Twelve thoughts I had while watching pro women’s beach volleyball this weekend

This past weekend was about as perfect as weekends get when you are a feminist-minded fitness junkie like myself.  On Saturday, I ran my favorite 10K loop around a nearby lake, then went to a pole tricks class, which I enjoy not only for the way the class challenges me but also because of the fun, positive environment at the studio (which I will have to write about one day).  On Sunday, I finally hit my first 50-mile bike ride, the last 10 miles of which I did on my tri bike on the indoor trainer while watching episodes of “Roseanne” on TV Land.  It was a good weekend.

Kerri Walsh Jennings and Whitney Pavlik at a previous AVP Open. (Photo: Don Liebeg/Tampa Bay Times)

These were all wonderful, wonderful things, but the pinnacle of my weekend came Saturday afternoon, when Brian and I went to the AVP St. Pete Open, which was being held in Vinoy Park in downtown St. Petersburg.  The pro beach volleyball tour had been making its way around the country, and St. Petersburg was the last stop on the East Coast before the tour heads back to California.  I would have probably been into going no matter what, but the fact that world-class legendary players Kerri Walsh Jennings, Jennifer Kessy and April Ross were on the tour made it pretty much a no-brainer.

So, two years after taking Veronica Arreola’s pledge to attend at least one professional or college women’s sporting event, I finally made good on that promise.  What follows is a list of observations, thoughts and feelings I had while at the AVP St. Pete Open this past weekend.

1. Our general admission tickets were only $10 a piece. We had the option of upgrading to grandstand seating for $30 each, but the grandstand was only around the main men’s court, and I’ll be frank, I had no interest in all at watching the guys.  Don’t get me wrong; they’re great athletes.  I just preferred to watch the women.  So that meant for a whopping $10 I got to pull up my beach chair alongside a court, dig my bare feet into the sand that spilled over the edge, sip some cold beer and watch Olympic-caliber athletes play beach volleyball.  About once every five minutes, I nudged Brian and whispered, “This is so fucking cool.”  It really was.

2. Before we went to the tournament, I posted on Facebook that if I saw Kerri Walsh Jennings I would probably fangirl myself into a coma of happiness.  Well, I did see her.  In fact, she walked right past me – she’s slightly taller than me, by the way – and after about ten seconds after she’d passed, I mustered some courage and said, “Kerri!”  She turned around and I waved and said, “I’m a big fan, Kerri!”  She smiled and waved at me, and then kept walking away.

I was so giddy that I actually felt tears come to my eyes, and a few seconds later I was swallowed by a tsunami of shame, because what kind of grown-ass woman gets that excited over meeting a celebrity?  (Even if it is a celebrity she’s admired for almost her entire adult life.  EVEN IF.)  I am possibly the least cool person I have ever met in my entire life, and it is clear that this is never, ever going to change.  I will be ninety years old and I will be the dorkiest old lady in the nursing home.  One day I suppose I will be okay with this, but for now I just find it embarrassing.

3. Being able to watch the athletes up close was really interesting, especially as someone who played varsity volleyball in high school and intramural beach volleyball in college.  I could always manage to block but I could never hit the way I wanted to, which I blamed on my lack of upper body strength, but watching the pros, I realized that it’s not just your arms and shoulders, but the combined force of your entire kinetic chain that smacks into the ball.  I’ve been really getting into the concept of the kinetic chain with my own training, but it’s one thing to use it for endurance athletics and another thing entirely to use it for a dynamic team sport.

4. Speaking of my own history as a volleyball player, I couldn’t help but feel a bit wistful as I watched.  Team sports were never my forte – I had too many issues with full-body contact – but volleyball was a sport where I had a glimmer of ability, almost in spite of myself.  I kept wondering, what would have happened if I could take the focus, drive and work ethic I have now and inject into my teenage self, so that she’d be willing to work hard AND have access to the athletic opportunities that basically stop presenting themselves after the age of eighteen.  I don’t know, maybe it’s better this way so I’m not all burned out with a ruptured ACL or something.  And hey, maybe this will inspire me to join up with one of the many, many recreational level beach volleyball teams in the area.

5. Okay, so I did actually see men’s teams play for a few minutes, and I have to say, the contrast between the men’s Federline-style manpris and the women’s microscopic bikinis was so stark as to be almost comical.

