PURE SHORES From Waikiki to Portobello: One nation’s quest to build a sporting legacy in the sand...

In Untold

Surrounded by swaying green palm trees and located on the very southern tip of Honolulu, the Outrigger Canoe Club on Waikiki Beach is considered the birthplace of beach volleyball. The story goes that, back in 1915, as a way for Hawaii’s surfers to pass the time when the waves were too tame, swim coach George “Dad” Centre mounted a volleyball net on the sand between the surfboard lockers and the canoe shed. With surfers able to play in their board shorts and barefoot, it proved the perfect distraction until the ocean proved a more willing participant.

Before long, the game was being played by families on California shores, and eventually spread to Europe. Eighty-one years after being casually invented by a man who coached the USA swimming team at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, beach volleyball would itself become an official Olympic sport, when it made its five-ring debut in Atlanta in 1996.

Despite its continued global growth, it is the country of its birth that remains beach volleyball’s most successful exponent, followed closely by Brazil. The duo’s dominance at the Olympics has ensured that the game continues to be synonymous with a backdrop of lapping ocean swells, scorching hot sand, partisan crowds of bobbing shades and baseball caps, and, of course, lithe athletes wearing very little.

But as beach volleyball makes its Commonwealth Games bow at the suitably glistening city of Australia’s Gold Coast, the absence of the USA and Brazil allows the sun to shine on some of the less-decorated nations. Canada, despite not boasting much of a reputation as a sun trap, clearly makes good use of hundreds of miles of coastline with the top-ranked side in both the men’s and women’s draw. Hosts Australia not only have beaches in abundance but a gold medal to their name, when Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst channelled the rapturous home support to overcome Brazil at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Then there’s the rare chance for the likes of New Zealand, Cyprus, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and even Rwanda to make a name for themselves.

Oh, and Scotland.

If beach volleyball’s holy trinity is sun, sea and sand, then Team Scotland are on a mission to prove that two out of three ain’t bad. The team’s main training base, Edinburgh’s Portobello Beach, is known for many things. In 1296, William Wallace gathered his troops on the two-mile stretch ahead of the Battle of Dunbar. In 1650, it was where Oliver Cromwell held a clandestine meeting with the Scots, while the 18th century saw it become a haunt for sailors and smugglers. In the 1950s, a pre-Hollywood Sean Connery even worked as a lifeguard at the open-air heated pool. But what the beach is not so renowned for, is a sunny disposition.

It has meant that, for Scotland to be able to send its first ever men’s and women’s beach volleyball teams to the Commonwealth Games, the journey has been far from conventional. Whether juggling full-time jobs with gruelling training schedules, sacrificing time with young families in favour of churning out 18-hour days, self-funding travel to qualifying events or training in sub-zero temperatures, Scotland’s place at beach volleyball’s top table has been earned like no other in the sport: through grey days, gritted teeth, and thermals. Melissa Coutts forms one half of the women’s team:

“It’s a challenge sometimes because you can’t just wait for the summer before you start training, we have to train all year round. So, if it’s minus two, it’s minus two and you still have to get there and train.”

“You’re restricted by the fact that it’s pitch dark in the depths of winter. It’s dark until round about 8.30am and then again at 4pm, so you really can’t train on the beach in the mornings or the evenings around work. You do need an indoor space if you’re going to play year-round.”

At 47-years-old, Coutts is one of the most experienced players in Great Britain. Her teammate Lynne Beattie is 15 years her junior but also boasts an impressive CV, having captained Team GB’s indoor team at London 2012. The men’s duo is also not short of pedigree. Robin Miedzybrodzki has played competitively around the world since moving to Bath to join the Great Britain squad in 2006, where he also studied for a degree in Civil Engineering. His Team Scotland partner, Seain Cook, plays professional indoor volleyball in Holland. Yet despite the years of experience amassed by their elite players, Scotland still does not possess a single indoor beach volleyball facility.

Just three months before the Commonwealth Games began, with January temperatures in Edinburgh turning Portobello into an arena more suitable for the Winter Olympics, the players took matters into their own hands:

“Portobello works for about two months of the year and then it’s bearable for another four months. But when we qualified it was absolutely critical that we had somewhere that we could go day in, day out and get on the sand,” explains Miedzybrodzki. “Luckily one of the contacts from the Scottish Volleyball Association, her dad owned a farm near Shawfair train station in Edinburgh. He said, ‘you can have this barn, just keep over towards the right because I still need to get my tractor in’. And we set it up.”

“You can’t just wait for the summer before you start training, we have to train all year round. So, if it’s minus two, it’s minus two and you still have to get there and train.”

