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Beach Volleyball

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

If you're a sucker for the nostalgia, the history of sports, this is your weekend--and Southern California is your place. Back in the mid 1950's, a sub-culture was buzzing down in Manhattan Beach. Guys would cruise up to the beach in their woodies, their long boards strapped on the roof, rocking to Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, and Elvis. And after their early morning stint in the waves, they would stick around all the long summer days to play a game they invented. Beach volleyball. These guys staked out courts on the sand and changed the standard six-man indoor game to a two-man macho endurance fest. You know the difference between walking across loose packed sand with your beach gear and striding across the same distance on a smooth floor. Well, imagine vertical jumping several thousand times out of that loose sand. And if you've ever played the six-man variety, you know that you have a fairly small space that's your responsibility. Imagine there are only two of you. Now you're sprinting up and diving to dig the soft touch shots. You're powering outside the side lines and diving to pop the hard-hit crunches back toward the net for your partner's spike. It's a vast piece of real estate for two people to cover and these guys of the 50's established a reputation for being monsters of both strength and fitness. The sub-culture back then was all about the party. Sure, as in any sport, there was pride and winning was the goal. But make no mistake when you're looking into the history of this sport. The party was the raison d'etre. Music blared from the woodies parked courtside. Women in bikinis danced the pony, the watusi, and the twist atop those woodies.

Well here we are a half century later and if you drop by Manhattan Beach this weekend, you'll find the woodies are now SUV's, the surfboards are shorter, the music is now Cold Play, and the women...well, the women are still in bikinis, but they're not cheering from the sidelines. They're diving and spiking and thrilling the crowds with their athleticism...just like the men.

The Association of Volleyball Professionals now plays a tour from April to October all over the United States, from courts in Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado, where dump trucks pile in 3,000 tons of sand for the weekend tournaments to the shores of Lake Michigan, where the most courts in the country exist year-round. But the granddaddy tournament of them all is hereManhattan Beach. This is still party central. Starting today and through the weekend, at least 100,000 people will find a place on the sand or in the seats of the main stadium, just South of the Manhattan Beach Pier. Admission is free, by the way. And you can catch the women's final on Saturday at 1:30 and the men's final Sunday at 1:30 on NBC.

At the last three summer Olympic Games--Atlanta, Sydney and Athens-I attended beach volleyball and I admit I was dubious at first. I was one of those Olympic purists who thrills to the 100-meter dash and rails against the addition of new sports such as synchronized diving. But the Atlanta experience totally won me over. And I wasn't the only one. Last year, seven of the 25 most-watched sporting events of the year (that's the SuperBowl, the World Series, all sporting events) seven of them were beach volleyball matches from the Athens Games. One of the stars who won me over in Atlanta was the men's gold-medal winner, Karch Kiraly, with his partner, Kent Steffes. Kiraly had already won two golds as an indoor player in previous Games and in Atlanta he was the bomb of the beach. Muscles ripping, face grimacing for every reach. Well, his partner has since retired, as is only normal for a world-class athlete in his forties. But Kiraly, now just a couple of months shy of his 45th birthday, is still king of the beach and you can see him work his all-court game, still, this week-end at Manhattan Beach. Beach volleyball. Great athletes. Intimate Theater. Rocking party. Free. Does a sporting event get any better than that?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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