MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (May 29, 2017) – The 88th running of the USA Volleyball Open National Championships has adult divisions for every age and skill level, and some athletes who played at the highest international levels continue to feed their love of the game even though they have retired from U.S. National Teams.
Lloy Ball, Rod Wilde, Heather Bown and a handful of others playing in the Opens all represented the United States wearing the Red, White and Blue in international competition. Now they step on to the Sport Court tiles of the Opens, held this year at the Minneapolis Convention Center, for the love of the game and to give back to a sport that has given so much to them. While the competitive juices still flow their veins, the enjoyment factor doesn’t come with all the pressures associated with the national team to succeed.
Ball, a four-time Olympian and 2008 Olympic gold medalist as the starting setter on the U.S. Olympic Men’s Volleyball Team, has been competing at the Opens since retiring from the U.S. Men’s National Team – first in the Open Division, then the Premier Volleyball League and now in the master’s age group divisions.
Over the first three days of the tournament, Ball competed for Balboa Bay/Team Pineapple in the Men’s 45 Division. He was named most valuable player of the division as his team went undefeated without dropping a single set.
“To be honest, I was lucky to be on a great team with Balboa Bay/Team Pineapple that included Mark Kerins, an ex-national team guy, and a bunch of other guys who played ball in college,” Ball said. “Just a nice group of guys who gelled right away, even though we didn’t practice much together.”
Winning one championship is not enough for Ball in this year’s Open. One day after winning the Men’ 45 Division, he began play with Jim Beam 40s in the Men’s 40 Division, which concludes on Wednesday. Playing six straight days can take a toll on a player’s body, but Ball said USA Volleyball has done a great job in keeping the wear and tear on the body to a minimum.
“USAV does a great job of recognizing we can’t play best three-out-five,” Ball said. “In our 45s Division, the first three days we won in two sets every time, so that conserved a lot of energy and we had a very deep team where we all didn’t have to play all the time. In this session (with the 40s), it is very similar. We have a deep team – a lot of skilled players. I look for us to share time and hopefully be fresh at the end. The days of the Open Division and PVL and international play competing three-out-five at that high level, as we get in our 40s and twilight, just becomes too difficult. And so, while we think we can always play at higher level, I am right where I am supposed to be.”
While Ball believes he is right where he needs to be in the volleyball world, he expressed his desire to see more former National Team athletes competing in the signature USA Volleyball event that he now uses as his outlet for competition.
“I wish we would see even more retired USA players, men and women,” Ball said. “I feel it is my obligation, as an ambassador of USA Volleyball and volleyball in general, to be at these events. I know we all have busy calendars and there is a lot of things going on. But when you see guys like Rod Wilde still coming back, guys like Tom Duke coming to play, guys like Lloy Ball being here – it inspires the love of the game for everybody else in the building. Not because we are something special, but because it is a name they recognize. If it is important to us, it should be important to them. I would love to see USAV as well as everyone else in the volleyball community to get behind the adult Nationals even more so then they used to.”
Bown, a three-time Olympian herself with a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games as a starting middle on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team, is also competing in the Opens but in a much different way. Even though she is not disabled, Bown is participating in the Sitting Division for the second consecutive year after getting indoctrinated into the discipline at last year’s Opens in Orlando.
Bown had so much fun learning the sitting volleyball game last year, she wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to compete again this year in Minneapolis.
“When Brent Rasmussen (former U.S. Men’s Sitting Team Player) was sending out emails to get ready for this year’s tournament, there was no way I was going to miss it,” Bown said. “I was like, I’m coming. Just being with the sitting guys brings a smile to my face – there is so much fun. They are really, really respectful of me not knowing anything about the game and teaching me as we go and being super patient with me.”
The Sitting Volleyball Division has many of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Sitting Team members sprinkled on 10 teams that includes able-bodied athletes. The idea behind the Sitting Division is to gain exposure for the sport – one in which the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games last summer. While one needs to have some form of physical disability to compete in the Paralympics, no such limitations are required to play in the Sitting Division of the Opens.
Bown, who was one of the elite middle blockers during the early 2000s, has enjoyed her experiences playing sitting volleyball, which has only a few minor variations from the standing game. Yet, she acknowledges those differences in becoming a better sitting volleyball player.
“For me the hardest thing is moving, like with the no butt lift rule when contacting the ball,” Bown said of the differences between the standing and sitting game. “I am constantly wanting to reach and extend, and that causes my body to lift off the ground. But (her teammates) have been pretty good to allow me to do some of that. But that is probably the hardest thing – seeing the ball early enough to get your body in position because you really have to be stopped before making contact. We talk about that in the indoor game as well on defense, but it is 10-fold here in the sitting game.”
Bown encourages everyone from the standing game, whether from the elite National Team level to the recreational player, to try sitting volleyball.
“The games are different and I enjoy sitting volleyball immensely,” Bown said. “The rules are changed a little bit, but it is still volleyball, but it gives you an extra dimension to enjoy it. I always look for ways to play the sport and still have fun. This is definitely something that furthers my experience with volleyball. I would 100 percent welcome any of the standing players to experience it, try it, get out here with our Paralympians. It is a lot of fun.”
Wilde, who was on the brink of making the 1984 U.S. Olympic Men’s Team before an untimely leg injury, played on the national team and top international clubs for the better part of 10 years from 1982 to 1991. He was an assistant coach on the U.S. Men’s National Team from 1993 to 2000 culminating with the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Wilde still has the competitive urge and competes in the Opens on an annual basis, and this year is no different as he competes in the Men’s 60s Division for Federal Resources. He has been coming to the Opens for as long as he can remember – first coming as a kid to watch his parents compete and now the reverse scenario with his own parents watching him. The Opens is a part of his family culture, and it has become an extended family to him in other ways.
“This is how I grew up,” Wilde said of the Opens. “I am sitting here watching Lloy (Ball) right now, and I know exactly this is how he grew up as well – coming with mom and dad when they were playing, now they are coming to watch us play. It is kind of like a life cycle that we have gone through.”
Wilde enjoys coming to the Opens each year for the volleyball fellowship that its cultivates among the players.
“Just walking into the gym and there are so many people you know. It is a family. The longer you are in it, the more people you know. So it is always great to come back and see how old faces and meet new friends.”
Wilde, 60, is not putting a timetable on when he will hang up the kneepads. And if his father is any example and the genes carry on down to him, he will be playing for another couple decades.
“Lord only knows,” Wilde said on how much longer he will play. “As long as the knees and the body hold up, I will be out there doing it. My dad played when he was 82. If I can make it to 82, I will be happy.
“I have put a little more mileage on my body, though,” Wilde said with a chuckle.