Snow Volleyball is no Joke, But it is One Wild Ride
I’m sitting on the porch of a hotel in Wagrain, Austria. Hotel isn’t really the right word. The place is more of a homey, lovely little cottage than it is a hotel. In a few hours, Eric Zaun, Chase Frishman, Chris Vaughan and I are set to play the winner of Italy and Russia in the quarterfinals of a snow volleyball match.
I’ll pause there to let the ridiculousness of that set in for you.
It’s in moments like these, as I sit looking at a massive mountain, where I can see the gondola – spectacularly named the Flying Mozart – that will take us on a 20-or-so minute ride to the site, that I can’t help but laugh.
Yes, we’re taking a gondola to a volleyball tournament. Yes, that volleyball tournament is taking place on top of a breathtaking mountain. In the snow. Yes, we, alongside our world champion women – Emily Hartong, Karissa Cook, Allie Wheeler and Katie Spieler – were sent to Austria by USA Volleyball to represent our country in snow volleyball.
To Americans, this is a new thing, but in Europe it’s actually quite seasoned, now in its eleventh year of existence. What is new is the support it is suddenly getting from the FIVB and various national federations is. It’s gaining momentum around the globe, from Russia to Cameroon to Japan and Hermosa Beach. To the point that legitimate athletes from legitimate countries are playing what I have no reservation in labeling a legitimate sport.
That, above all else, is my biggest takeaway from our Wagrain adventure, the first of two snow stops for our crew: Snow volleyball is a real thing.
I had expected to mock it a bit. I had expected it to be a big joke, but a joke that would take me to Austria and Italy, so one which I was happy to oblige. To my delightful surprise, it wasn’t.
In the finals, for example, was Austria’s top team. Playing defense was Alex Huber, and the guy he set most often was Chrisoph Dressler. Three years ago, Huber was competing in the 2016 Olympics. Two weeks ago, Huber and Dressler won gold at a two-star in Cambodia.
Their route to get to the finals included a quarterfinal matchup with Brazil, which boasted a lineup that included Giba and Marcio.
Beach fans may recognize Marcio. Named the FIVB’s Best Setter in 2006, 2007 and 2008, it was Marcio whom Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers beat for the gold medal in Beijing. Three years prior, he won World Championships and was named FIVB’s Best Defender.
And he’s not even the most decorated of the bunch.
Giba’s sort of the Reid Priddy of Brazilian indoor volleyball. A three-time Olympic medalist – gold in Athens, silvers in Beijing and London – he’s also taken home eight South American Championships, three America’s Cups, eight World League titles, and three World Grand Championships.
When you put athletes of that caliber together, no matter the sport or the surface or the location or whether you’re taking a bus to get there or a Flying Mozart, it’s going to produce something exciting. But the athletes notwithstanding, the sport itself, too, is actually sort of fascinating.
The promoters asked me what I expected coming in, and honestly, I thought the volleyball would be, to put it politely, less than stellar. In my 28 years of experience, snow and ice isn’t the easiest to move in, let alone jump, dive, make defensive moves – anything athletic, really.
It wasn’t too much more difficult than beach. Just different. Manhattan sand is far more difficult to move in than the snow. Just a bit warmer. Throw in the fascinating puzzle piece of a third person on the court and it’s a bit of a joy to watch.
“I didn’t think it was legitimately possible for it to be an Olympic sport,” Vaughan said. “But it’s cool.”
Wheeler agreed. She played in Moscow in December, where they came home with gold. This weekend, they scooped a silver, while we finished fifth, falling to Russia in a wild one.
The Moscow event wasn’t quite the festival that Wagrain put on — empty stands, frigid weather. The promoters brought out all the stops for this one. Television. Livestream. Media coverage. A stunning venue. Announcers.
And one rollicking party of an atmosphere.
Snow volleyball was more than cool. It was more than legitimate. It was an absolute blast, perfectly straddling the line between a party and a bona fide competitive, professional sport.
In the morning, we’ll be off on a bus to Kronplatz, Italy for more of this zany, wonderful, totally random awesomeness that is snow volleyball.
It’s no longer a joke. Nothing to mock. But the next seven days will remain one wild ride.
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