Kevin Federline, male style icon of the 21st century (whether we like it or not)

As long-time readers of this blog know, I have proudly declared my allegiance to the Bikini Republic, and even I couldn’t help but find the discrepancy ridiculous. I’m not saying guys need to wear Speedos while playing or that the women should all start wearing baggy board shorts, but it really is weird to see a group of athletes playing the same sport but with completely different uniforms (particularly as the women’s uniform has a tendency to bring out all kinds of gross tendencies, like photographers who focus almost exclusively on their butts).

5a. This is not to say that I would not have chosen the bikini, and indeed, they actually looked very stylish and comfortable.  Plus I have to give the designers props for making bikini bottoms that actually manage to stay in place.  Never once did I see an errant wedgie out of all the women’s volleyball I watched, which is not something I can say for, say, Rafa, who spends forty percent of his time on court yanking his manpris out of his crack.  Maybe he should try wearing a bikini bottom next time he plays tennis.

6. ALL THAT SAID, anyone who showed up to watch women’s beach volleyball with the sole intent of staring at women in bikinis is not only a simple-minded tool but also missed out on watching some incredible athleticism.  That’s the problem with looking at women solely as sex objects – you miss out on the fact that a lot of us are actually really good at a whole bunch of other things, many of which have nothing to do with sex!  It’s a fascinating concept called “being a human being.”  I know, that’s some crazy shit, right?

7. While I’m sure there were some creepers in the crowd, my perception was that most of the people who were watching the matches were actually there to watch the matches.  Because this is another fascinating concept: you can find someone sexually attractive and still appreciate all of the other abilities and talents they may possess.  Did I just blow your mind there or what?

8. I wasn’t the only lady there who was totally fangirling out over Kerri Walsh Jennings.  The young lady sitting next to us kept handing her phone to her boyfriend, then she’d sit on the edge of the court facing him so he could take a photo of her with KWJ in the background. (I ended up stealing her idea for myself, as you can see below.)

Hot, sweaty fangirling in action

Hot, sweaty fangirling in action (seriously, it was hot as the proverbial balls that day but who cares because VOLLEYBALL)

Behind us stood a row of girls in their late teens who, when they weren’t talking about their own beach volleyball league down in Gulfport, were also fangirling over KWJ. It made me feel a little less silly about my own moment of fangirldom because it reminded me that the woman we were all excited over is one of the most dominant players in the whole world in her sport and that we were getting to watch her in action.  That’s a really fucking special thing, and again, i can’t believe I got to see her play about ten feet away for about the cost of a movie ticket.

9.  KWJ wasn’t the only amazing volleyball player, though.  It’d be hard for me to pick out just one player because I thought they were all fantastic, but I have to say that I thought Kaitlin Nielsen, who along with Sarah Day played against KWJ and Whitney Pavlik, was so fun to watch.  She had this amazing jump serve and she could spike the ball so hard.

Obviously spiking the ball isn’t the only skill required to be a good volleyball player – in fact, one of the best things about watching KWJ was seeing how intelligent she is when it came to ball placement, hitting the ball hard sometimes and tapping it lightly other times – but good lord, is it fun to watch.  I’d never heard of her before but I was so happy I got to see her play.

10. Which brings me to something I observed about a lot of the players and their bodies.  In the past I’ve been critical of the way six-pack abs have basically hijacked our cultural definition of fitness, specifically the way so many people now act as though someone cannot be physically fit if they do not have washboard abs.  I could write a whole post about why I think this is ridiculous, and I probably will one of these days, but for now I’d like to just make the point that out of all of the women we watched, only a couple of them had what would be characterized as washboard abs.  Most of the women are quite lean, no doubt, but those highly defined abs that are a mainstay of Pinterest fitspo?  Only a couple of women on the court had them  (And in fact I saw a couple of players with midsections that I’m sure some of the more critical-minded members of the fitness community would have described as “soft.” Those players also happened to be extremely good, so I’d like to pre-emptively invite the “soft” haters to suck it.)

It would seem to me that these women – who, remember, are elite athletes – are incredibly fit and strong, even if you can’t see every line and ripple of their abdominal muscles.  The belief that the only way to be physically fit is to be ultra-lean with rippled abs needs to really go away already.

