Beach Volleyball’s Golden Era
by Kevin Cleary
Originally Published May 27, 2004


As a wide-eyed teenager, I waited in awe for the finals of the 1977 Manhattan Beach Open. Jim Menges and Chris Marlowe were preparing to play Steve Obradovich and Gary Hooper. A huge crowd with beach chairs gathered around center court. More spectators lined the pier. There was a buzz in the air and beer kegs in the sand. Rather then warm up, the muscular, glistening, bleached blond Hooper leaned against the volleyball net smoking a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, tilted his head upward, and blew a trail of smoke toward the pristine blue sky.
Hooper was arguably the most fanatical workout fiend of his generation. He spent endless hours pumping iron, jump training, running sand dunes and playing practice games. He even included a drill in his routine where he hit 100 straight spikes by himself with a single volleyball. Yet, despite all his preparation, he was smoking a cigarette before the biggest match of his life. The gravity and oddity of that moment are etched in my mind. Anyone with a sense of adventure couldn’t have helped but be drawn to beach volleyball.

The perfect storm
With Gary Hooper and the boys of summer, a special time in beach volleyball had arrived, a period unlike any other, a Golden Era. What made the Golden Era so grand? Great players, a carefree lifestyle, a feeling of community, and an eccentric, cast of characters. Beach Volleyball’s Camelot lasted from 1978 to 1988. However, it took some 30 years for the sport to rise to its mythic level.
In the 1950s beach volleyball transitioned from a recreational game to a sport with intense competition, strong rivalries and phenomenal athletes. A number of players contributed to the sport, but none contributed more to this transition than Ron Von Hagen. The Babe Ruth of beach volleyball played from 1962 to 1978 and was the image the rest of us attempted to emulate when it came to training. Von Hagen was tenacious and meticulous in his preparation and drive to win. He was anything but the Bambino when it came to nutrition and physical fitness. He believed that the road to victory came down to mental warfare: train harder and mentally grind longer than your competition.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the Golden Era was ushered in by the greatest wave of talent in the history of the sport. No other generation has had more of an impact on the game. In the U.S. you could graph the rise and fall of volleyball with the entry, development and departure of this group. They were young, single, talented, immature, confident and free spirited.
This generation had Von Hagen’s philosophy firmly rooted in its psyche. To be competitive, one had to be in phenomenal physical and mental shape. In comparison to today’s matches, which last a maximum of 60 minutes, matches back then lasted up to three hours. In contrast to today’s 32-team main draw, as many as 128 teams entered the main draw of the Manhattan Open and Santa Cruz Open. The sport attracted people with fanatical and extreme personas, guys who really enjoyed pushing their bodies to the limit.
In the beginning, there were no financial incentives, just a passion for the game and competition. Players from this generation have shown incredible resilience to father time, notching Olympic Medals well past their prime and playing and winning AVP tournaments past the ripe old age of 40. Even today, a few are still playing professionally and even winning AVP tournaments.
The Greatest Generation included Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, Randy Stoklos, Mike Dodd, Tim Hovland, Dane Selznick, Andy Fishburn, Jon Stevenson, John Hanley, Brent Frohoff and Scott Ayakatubby. Other prominent players were Andrew Smith, Pat Powers, Tim Walmer, Ricci Luyties, Dan Vrebalovich, Leif Hanson, Kevin Cleary, Mark Eller, Al Janc, Eric Wurts, Scott Frederichsen, Larry Mear and Craig Moothart. All of these players had a minimum of 25 top-five finishes. Others of note were indoor greats Steve Salmons, Bob Ctvrtlik and Dusty Dvorak. Also a part of this generation were volleyball legends Mike Whitmarsh and Steve Timmons, who emerged later on the beach scene.

Lifestyle and feeling of community
The Golden Era thrived in a unique culture and lifestyle. The beach served as a sanctuary for those seeking refuge from conventional living. No rules and a bohemian lifestyle extended adolescence. The prevailing beach ethos was one of the here and now, no planning for tomorrow, no 401k. Going to the beach all day, playing volleyball, surfing and hitting the town at night was a way of life. The players during this generation had a visceral passion for the game and their attitude reflected this enthusiasm. Among the locals they enjoyed rock star status, making them natural ambassadors for the sport. The pros hung out all day with the amateur players, and the beach had a strong sense of community. The scene was youthful, energized and oozed sexuality.
Grassroots tournaments and player participation exploded during this period. The California Beach Volleyball Association doubled the number of events it organized. Novice tournaments drew upwards of 120 teams per weekend. The Florida Beach Volleyball Association had over 200 tournaments during the late ’80. During the summer months, beaches like Marine Avenue in Manhattan Beach (one of the Mecca’s of beach volleyball) had all 10 courts in use, all day, everyday.