The barn, now housing 120-tonnes of sand, transformed the teams’ ability to train to their own schedules, unchained from the vagaries of Edinburgh’s winter moods. But with a low roof, dim lighting, lack of heating and the fact that it is located on a working farm, the players were well aware that it didn’t compare to the facilities available to their rivals. Particularly when the latest FIVB world rankings show that teams from colder climes are beginning to muscle in on the traditional beach-dwelling heavyweights. Coutts admits it can be hard to avoid feeling downhearted by the lack of a level playing field:

“You are where you are. We’re extremely envious I have to say, we’re also thinking this is so easy that they’re all doing this in Europe. We’ve been to the Czech Republic and they’ve got 51 sand courts in Prague – just in that one city never mind the rest of the country. And Switzerland have a got a bunch of courts. All these cold countries have really good facilities and they’re not just sand chucked in a barn! Holland have got hundreds, Germany have got hundreds and of course these are the nations that are doing extremely well at the sport, and it’s because they can train all the time.”

A lack of facilities is not the only additional ball they’re forced to juggle with. With Cook the only player of the four to play professionally, it leaves the prospect of managing their training, travel and competitions around their full-time jobs. There’s something particularly incongruous about the fact that an event attracting over 60,000 in ticket sales requires some of its participants to clear the time off with their bosses. But that’s exactly what Beattie, Coutts and Miedzybrodzki had to do before travelling to the Gold Coast.

“I’m a strategic development officer for sport and outdoor learning in the city of Edinburgh council,” says Coutts. “So it’s a big job with lots of responsibility and the council have been brilliant about letting me take the time off, really supportive.” Nevertheless, Coutts opted to take short career break in the months leading up to the Games as the task of mixing full-time working hours with full-time training proved too much. At least Beattie, as regional volleyball development officer in the East of Scotland, was never likely to find too much resistance to her requests for leave.

Meanwhile, Miedzybrodzki puts his degree to good use as an engineering manager on the Edinburgh Waverley enhancement project. “They’re very understanding. I’ve got quite a senior role there now, so I’ve got quite a lot of responsibility that I need to deliver on.”

In the weeks before heading Down Under, Miedzybrodzki described how his 5.45am alarm would get him to the barn by 6.15am, allowing for a couple hours training before going to work. With eight to ten sand sessions combined with three strength sessions in a week that sees only a single day of rest, not to mention the responsibility of his day job, it’s a daunting workload. To add yet further complications to the men’s preparations, much of their training is done separately:

“Seain plays professional indoor volleyball so he’s out in Holland. We have to do a lot of independent training and then we come together, but we’ve got a good team around us that helps with the coordination of all that, making sure Seain is aware of what I’m doing day in, day out, and likewise for me. Which means when we do come back together we have a good understanding of how we’re going to play.”

Unlike indoor volleyball, which comprises of six on-court players plus six substitutes, beach volleyball involves only two players per team. As with doubles in any sport, it means retaining harmony in the relationship is as integral to success as tactics and form. Coutts, as someone who has shared the sand with a number of teammates over the years, knows this only too well:

“You’re in a very intense pressurised competitive situation so part of your actual training is learning how to be a good team together. It sounds a bit funny, but you have to learn what to say, when to say it and how to say it.”

“If you get that wrong and you start not getting on, it can have devastating consequences to your performance and the outcome of the game. The opposite to that is that when you’re getting that right it can turn a game around and you can do really well. So the dynamic is crucial.”

“We knew it was going to come down to between us and Cyprus at the end, on their home turf, under the floodlights with their crowd. It was just one of those big pressure moments and it was an amazing game.”

Qualification for the Commonwealth Games comprised a two-year cycle that culminated in a dramatic finale for both pairs. For Coutts and Beattie, after just missing out on an automatic place, their hopes were pinned on a wildcard slot. Despite being the highest-ranked side to miss out, they were left to agonise for months about the prospect of being overlooked. Fortunately, they had continued to train in the interim before their place was confirmed in December, just four months before the Games.

For Miedzybrodzki, the start of the qualifying process coincided with first-time fatherhood. Reluctant to travel the distances required to rack up the necessary World Tour ranking points, it meant resorting to an all-or-nothing route via a European qualification event.

“We knew it was going to come down between us and Cyprus at the end, on their home turf, under the floodlights with their crowd. It was just one of those big pressure moments and it was an amazing game. Point for point it just went on, and on. The first set went our way, second set went to Cyprus and then I just remember half way through the third set I was so confident that we were going to win that match, even though it was ridiculously tight. I think it went to 20-18 in the third set, so it couldn’t have been any closer, but we snuck it in the end and we were very fortunate we did manage to pull that one out because it was a great moment.”

It proved to be a week Miedzybrodzki will never forget as qualification ended just as it began, with the birth of a daughter.

“Isabella was born two days after Cyprus. I literally flew home and she was born, so that was way too close for comfort. There had been a concern throughout the whole journey that I was going to be out there and miss the birth of my second child and that was a big fear for me but thank goodness it all worked out.”