10a. The irritating thing is that by most real-world standards, the “soft” athletes were still very lean, but because I have spent so much time immersed in what I am coming to realize is the fairly extreme world of professional fitness, my expectations have changed.  It’s part of why I was more than happy to ditch the magazines, blogs and Facebook fan pages that purport to be all about women’s fitness, because I realized they were skewing my expectations about what fit female bodies look like.

11. During the last match that we watched, I noticed that Brittany Hochevar had painted her nails an almost fluorescent coral, which made a really cool contrast against her tan skin.  So, on Sunday night, while waiting for Breaking Bad to begin, I painted my nails fluorescent coral.  (My toes are now hot pink.)  Just as I thought, it looks really cool against my hands, which have been tanned by hours on the bike.

12. When we left after three-plus hours of volleyball, I was positively buzzing from having the opportunity to watch professional female athletes playing a sport I loved, without having to travel long-distances to do so.  I really hope AVP comes back to St. Petersburg next year, because I will be there, beach chair strapped to my back and beer in hand, ready to watch those magnificent women throw down again.

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35 responses to “Twelve thoughts I had while watching pro women’s beach volleyball this weekend

  1. #4- I’ve been wondering this a lot lately myself. What would it have been like if I’d been encouraged to be athletic as a kid/teenager? Or if I’d had the drive I have now. My parents basically told us we were too clumsy and uncoordinated to do sports. Which is so wrong I won’t even. But still. With you there.
    #10 &10a- I read that piece on Salon about Crossfit last week. I didn’t care all too much for the piece itself, because whatever, people get fit how they want. But it quoted Crossfit’s founder’s idea of a very strict kind of fitness in the body of the article, and it pissed me right off for the reason(s) you state here. Wtf, appearance is not greater than function.

    It sounds like you had a lot of fun, though.

    • Re: your parents – as I’ve gotten older I’ve often thought about how unfortunate it is that we have a tendency to categorize kids into “ability silos” when they are still young and developing. I was also clumsy and uncoordinated but with time and effort I have changed that. Athletic ability is a lot like intelligence in that it is not set in stone from birth, and that we can increase or decrease our abilities in those areas through our actions.

      I read that CrossFit piece and thought it was interesting, but yeah, I have a problem with the idea that fitness can be defined in a specific way. There are few definitions of it that take all of the kinds of fitness available into consideration, and most definitions usually just end up reflecting the definer’s personal biases.

  2. There are so many things I love about this post, so can I just say, “YES!” Reading about your encounter with KWJ makes my heart race, I loved your “mind-blowing” 7th point, I’m also a major fan of bikinis–especially the ones that stay in place. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. P.S. I’m beyond green with envy.

    • They make a really good team! I know Jennings is going to play with April Ross in the run-up to the Rio Olympics but I bet she and Pavlik would do really well together as well.

    • It really is comical. I don’t know what the answer is because it seems like both genders are perfectly comfortable with their uniforms, but it does throw the discrepancy into high relief to see them side by side like that.

  3. I just wanted to say that I really like your blog. I started reading it in May when I stumbled across your article What Happens When The Pursuits of “Skinny” and “Strong” Collide. You inspire me to keep up with my goal to get into shape and you have actually made me enjoy reading about sports which is not something I ever thought I would.

    Anyways, thanks! 🙂

    • Thank YOU! I’m so glad you like my blog, and that you’ve been able to take some inspiration from it. And thanks for letting me know about it, because that in turn inspires me to keep working hard at my writing. 🙂

  4. So many things I want to comment on, but all I can think about is Breaking Bad!! How intense was that episode. It’s the only TV show I watch and it’s giving me heart palpitations. Ha.

    Of course, I agree that being fit does not equal having six pack abs. I know quite a few people with six packs who I would hardly call fit or healthy. I think the internet has created an extremely unrealistic view of fitness. I have an online client who is obsessed with looking like a fitness model 24/7, even though I’ve explained over and over again that that look is not sustainable. Unless you are naturally very lean, I usually caution against people trying to get a six pack as it get be very damaging to your health.

    Last year during the London Olympics, the stadium hosting all the volleyball events was a 5 minute walk from my work. All the guys at work were buying tickets just to perve – they had absolutely no interest in the volleyball at all. I refused to take part in that disgusting behaviour. I appreciate the uniform, but there needs to be some kind of test to keep the douchebags out.

