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Sand Blasters

For fans and players, the annual beach volleyball tourney in Mexico is more than a contest. It's a reunion of friends and family. And, of course, a time for beer and tequila.


STERO BEACH, Mexico — The moon blazes over a shimmering black lagoon as a low-tide mist hovers in the warm air and Seal's "Future Love Paradise" plays in six-speaker sound in this, an accessible paradise just outside Ensenada. It is an idyllic scene complete with lovers sneaking off down the beach, palm trees huddling around a tile-lined promenade and seaside bars serving up icy margaritas.

Then a man unbuttons his Levi's and urinates off the sea wall. A few paces away, a woman bows to the sand and gives back what the bartender has given to her. Two groups of what appear to be mostly drunk people hijack two small boats; one motors off in circles, the other struggles to start. When the craft fails to fire-up, the spinner comes back to shore and tows it off into the moonlight.

By 2:30 a.m., a woozy crowd of more than 1,000 flows back to the beach-side hotel while workers sweep the broken Styrofoam fragments that litter the promenade like shells on the nearby sand. But several pockets of insobriety resist the break up and writhe to nonexistent beats. The next morning comes to life with the sound of margaritas grinding in their Osterizers.

This is what beach volleyball is all about--at least in Estero Beach.

"A lot of people come down here not only to play volleyball," explains 25-year-old player Paul Falco of Huntington Beach, Corona in hand, "but also to relax, you know?"


Actually, there are some matches going on here at the Mexico International Volleyball Tournament, a bastion of beach volleyball culture and perhaps the oldest and largest event of its kind, drawing top pros and beginning hackers from across Southern California and beyond. More than 125 courts feature pairs of men and women wearing dirty white socks, evidently to ease the searing heat soaked up by the sand. Former champion Steve Timmons, president of the company that sponsors this annual shindig, beach apparel maker Redsand, is playing, and so are several of the best volleyballers from throughout the Southwest.

There were 1,396 people entered in the tournament's separate men's and women's two-on-two competition that took place last Saturday and Sunday. It is the first time in the tournament's history that officials had to turn away prospective entrants. Not enough room. And this spot--the Estero Beach Hotel--was chosen 12 years ago because the event had outgrown the sand of Rosarito Beach to the north. (Next year: Saudi Arabia?) Add another 1,000-plus friends, family and general volleyball junkies and you have . . . a volleyball bizarre del mundo.

Tequila and beer are as popular as Gatorade during court-side breaks, and the biggest obstacle to first prize (much coveted free rooms for next year's event) is not former Olympian Timmons or even emerging amateur Demetrius DuBose, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Saturday night promenade party--a true measuring stick for Sunday's best.

It's not exactly an open tournament anyway. Organizers call it a "weighted draw." It means the good get teamed with the bad and average players get partners who play like they do. In reality, a few buff dudes who spike like Mike dunks end up getting paired together in the men's division. (This year, Timmons played with a former basketball player from the University of Arizona; they lost in the quarterfinals). In the women's division, replace buff dudes with tone females.

The tournament does have a few not-so-ideal teams that survive, despite the court-side peanut gallery's strange way of encouraging fine play. One Sunday semifinals team, for example, consists of a buff dude (people in the crowd whisper that he's a pro) and a large hairy guy (people in the crowd yell out that he's a large hairy guy). Keep in mind that by the Sunday semifinals, which took place about 6 p.m., there were players here who had been inebriated for several rounds of competition (plus the ones who got knocked out early).

Large hairy guy draws the attention of a group of large drunk guys in straw hats with Mexican drum toys at constant patter.

"Sasquatch, my man!" yells one--"Sashi." "Chooooey," yells another, "Chewbacca!" Yet another: "You got the power of the gorilla, man, right here." He places a Godzilla action figure on the court. Godzilla ends up becoming the tournament mascot and is passed through the crowd during the final match.

Obviously, for the fans and players, this is more than volleyball. It's a friends-and-family reunion that's been coming back to the sand for 22 years, each year with more friends. "It's a culture of men and women from up north who want to escape," says Andreas Koch, 30, of Manhattan Beach, who's been coming for several years.

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