A cast of characters
During the Golden Era beach volleyball was infamous for its eccentric and rebellious personalities. Minimal tournament supervision created an ideal setting for these personalities to flourish -- both on and off the sand. Lore and story telling about the lifestyle, personalities, and intense competition shaped a unique mythology for the sport.
There was a circus-like atmosphere at open tournaments. Fans would bury kegs in the sand and camp out Saturday nights to save their spot at center court. Players who were required to referee matches frequently didn’t give their full attention to this task. There were many instances of the referees hitting on beautiful girls in the crowd and missing calls. That’s when the fun really started. An ensuing shouting match would take place before play resumed, hotter than ever.
There were both ends of the social spectrum on the beach, too. The respected and genteel were represented by Karch Kiraly and Andy Fishburn. Kiraly, with his intensity, discipline and strong will to win, was the mirror image of Ron Von Hagen. As the sport’s young ambassador, he made everyone in his presence take beach volleyball seriously. The scholarly Fishburn, a Yale graduate, always conducted himself like a gentlemen.

Beach Volleyball’s Golden Era , Part II
Published May 27, 2004

On the flip side were an array of incredibly entertaining individuals whose frivolity added flair to the sport. At the top of this list were Steve “OB” Obradovich and Gary Hooper. They had talent, competitive desire, magnetism, bravado, showmanship and the ability to bounce back from a big Saturday night of partying. Once during a tournament final, OB went into the crowd and strangled fellow tour member Tim Walmer, who was heckling him from the sidelines. Hooper called a timeout in a mixed doubles tournament one sweltering August afternoon to gulp down some ice-cold water, while his parched girlfriend-partner watched. When she leaned forward to get a sip, he retorted in his high-pitched voice, “Not a drop until you start playing better.”
Everybody knew when Tim Hovland showed up. The fans and sponsors loved the guy because he’d party with them Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and still manage to squeeze in a first place finish. The Hov loved to taunt opposing teams: if you were lucky enough to block one of his spikes, he’d reply, “Maybe once, but never twice, just like your sex life.”
The marquee team of Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos would storm into the crowd at the Manhattan Beach Open and get in the face of opposing fans. This team had super sonic hearing or “rabbit ears” and seemed to hear every heckle coming from the spectators.
Craig Freeburg kept the rest of the tour laughing with his bizarre, spontaneous humor. Craig partied like a rock star, defying the laws of nature because the man needed no sleep. His energy level was so high and his attention span so short, he was never able to sit through a movie in its entirety. There were the drivers of the party train in Brent Frohoff and Scott Ayakatubby. No team could play better on less sleep. There was the ultra competitive Tim “The Kid” Walmer, who tore the net down after losing a match, fell to his knees and doggy crawled some 150 yards to the ocean screaming his partner’s name in agony. There was the nutty Eric Moss who showed his disdain for Sinjin Smith by picketing for one week in front of Sinjin’s house. Volleyball in those days was only half the entertainment. The dialogue between players, their interaction with the crowd, and their fiery exchanges with the referees were legendary.