    • Ugh, my obsession with Breaking Bad may give me a heart attack. I love that show so much, even though it is breaking my heart into a million pieces.

      re: six-pack abs – I always think about that commenter on your blog, and how her criticism of your body and your training habits just really highlighted the fact that what has become defined as “fitness” is so out of touch with the way most people handle their lives and their bodies. And also, your point about a six-pack not necessarily being indicative of health is something I’ve thought about as well.

      Finally, BOO to your male coworkers. They are revolting.

  5. I’ve come to realization now that I wouldn’t change anything about my high school self, sure she was a neurotic anxiety ridden mess but she made me what I am today and best of all: because I wasn’t an athlete in high school I don’t have really bad injuries that prevent me from doing anything now.

    • That’s a good philosophy, and one my husband shares with you. I am working on cultivating that myself, mainly because I love my life now and I know that I got to where I am today because of everything that came before. I just have a case of the what-ifs sometimes, as pointless as that may be.

  6. I went to a rally for the Chicago Sky last night and totally fangirled when I saw the coach and Ephiphany Prince. Hubby fanboyed over his fave player too. Never too old to get excited over our fave players!!

    PS: Thanks for the shout out.

  7. I went to a rally for the Chicago Sky last night and totally fangirled when I saw the coach and Epiphanny Prince. Hubby fanboyed over his fave player too. Never too old to get excited over our fave players!!

    PS: Thanks for the shout out.

    PPS: Submitted to correct my glaring misspelling in first comment.

    • Hey, thank YOU for being such a huge advocate for women’s sports. I appreciate the work you do and love that you’ve been at the forefront of it. Keep up the good work.

      And also, so jealous that you got to go to a WNBA game. That’s on my must-do list, one of these days.

  8. No shame in fangirling. I have had many of those moments, myself (now that Hayley Wickenheiser plays hockey for my local university, I have made quite a spectacle of myself cheering in the front row. I have admired her for so long!). I thought I’d grow out of it, but I think that for me, there’s something about having heroes that’s related to striving for goals and imagining being better at things.

    I’ve also learned that most of the athletes that I look up to are very gracious about saying hello, or posing for a picture, which I find ridiculously cool. Good at sports and polite? Role models for sure!

  9. I loved this for many reasons but also because it brought back memories of when I met David Millar, a British pro-cyclist. I’m a big pro-cycling fan. Mr Millar was much more handsome than I had expected, so I found myself simpering at him in a very shameful way. ‘Are you doing the Tour de France?’ I asked him. Durr…he’s a pro-cyclist. ‘Yes’, he said, kindly. ‘I’m a big fan’. I managed, as I walked off with his signature. I still feel the heat on my face when I think about those words. OH the fangirl shame 😉

    • Hahaha! That sounds like the time I met Kathrine Switzer. I was like, “Duh, doh, duh, doop,” and Brian was like, “What has happened to my normally articulate and intelligent wife?” And I imagine it would have been worse if Kathrine Switzer had been a handsome, dashing man, lol.

  10. If it makes you feel any better, I once met Johnny Damon (who I used to love when he was on the Sox), and all I could get out was “Hi, Hi, Hi, HI, HI…. Hi…” seriously. Dork forever over here! Anyway, I absolutely love watching women’s volleyball, and will always choose it over watching mens when given the chance. I’m not even sure why it is, because men’s is faster, but the way the elite women play is just amazing.

    • Haha, I had a “What Would Johnny Damon Do?” shirt. I loved him when he was with the Red Sox. Now, though, my shirt would read “What Would Joe Maddon Do?” (He’s the manager for the Tampa Bay Rays, and I love him.) I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who dorks out over famous people she admires.

      Yeah, I’ve found that I tend to enjoy watching women’s sports a lot more than the men’s versions of those same sports. Not just for volleyball, but also soccer and basketball. I guess I’m supposed to find them boring or something but I just don’t see it that way.

  11. Don’t worry you won’t be the only uncool person in the nursing home. I’ll be right there with you. Loved this post! I would love to see some good pro beach volleyball. I would fawn over the players as well. When I met Chris Evert (who my Mom is a huge fan of) I could hardly contain myself. Don’t even get me started on when my arm touched Rafa’s arm. Oh la la!

  12. Pingback: I saw the U.S. women’s national soccer team play, and it was everything I’d dreamed of and more | Fit and Feminist·

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