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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Sand Strong

Castro Returns to Competition After Setbacks

July 17, 1998|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gail Castro was through having sand kicked on her face.

So, after watching her beach volleyball career falter last year under the weight of a disintegrating marriage and going through the jolt of turning 40, Castro buckled down and picked up the pieces.

"I was so emotional, I couldn't stay focused, I couldn't concentrate," Castro said. "Ninety-seven was not a great year. But now I'm back out here teaching and playing volleyball, and it's OK. You've got to get past all of the anger."

Castro is trying to sprint through it.

The former standout at Crescenta Valley High and Valley College, and a beach volleyball Olympian in 1996, is drawing strength from the sport. She is among 14 women competing in the Ocean Pacific Best of the Beach Invitational today through Sunday in Huntington Beach.

Castro barely qualified for the $100,000 tournament, with a potential $35,000 to the winner, after meeting the complex criteria set by the organizers.

The format features two pools of four players each in the first round, with the players changing partners within their group after each match and accumulating points and prize money based on games won.

One survivor from each pool advances to the second round and joins the six top-seeded players, who received a first-round bye, to form two more four-player pools. The two players with the most points in each pool move to the final round and compete in the same rotating format.

It's a set-up that calls for adaptability and Castro has been practicing with the three other players in her pool--Elaine Youngs, Chris Schaefer and Krista Blomquist--to coordinate their skills.

"I'm one of the people who likes this format," Castro said. "You really find out which players are flexible and which are not. [The format is] very irritating for some people who don't like to adjust."

Castro knows all about adjusting.

She qualified with former partner Deb Richardson for the Atlanta Games, where beach volleyball became an Olympic sport, fulfilling a longtime dream. It wasn't how she planned to reach that goal after a stellar career at Valley and Long Beach State, but it was good enough.

"As a kid, I always thought I'd go to the Olympics as an indoor player," said Castro, whose maiden name was Wolze. "I was ready to have another baby but they made beach volleyball an Olympic sport and I thought I had to go for it."

Castro and Richardson lost in the second round at Atlanta but Castro returned home to Carlsbad with high expectations. She had played for years in the Women's Pro Beach Volleyball tour and was ready to rejoin it, this time with bulked up credentials.

But trouble was looming. Castro and partner Gayle Stammer started well on the tour in 1997 but lost steam as Castro's marital problems escalated and divorce proceedings started.

"I felt my whole life had fallen apart," said Castro, who lives with her 11-year-old son. "I thought, 'How could my life be so low one year [after the Olympics]?' "

Stammer gave Castro a shoulder to lean on when needed and plenty of room at other times.

"She went through a lot," Stammer said. "My role with her was to bring her as much balance as I could through the tribulations. . . . There were times when I thought, 'This is bad, but it can't get worse.' There were times when it did get worse.

"It's still a trying time, but she's much happier now."

The healing process, the climb out of the doldrums, has been gradual for Castro. She teaches volleyball at the Shiley Sports and Health Center of Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, plays in tournaments and awaits a resurrection for the pro tour, which folded last year.

Castro started working at Shiley after the Olympics, when the clinic built two beach volleyball courts. She teaches players of all levels and recently trained the Bulgarian women's team that is preparing to participate in the sport for the first time in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney.

"They wanted me to develop a reputable program where people would come and train," Castro said. "I love teaching. I took most of my education to teach physical education."

For Castro, volleyball has been passion and catharsis.

"I just love it, but I never, never thought I would be a professional," Castro said. "After everything that happened last year, volleyball has been there for me again."

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