The Shifting Storm: Pro Beach Volleyball Cleans up its Act
Between 1983 and 1988 the environment on the beach underwent a significant change. The professional tour garnered lucrative sponsorship deals and generated millions in prize money. The players organized a union called the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) and demanded a say in the direction of their sport. The tour started imposing stricter regulations, too. It hired referees with whistles, red cards and yellow cards to better control matches. Fines were levied for unsportsmanlike behavior, security was employed to supervise spectators. VIP sections were taped off, bleachers were erected and players were given a large, private tent to relax in between matches.
There was bitter disappointment among diehard Manhattan Open fans when security guards prevented them from burying kegs and camping out overnight around center court. The “come as you are” melting pot was quickly becoming segregated and structured. These changes began to choke volleyball at its very roots.
In 1989, grassroots tournament participation in both California and Florida started to decline. At first the change went unnoticed, but over time, it became more and more apparent that beach volleyball’s feeder system was losing steam. While the number of California events today is about the same as it was in 1989 (around 170 every summer), participation levels have decreased markedly. Novice level tournaments that once had up to 120 teams now average around 20 teams per event. In Florida the number of entries has improved in recent years, but events have declined from a high of 200 to fewer than 40 in 2003. The once thriving Marine Avenue community now has sparse weekday activity.
In contrast, the AVP Tour flourished through 1997, when it declared bankruptcy. Leading up to that year, the tour increased in stature, television coverage, and prize money. Beach Volleyball was a huge success at both the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. There were standing room only crowds, great television ratings, and Gold medals for the Americans.
But could Pro Beach Volleyball continue to succeed without its traditional beach feeder system?
With the infusion of corporate America, beach volleyball’s lifestyle took a back seat to financial considerations, disrupting the delicate balance in the system that created the Golden Era. With the increase in prize money and the change in climate at professional tournaments, the top players became more workmanlike. They budgeted their time, partied less, and developed a more autonomous attitude. Beach volleyball began to attract guys who were wired differently too. The players were more mainstream and centered, with fewer eccentric quirks. As leaders of the beach volleyball community, the top players started spending less time than their forefathers did on the sand playing games, socializing with the locals and passing on their wisdom to a new generation. They never truly embraced the beach volleyball lifestyle.
Instead, they hired personal coaches, organized small private groups, ran a variety of drills for a few hours and then left the beach, similar to the way one works at a traditional job. While this frame of mind may be good for the individual, it wasn’t good for the sport as a whole. It created a diminished buzz on the sand and a negative, trickle down affect on the grassroots, ultimately eroding the very system that nurtured and fed the tour.
There’s little new blood coming out of the cradle of beach volleyball, anymore. Mira Costa High School, which has produced more professional beach volleyball players than any other high school in the world, hasn’t added a new player to the tour since David Swatik and Canyon Ceman, who graduated in 1990. The Santa Monica-Palisades area, another traditional hotbed for beach volleyball, hasn’t produced a top player on the tour since Kent Steffes -- 17 years ago.
Another element that has taken a toll on the beach lifestyle is the rise in beach real estate prices. High rents and property values have pushed out the 20-something leisure class. An additional factor has been the popularity of indoor, club volleyball among teenagers. And finally, the median age on the tour has increased, creating a class of players with more responsibilities and less free time.

Last Bastions of the Golden Era, Part II
Originally Published May 27, 2004

Last Bastions of the Golden Era
There are a few tournaments left today that still resonate with the vitality and spirit of the Golden Era, in particular the Estero Beach tournament in Baja, and the Gillis beach tournament in Playa Del Rey. Only one, however, combines all the lifestyle components with an elite class of players and a high level of competition on the court -- the International Surf Festival 6-Man Volleyball Tournament held in Manhattan Beach. This tournament combines all the elements that made the Golden Era so grand -- great players, a feeling of community, a shared lifestyle and some colorful behavior. This tournament has managed to preserve the perfect storm spirit of beach volleyball with no advertising budget and no prize money, only word of mouth.
Tournament director, Charlie Saikley, deserves credit for not capitulating to pressures to tone down the festive culture at this event. It’s also worth noting the imagination and influence of the Kettle team, which sent shockwaves through this tournament 25 years ago. In 1980, Kettle players (now sponsored by Good Stuff) rocked the Hawaiian print, volleyball apparel tradition with bright pink, tailor made shorts, sparkling silver side panels and dingle balls dangling around the players’ legs. They warmed up in bathrobes and listened to loud funk music played from their portable boom box. For some 15 years they played the spirited outcast, taking first place several times along the way. Around 1994 for whatever reason, their concept started spreading in numbers to other teams. Today, nearly every team dresses in costume, has its own camp set up with dance tunes and vivations. With some 200 entries and 10,000 spectators each year, this tournament continues to thrive.
Professional beach volleyball has gotten away from many of the things that made it great. Corporate influence and structure have subdued that free-spirited attitude, so basic to beach life. The sport’s governing body being located in land-locked Switzerland is symbolic of this transformation.
Beach volleyball still has incredible potential if channeled properly. I doubt the sport can replicate that rarified air from the Golden Era, but I do believe that the sport can learn a lot from that special moment in time. I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.
Kevin Cleary, a former Pro Beach Open winner, was a founder and the first president of the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals). He grew up and still resides in Manhattan Beach. He plans to play in a record 28th Manhattan Open in June.