeak said. "The core creates all your explosive speed."

Other common training methods employed by pro beach players include cardio routines, aquatic workouts and plyometrics, a jumping workout. And while many of the pro stars include weightlifting in their training regimen, the Muscle Beach look doesn't cut it in beach volleyball, Blanton said.

"It's not about how your muscles look. The key is to have functional strength," said Blanton, who along with being a gold medalist has appeared on "The Bachelor."

While the physiques of pros such as Fonoimoana and McPeak are sculpted through years of beach drills and gym workouts, they're the first to stress the sport's biggest benefit: fun.

"Get a group of friends, go down to the beach and play some games," Fonoimoana said. "You can have a great time and you really don't have to know how to play the game."