“There is always a certain game flow. When you don’t know beach volleyball, you don’t see it.”
The women clear the net with ease. It looks like a water ballet in the air. Soft, gentle, acrobatic. But then the ferocious smash of the ball removes all doubt as to what is happening. I expect to see blood in the sand. But everyone is still alive. Everyone is still breathing. Point to the team that survives.
Ah, it’s that time once again when beach volleyball comes into the public eye at the summer Olympics. Our own U.S. favorite, Kerri Walsh Jennings, is back again, for the fourth time, with a new partner and looking for her fourth gold medal. Although there has been a four-year lapse for all of us, this is not so for Walsh Jennings, who has been playing the European circuit, the American circuit, any circuit, almost from the moment of her last gold. I caught her two years ago in Holland, walking with her head down in the picture below, serious and focused, where she and her new partner, April Ross, won that tournament.
Regardless of the deceptive bikinis, beach volleyball is not for the faint of heart with its diving saves, miraculous jumps, complicated tactics, and power hits. Walsh Jennings is 38 years old in August. No small thing to still be playing.
Marloes Wesselink will be there in Rio. A professional Dutch beach volleyball player for years, recently retired, she has been asked to provide TV commentary on the Dutch volleyball teams. Last weekend she was covering the beach volleyball tournament in The Hague, talking to all the competitors, pitching the upcoming Olympics, and promoting beach volleyball.
“I quit playing beach volleyball in the same year that the World Championships were in Holland. But I didn’t really prepare that I wouldn’t be a part of it. So when it came close, it became weird. It is the biggest event in our sport and here it is in our country. For 12 years I was a part of it, a player. I was kind of sad.”
Stated matter of factly, without a lot of emotion, Wesselink pauses over her coffee, remembering that time.
“Then I got a call from one of our national broadcasting companies. They said they’re going to broadcast a lot of beach volleyball from the World Championships, and they wanted a commentator and an analyst. I had done a little in smaller regional tournaments, but nothing like this.”
And a new career began.
“I totally got sucked into it at the World Championships. It was great to be a part of beach volleyball in another way. It was also great to be useful for the sport and the players. It was nice to contribute. It felt really good. And it was just fun.”
But the tournament ended. Wesselink returned again to her retired life. The end of the story, it seemed.
“I was in a rush from the broadcasting. But now what?”
Wesselink decided to make a “mini-comeback,” to use her words, to the sport. At an entirely different level.
“My old partner’s partner was injured, and she wanted to play the European Championships. So I agreed to play with her in Austria. It was nice because I was not prepared, and it was just fun. I discovered that there are still options to play, to enjoy the sport but not put all the hours in as a professional.”
She also started her own business — coaching, event management and media work. Her life is not boring.
But her work at the World Championships was noticed. People liked her commentary, and they liked her analysis. And now she’s invited to broadcast to a large Dutch audience from Rio. An amazing opportunity.
So, of course, I needed to ask Wesselink about my own fears about Rio, like terrorism.
“Terrorism was never a reason to not go. But the last weeks have been so terrible. Almost every morning, terrible things happen. In Nice, in Germany, in Turkey. It worries me. But I think it is one of the most protected events in the world. Of course it crosses my mind. But it is not stopping me from going or being enthusiastic.”
And the Zika virus?
“You can, of course, get ill. That would be pretty shitty. But it seems mainly dangerous for pregnant women or women planning to get pregnant. But I’m not planning on that anytime soon. However, it is certainly a big deal.”
So what are you worried about in Rio?
“My biggest challenge is not to be carried away by the game.”
“I know all the players. I know them really well. All the teams that are playing in the Olympics, I’ve played against them. At one time, I did game analysis to analyze their game, their skills, their technique. I know these people — what is typical about their play, what is their game, what is their specialty, how do they communicate, why they make certain decisions. This is all good for my commentary, of course.”
And the problem?
“I get carried away in the game.”
Of course you will. Any special goals for Rio?
“There is always a certain game flow. When you don’t know beach volleyball, you don’t see it. And I think my goal is to make people aware that there are moments in the game that defines it. The moment where everything changes. You turn a corner. I want people to see it.”
Time for Wesselink to leave. She stands up from her coffee, gives a smile, and turns the corner. ■
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.