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Beach volleyball elite can draw a crowd come sun or snow Fans turn out to see U.S. Olympic hopefuls


FAIRFAX, Va. -- The sand was as white as snow, or the snow was as white as sand, depending on whether you were inside or outside the Patriot Center at George Mason University yesterday.

It was better to be inside, where the temperature was in the 70s and the arena was all decked out for a beach party -- right down to the two live rock bands and the 240 tons of sand that transformed the floor into an artificial beach for the Indoor Pro Beach Volleyball Championships.

Obviously, it's not just a warm-weather game anymore.

The growing popularity of indoor beach volleyball was illustrated again by the surprisingly large crowd (6,069 paid, estimated 3,500 in-house) that braved the elements to pretend it was summer and see some of the candidates for this year's U.S. Olympic team.

That's right, beach volleyball's meteoric rise from cable television time-filler to major international sport figures to reach its zenith in Atlanta in late July. The sport bypassed the demonstration phase and moved right to full medal status as an Olympic sport because of its rapidly increasing global appeal.

"I think we're all hoping that it will make another big jump with the Olympics this summer," said two-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly, who teamed with fellow Californian Kent Steffes to score a 15-7 victory over former USC All-American Adam Johnson and Brazilian Jose Loiola in the men's final.

"No one knows what it's going to be like, because it's the first year for beach volleyball, but any of the top players would be happy to be there. I think the real Olympics for us will be the trials, because the competition will be so fierce."

The competition yesterday had no direct impact on the Olympic trials, but it was an important preparatory step toward the most exciting summer in the relatively brief history of the sport. It just seemed odd for it to be taking place during the coldest mid-Atlantic winter in years.

"It reminds me of old days on the National Team, getting off the bus and sloshing through the snow to play indoors," said Karolyn Kirby, the winningest player in the history of the pro beach tour. "It's just another indication of the way the sport has grown. We've played in downtown Tokyo. We've played in St. Petersburg, Russia. . . . I've been waiting for the day that this sport gets to the level that it's getting to. It's rewarding to be a part of it."

Particularly rewarding yesterday, when Kirby and Christine Schaefer pulled a stunning upset in the first match of the program and went on to win the women's competition. They defeated Olympics-bound Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno, 15-13, the first match they have ever played together -- the first match of a partnership that both hope carries them to an Olympic berth -- then disposed of Liz Mazakayan and Angela Rock, 15-4, to win the $21,000 first prize.

McPeak and Reno already have qualified for the Atlanta Games by virtue of being the top American team in the rankings of the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB). Two more American teams will be chosen during the Olympic Trials June 8-9 at a site yet to be determined.

Kirby, 34, could have gone with a more established partner -- Schaefer entered yesterday's competition ranked 49th in the FIVB and had never appeared in a final -- but coach Mary Jo Peppler believes Schaefer is ready to step up to a new level.

"She's been on tour for three years," said Peppler, who was a member of the 1964 U.S. indoor volleyball team that competed in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. "I think it takes three years to get good. She's right at that threshold. I think she's ready for a breakthrough."

The first-round upset ended a string of 25 straight wins for McPeak and Reno, who rank third and fourth in the world, respectively, and are the top two Americans in the world rankings.

"I'm not taking anything away from them -- they played great," said Reno, who was a member of the 1989 U.S. National Team before joining the pro tour, "but I'm trying to pace myself emotionally. You can't go out and peak emotionally in February and expect to still be there in July."

For many of the competitors, the possibility of an Olympic berth is a dream reborn. Most took up the beach game after chasing the Olympic dream indoors, then found themselves with a new opportunity to reach the Olympics when beach volleyball was adopted as an Olympic sport in 1993.

"It's definitely nice," Reno said, "because that was a primary goal coming up. [The Olympics] was all volleyball had then. When I got off [the U.S. National team] in '89, I thought that was over."

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