Volleyball: Baltimore as Olympic village? It's no mirage. Just another spike on the growth chart for the hottest sport around.



You don't have to be tall and tanned and buff and beautiful to play beach volleyball. Looking ab fab in a swimsuit and sporting killer sunglasses as if you were born in them probably aren't requirements either.

But you'd never know it judging from some 60 gods and goddesses who have descended on a spit of land in South Baltimore this week like some sort of lost tribe from the planet of perfection.

Don't hate them because they're beautiful. Hate them because when they get up and go to work, they're getting up and going to the beach. Hate them because even when they're grunting and diving and sprawling all over the court, they look really cool. Hate them because eight of them, along with four others who previously qualified, are going to the Olympics and will go down in sports history as the ones who brought beach volleyball to the ancient games.

Actually, it's hard to hate the players at all in the U.S. Olympic Beach Volleyball trials, which began yesterday on a man-made beach on the HarborView Complex and runs through Sunday. What's not to love about these sunny athletes who have found a way to make every day a day at the beach? What's not to love about a sport with stars who wander among the spectators between matches and freely chat and pose for pictures?

"They're like, 'Sure, no problem,' " said fan Len Holthaus, who took the day off from his job as a computer specialist at the Social Security Administration to catch the first rounds of the trials. Like many in the audience yesterday, Holthaus and his friends would rather be playing than watching; they play several times a week, compete in local tournaments and watch for the big pro tours to come nearby. The sport has been growing in popularity in recent years, helped along by its undeniably telegenic qualities: the sun, the sand, the party-hearty atmosphere and the fast and furious play of two-member teams covering the same amount of space as the more traditional six-to-a-team indoor volleyball game.

While yesterday's rounds started off under cloudy skies and with just a sprinkling of spectators in bleachers designed for 4,000, the crowd grew as the full day of matches progressed and the sun, as if on cue, made a welcome appearance for several midday hours.

The corporate skyboxes were mostly empty, and you had your pick of bleacher and court-side seats. Spectators ambled about the complex, catching a bit of this game or that -- the three sand pits were going continuously throughout the day -- visiting the vendor booths and catching up with fellow volleyball aficionados they'd met at other tournaments.

"Even if you don't know them personally, you know them by face," said Allen Davis, who with several friends traveled up from Northern Virginia to catch the trials, as well as the Orioles game later in the evening. His group pulled chairs up to the edge of the center court, as others laid out beach blankets next to one of the side courts and yet other spectators chose the bleachers.

In the stands

"These are all great matches," marveled Bob Klingele, a Black & Decker engineer who could watch all three games from his perch in an upper corner of the bleachers.

Klingele's corner also attracted Shirley Leipham, a self-described wheat farmer from Washington state whose daughter Desiree is competing in the trials. After she and her partner lost their first match (the tournament is double-elimination), Desiree Leipham came up to the bleachers to watch some of the other games with her mother.

"It feels weird we're playing for the Olympics," the 24-year-old, holding a hand over her heart, told her mother.

That this was an Olympic trial rather than another tournament for prize money made the matches slightly more formal than usual: There wasn't the usual raucous music played between matches, for one thing, and the players weren't walking billboards for their sponsors. But for the sponsors of these trials, it was another matter: Bud Light had its name splashed everywhere. But then, unlike other Olympic sports, which have wrestled over the years with the amateur-vs.-professional issues, all the American beach volleyball players at this level are professional. And proud of it.

"I remember when, almost literally, we were playing for coolers or T-shirts or maybe even a six-pack of beer," says Marla O'Hara, who has a pierced nose and belly button and, yes, wears rings in them even during competition.

Like several of the other top players, O'Hara is in her mid-30s and appreciates a sport in which you're not over the hill at 20.

"It's the sand. It's very giving, that's why there's a little longevity in beach volleyball," said O'Hara, who didn't even start playing the sport until she was 27 and had had the first of her two children.

While bigger crowds are expected for the weekend final that will determine who goes to the Olympics, the first day of competition was the chance to see the most players, before anyone was eliminated.

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