Postcards from the edge of cool Beach Watch: The volleyball Olympic trials brought a week's worth of the storied California beach life to our town.

June 10, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Four postcards from the beach that came to Baltimore, held the U.S. Olympic Beach Volleyball Trials for a week and left us sunburned, sandblasted and star-struck by our in-town vacation to this golden state of mind:

Chapter 1,684 from "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus"

After the matches, the drill is the same for both men and women, up to a point. They're hustled into the press conference tent as official drug testers for the U.S. Olympic Committee hover watchfully, waiting for them to finish the interviews and drink enough beer, water or sports drink to supply a urine sample.

But then you start to separate the men not from the boys but from the women: The former are still pumped with adrenalin and testosterone, sparring with the press as if it were another opponent to be served, set and spiked. (It didn't help that the big issue of the men's final was one player's sprained ankle, and one of his opponents commenting he hoped he'd broken it.)

The women, though, come in teary-eyed and open-hearted over the matches, the babies they'd delayed to get to this point, the lTC partners they'd dumped or been dumped by -- sometimes because of their baby issues. There was much empathy for the two aging veterans who lost what would be their only shot at the Olympics, as well as the other top seeded players who fell in the early rounds. All that was missing for a full-blown, girlfriends misery session was a couple of pints of Haagen Dazs and a Bonnie Raitt CD.

Ah well, at least this was one event that, despite ending with two tall, leggy, blue-eyed blondes holding flowers and weeping tears of joy, wasn't a Miss America pageant.

A California frame of mind

Athletes are usually fans, too: Olympic-bound Mike Whitmarsh, like many of the other players in town, took in an Orioles game earlier in the week. (From the not quite full stands in the temporary volleyball venue off Key Highway, it looked like a lot of would-be spectators did, too.)

"I got to see one of my idols play, Cal Ripken," Whitmarsh said. "He's a class act."

Whitmarsh has a signed Ripken jersey, but it's unknown if Ripken has a signed Whitmarsh muscle shirt.

"He can have anything of mine he wants," Whitmarsh said. With just one or two matches a day, the players had a lot of free time to do the town -- the jellyfish exhibit at the National Aquarium was a big draw, 10 players took over a sushi bar one night, and the nearby Ransome's in Federal Hill was a favorite with some of the volleyball officials.

Not many players seemed to lock themselves in their hotel rooms to contemplate strategy and block out distractions. Not many neuroses here, and no sign of traveling sports psychologists.

"That's part of being a beach volleyball player. You have to be relaxed, go with the flow," said Whitmarsh, who, the night before the match that would send him and partner Mike Dodd to the Olympics, watched the NBA finals at a sports bar, then had to walk back to his hotel because he couldn't find a cab. "We're California beach guys."

On the court and in the courtroom

How's this for an opening statement?

Judge, attorney Charles Harris said in a California courtroom on Friday, my wife just qualified for the Olympics.

It was true: In Baltimore, Barbara Fontana Harris and her partner Linda Hanley won a spot on the women's team.

Fontana Harris herself is an attorney, belying the beach bimbo image of the sport. (Although she is the only JD on these particular courts.)

"People say we're overachievers," Fontana Harris said of her family, which includes a mother who is an architect, a father who is an engineer and siblings with DDS and MBA after their names.

Her husband brought his own credentials into the family -- he played on the U.S. Olympic water polo team during the last summer games.

And now she needs a real beach vacation

Of the 47 matches that were played this week, the woman who brought beach volleyball to Baltimore saw a total of one.

Barbara Bozzuto, who with sports marketing partner Lance Lowenstein organized the trials, instead spent the week telling florists which skyboxes to deliver flowers to, finding more credit card slips for the ticket sellers, answering endless appeals on her walkie talkie, ordering ever more bags of ice, and handling all those other tasks that keep the players, spectators, sponsors and media happy.

"Actually, all the work is done for us once the event starts," Bozzuto said.

Well, maybe in a perfect world. Which is why yesterday was filled with last-minute chores: One skybox needed more serving spoons. The announcer needed the names of the officials and sponsors to be introduced during the trophy ceremonies. Lowenstein needed non-logo shorts to cover his logo'd ones before he could enter center court (only the sponsors' name could appear, even on passing butts).

But then the familiar Olympic fanfare started playing as they took to the court to hand out trophies and flowers to the winners, and suddenly the details didn't matter. Temporarily.

"Our moment of glory has come and gone," Bozzuto said. "Now we're back to schlepping napkins."

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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