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AVP tournament a reminder of beach volleyball’s roots at Tahoe

Jeremy Evans
Photos by Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune Former UNR volleyball players Michelle More, right, and Suzanne Stonebarger play their first match on Thursday at the AVP Beach Volleyball Championships at MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa.
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While Lake Tahoe’s South Shore is known for its high-rise casinos, turquoise water and world-class ski resorts, this recreation mecca is also part of beach volleyball history.

In 1976, the now-defunct Parks and Rec (P&R) volleyball tour came to the beaches of Nevada, where Fred Sturm and Gary Hooper were crowned champions. It was the first professional volleyball event ever held outside of California, a distinction that remains an important development in the sport’s progression.

“Beach volleyball is very indigenous to Lake Tahoe,” said Whittell High School volleyball coach Dan McLaughlin. “They have been playing beach volleyball here as long as any other sport. So to me, having this event here this weekend is kind of a like a coming home party.”



McLaughlin is referring to the AVP Lake Tahoe Best of the Beach tournament this weekend at MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa in Stateline.

The AVP men’s tour is returning to Tahoe after its only previous visit in 1997, when Jose Loiola and Kent Steffes defeated Randy Stoklos and Troy Tanner in the finals.



In all, Lake Tahoe has hosted nine men’s professional beach volleyball tour events in its history, including eight from 1976-1979. This weekend will also mark the first AVP women’s tour stop to the area.

But long before it ever hosted a professional event, Tahoe had a lively beach volleyball scene.

In the 1960s and 1970s players graced sand courts from Tahoe Keys and Camp Richardson to Kings Beach and Incline Village. By the late 1970s, Zephyr Cove had constructed its first sand courts and has since become Tahoe’s premier beach volleyball spot.

“We have a pretty big scene here,” said former South Tahoe High School volleyball coach Gary Hankoff, who played at the Keys’ courts growing up. “If you go down to Zephyr Cove any day of the week in the summer, the courts are packed. I think that’s why the AVP likes coming here. Even though we aren’t by the ocean, we have a beach volleyball culture.”

Tahoe’s beach volleyball roots, though, run much deeper than tournaments and courts.

Widely considered the “Father of Beach Volleyball,” Gene Selznick is a former Zephyr Cove resident and assistant volleyball coach at Whittell High School. Selznick was responsible for developing many of the youth club programs in the area.

In the 1990s, when he split his time between Zephyr Cove and his other home in Southern California – the birthplace of beach volleyball – Selznick held annual youth camps at Whittell. Selznick’s volleyball influence in Tahoe came after a lengthy playing career, which began in 1957 with a P&R tournament victory with partner Bernie Holtzman.

Even Selznick’s son, Dane, recorded two second-place finishes with different partners at P&R events here in 1977. The sport has certainly grown from those days. In fact, it has matured from just nine years ago when the last AVP event in Tahoe was held in parking lot of Heavenly Mountain Resort.

In 1948, the first professional beach volleyball tournament took place in Los Angeles, where the winning teams were awarded a case of Pepsi. This weekend, players such as Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor will compete for $30,000 in prize money.

Prize purses, though, doesn’t accurately describe the amount of money these athletes can earn. According to AVP Commissioner Leonard Armato, the tour’s upper echelon players make over $1 million annually, a figure that includes endorsement deals with companies such as Speedo, Gatorade and Visa.

“Obviously, the money tapers off from there,” said Armato, who took over the struggling AVP tour in 2001 and has since turned it into a multi-million dollar business that has TV contracts with NBC Sports and Fox Sports Net.

In previous decades, linking that kind of money with volleyball was foolish.

Before this more lucrative version of the AVP emerged, the world’s best players were considered beach gods or goddesses, permanent adolescents who played all day in the Southern California sunshine. From Huntington Beach to Manhattan Beach, they developed bronzed bodies and sex appeal, qualities not lost on today’s players.

But that glamorous lifestyle was forgotten at night, when many of the players made their money working as bartenders, dishwashers and waiters. Nowadays, players like Walsh own expensive homes on the same beaches where players in the 1960s slept to avoid paying rent.

“Our aim is to make this into a true professional sport where everybody can make a significant living doing something they love,” Armato said. “This is not like the old days. Our athletes are not only world class, they are educated and articulate and very accessible to fans.

“We’re hoping the residents from Tahoe and around Tahoe come out and see this event and see our athletes. Since Tahoe has a real connection to beach volleyball, it’s not like bringing the AVP to Cincinnati for the first time.”


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