Such dedication to a sporting passion can add obvious strains at home, but in that respect Miedzybrodzki has the perfect partner. His wife, Shauna Mullin, will be familiar to those who follow beach volleyball, having represented Team GB at the Olympics. She therefore knows exactly the commitments required to compete with the very best. Miedzybrodzki remembers their discussion on the matter back in 2016:

“We were actually on holiday on a skiing trip, and I saw it flash up on Facebook that beach volleyball was going to be in the Commonwealth Games. That whole day I was out skiing and I could tell my wife knew there was something up. And then she broke the silence at the end of the day and said, ‘you want to play don’t you?’.

“So, that was kind of the decision made and my wife’s been really supportive, I mean she’s an ex-player herself, she played in London, so she’s been a rock for me throughout it all.”

Talk of London 2012, where beach volleyball thrived in front of thousands at the picturesque and imaginative setting of Horse Guards Parade, turns the conversation to that of legacy. For all that the profile of the sport in the UK reached a peak six years ago, some players felt that not enough was done to take advantage of it. Miedzybrodzki, for one, was surprised that opportunities failed to materialise off the back of the Olympics.

“I think there was a lot of excitement up to London and there were some really good players coming through, but unfortunately it just fell of the edge of a cliff after. Luckily a few of those players have continued, and some of those players have gone on to coaching so that knowledge hasn’t been lost.”

“I think what we do very well in this country is junior development. But then it gets to that critical point in a volleyball player’s career where they can bridge the gap to seniors, and it just falls off a cliff. There’s just no support for someone to keep playing so that’s the key step, to make that more manageable for players and give them the competitive outlet and support during that phase, so when they’re finishing up at Uni it’s actually a real option for them to say, ‘well actually I’m going to play full-time professional volleyball’.”

It’s no surprise to hear the 32-year-old align the issue with facilities and culture, and make the same comparisons to the continent as his compatriot in the women’s team.

“The likes of Germany and Switzerland, all these countries that don’t have beaches, they certainly have bleak winters like us, they’ve just got fantastic indoor facilities and they’re now up there with the world’s best. So, it can be done but facilities are key. I think culture change needs to happen, but support and funding for athletes is key as well.”

As with most non-mainstream sports, the issue of funding lies at the heart of its future success. With beach volleyball in its relative infancy on these shores, help from UK Sport and Team Scotland can stretch only so far. Instead, both teams have leveraged the support of the community, from fundraisers to local corporate sponsors, to ensure they could get to Australia with their full quota of coaches and support staff.

Of course, the players are also under no illusion to how this all can change very quickly: with headline-making and medal-winning performances at pinnacle events like the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

“If we can go out there and put in a really good performance and put it on the map, then Team Scotland will likely support beach volleyball programs going forward,” accepts Miedzybrodzki. “No pressure, but that’s the prize for the sport at the end of all this and that’s our opportunity to give that back to the volleyball community.”

“Edinburgh Beach Volleyball Club is one of the key things that would become a legacy of all the stuff that we’ve put into doing this, and if we can make that a real success I would personally get a lot out of that.”

It’s not clear what the future will hold on the international scene for Team Scotland’s veteran volleyballers, but what is certain is that even after their own playing careers are over, their passion for growing the sport on home sand will remain. For them, the journey has always been about more than several days Down Under on Coolangatta Beach.

While the barn is only a temporary fixture, it is hoped that the sand can eventually be used in schools, and there are even ambitions for a permanent indoor venue in collaboration with Edinburgh University. For now though, Coutts and Beattie have already made significant inroads in their quest to leave a legacy for Scotland’s next generation of beach volleyballers.

In February 2017, over 100 years after “Dad” Centre did it first in Waikiki, permanent volleyball nets were installed on Portobello Beach. The result of years of petitioning and pestering, the courts are part of Coutts and Beattie’s newly-formed Edinburgh Beach Volleyball Club. The two sets of posts, secured deep into the sand on which Wallace, Cromwell and Connery once walked, now represent a symbol of the hard work that’s gone on behind Scotland’s fledgling beach volleyball scene. It’s how traditions begin. Coutts is suitably proud:

“We want to build Edinburgh Beach Volleyball into a really good club. That’s one of the key things that would become a legacy of all the stuff that we’ve put into doing this, and if we can make that a real success I would personally get a lot out of that.”

“A thriving beach volleyball club on the back of the Games, that would be great.”


Thanks to:

Melissa Coutts
Robin Miedzybrodzki
Scottish Volleyball Association
Steven Railston

Photography:

Beattie/Coutts Beach Volleyball, Facebook
Seain Cook, Twitter
Daniel Coomber, Flickr
Lynne Marshall, volleyballphotos.co.uk
Michael McConville, volleyballphotos.co.uk
Tim Miller, Flickr
Shea Rouda, Unsplash