There’s a first for everything. Sunday morning on the silky beach at Salmon Cove Sands, Jessica Winters and Georgia Abel not only played, but also won their first-ever beach volleyball match.
The two are representing Labrador in this week’s Newfoundland and Labrador Summer Games, co-hosted by the towns of Carbonear and Harbour Grace,
“I wasn’t nervous until I got here,” says Abel, 18. “It didn’t seem like it would be really hard… until I got on the court. It’s hard. Crazy hard.
“They made it look easy,” Winters, 16, says of watching some of the other teams prior to their match, “but when you get on the court it’s way different out there.”
These girls are no slouches when it comes to the indoor game.
Abel, who learned the sport when she was four years old (using a badminton net as a divider), recently represented Nunatsiavut, the Labrador Inuit’s self government, at the Aboriginal National Invitational volleyball championships in Ontario. Winters has been the captain of her school team since she was 13 and this year made the provincial girls 16-and-under squad.
But until Sunday, neither had served, set or spiked in the sand.
“The ball seems like it’s coming for you, but it’s not, they just seem to float away,” says Winters. “But the ground makes the biggest difference.”
“You can’t get any height on your jumps,” adds Abel.
Different rules have also taken some getting used to. The girls took a crash course on their way to the venue for their first match.
“You always have to hit in a certain way,” explains Abel. “Like when you’re volleying, your shoulders have to be pointed directly at the ball.”
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One would assume that living in coastal Labrador would allow the girls to hit any number of beaches, but Winters can attest to the challenges of training on a Labrador beach in the summer after having attempted with boys’ team member Jake Andersen.
“There’s Ranger Bight Beach, but it’s very small, full of seaweed, rocks and shells ... and the flies were eating us, so we had to stop,” says Abel.
Not only had they not played or even practiced on a beach before, Abel and Winters didn’t even have an opportunity to play together on an indoor court in the weeks leading up to their Games debut. Winters lives in Makkovik, while Abel is from Hopedale, about 180-kilometres to the north.
The team was originally supposed to include Makkovik’s Sybella Anderson, but she chose to join Labrador’s female ball hockey team instead, leaving Jessica without a teammate with only a month to go before the Games.
The duo plan to make the best of their Games experience and Abel, in particular, is eager to play more of the beach variety.
“I hope there’s more tournaments we can come to in the future.”
Playing volleyball in the sand requires gritty determination
Newfoundland and Labrador Volleyball Association (NLVA) program co-ordinator Brad Pitcher says it takes a well-rounded volleyballer to succeed in the sand.
“It really takes an all-around player because both people need to be able to pass, set an attack,” says Pitcher, who also plays for the Memorial University Sea-Hawks varsity men’s team.
“It’s a pretty defensive game because you play with one blocker and the other guy covers the rest of the court.”
With the rather unstable footing, the beach game is slightly slower than the one played on hard surfaces and unlike its indoor cousin, beach volleyball requires a softer touch.
“Indoor is about power, everything is big shots and big blocks. But you’ll notice in this game there are more rolls shots, it’s a little more creative and there’s a lot more finesse.”
Pitcher, who won gold in male beach volleyball at the 2008 Provincial Games in Corner Brook, says beach volleyball is a great way to help indoor players, particularly kids, develop their game.
“It’s a fantastic training tool for the kids in the summer because jumping in the sand is a like a workout.
“If we can get more kids involved, it should carry over to the indoor game as well.”
The sport is garnering interest around the island: several leagues are operating in Corner Brook, Mount Pearl boasts two courts with a couple of girls’ leagues, and this past weekend ,the NLVA held a 41-team tournament in the Clarenville area.
“There’s not a lot of facilities,” said Pitcher. “That’s our biggest problem.
“But once kids start playing, they love it.”