As beach volleyball turns: Breaking up is well served Switching partners seems part of game

June 07, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Some compare it to computer dating, where what you see is not always what you get. Others say it's like marriage, without the kids and the mortgage.

Everyone has done it at least once, and some are reaching double-digits. In the world of professional beach volleyball, breaking up isn't very hard to do.

"You always think the grass is greener on the other side," said veteran Gail Castro.

You won't find any grass at the HarborView complex during this year's U.S. Olympic trials, but you won't find many women's teams who've been together very long.

In fact, of the eight players left for today's semifinals, none was with her current partner at this time last year. In some cases, they know players on the other side of the net better than they do the ones with whom they're trying to reach Atlanta.

"We kiddingly call it divorce court," said Dennie Shupryt-Knoop, who along with Elaine Roque will play Gayle Stammer and Janice Harrer.

The operative term in beach volleyball is "dumping," and in this sport, it starts at the top. Four months before earning an automatic berth to the Olympics, the world's best women's team broke up. Nancy Reno dumped Holly McPeak. They got back together to qualify before Reno dumped McPeak again.

"It's like any relationship," McPeak said last month. "When it happens to you, it hurts."

The two are back playing together -- they won last week's event in Texas -- but their Melrose Place-comes-to-the-Olympics relationship affected a few of the other top teams in Baltimore this week. Karolyn Kirby said that waiting for Reno to decide whom she was going to play with ultimately led to Kirby's elimination with rookie Lisa Arce on Wednesday.

Indirectly, it also led to Angela Rock's losing her chance at the Olympics as well. Rock had wanted to play with Kirby, but chose to go with Kirby's former partner, Liz Masakayan, instead. Rock picked Masakayan, considered the best player in the women's game before twice undergoing surgery on her right knee last year, because Kirby was waiting out Reno.

"That's the beauty of the game," said Linda Hanley, who'll team with Barbra Fontana-Harris to meet third seeds Castro and Deb Richardson in the other women's semifinal. "Everybody's played with everybody."

Not that dumping is de rigueur for everyone. Castro holds the record for being part of the longest-running team in the history of the Women's Professional Volleyball Association, having played more than five years and 70 matches with Lori Forsythe. Roque lasted three years each with Castro and Nina Matthies.

The news of the latest dumping often comes the same way you used to hear about high school couples breaking up before the prom. From a third party. On the telephone. Though the WPVA releases its list of teams for the next tournament at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Castro usually has heard from another former player, Beth Engman, with the latest gossip.

"We call it the BNN -- the Beth News Network," said Castro.

Castro saw her long relationship with Forsythe end when both realized they had gone as far as they could, and needed a different type of partner to make the jump to the top. She played with Roque and won an event in Puerto Rico two years ago. She eventually found her way to Richardson earlier this year.

Not that the top men's teams are immune, but there does seem to be more stability. The top-seeded team of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes has played together since 1990, and only an injury that sidelined Steffes last year forced Kiraly to look elsewhere. When Steffes was healthy, the partnership resumed. They will meet Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh today.

"I don't think it hurts the sport," Kiraly said. "I think it hurts the players who change a lot."

During the week of last year's WPVA national championship, there were 19 changes alone. Inevitably, feelings are hurt. No matter how many times it happens, no matter if it's really for the best, it isn't easy when you see a former partner standing on the other side of the net whispering strategy in a new partner's ear.

"There's usually some strain," said Shupryt-Knoop, who, at 40, has been through her share of partners. "The emotion is the result of the game being so intense."

Or how the breakup occurred. As Castro said, "Sometimes you're dumped politely, and sometimes you're not."

But you're going to get dumped. You can count on it.

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