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Volleyball players choose sand over gym

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Competitors take a time out while volunteer ball girls play during the qualification rounds for the AVP San Francisco Open on Thursday. (Shannon Cole/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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AVP San Francisco to highlight growing shift from indoor to beach

After the NCAA named beach volleyball an emerging sport in 2009, it took just six years to reach full championship status — the quickest advancement in collegiate history.

With an alternative to indoor volleyball gaining clout, amateur players began moving to the sand.

The 2017 AVP beach volleyball tour, which stops in San Francisco July 6-9, carries a number of professional players — such as partners Kelley Larsen and Betsi Flint — who transitioned from indoor to beach in college.

“The college beach volleyball game, and therefore below it club volleyball, is exploding,” said Karch Kiraly, the U.S. women’s indoor national team coach. “[At that level] there … is a drain or a choice that more people are making now at an earlier age to play beach instead of indoor.”

Larsen played three indoor seasons at Pepperdine before switching, while Flint spent four indoor campaigns at Loyola Marymount.

After joining forces as AVP partners, they became the youngest team to win an AVP tournament in September 2015 when they took all five of their matches in Cincinnati. Now, they’re tied for the No. 10 ranking among U.S. beach players.

“[Beach volleyball] was new to me in college,” Larsen said. “But we had a really good team and we were successful, so it was something I wanted to pursue after.”

Larsen and Flint said positional freedom endeared them to the sport after feeling restricted as indoor liberos. Plus, the ball control they developed as defensive specialists translated to the beach game.

Their move to the sand also provided physical benefits.

After college, professional indoor players spend 11 of 12 months per year competing, Kiraly said, and must play for clubs overseas given the lack of established professional sides in the U.S.

Meanwhile, beach volleyball operates on a flexible timetable, with athletes receiving more time between tour stops. Kiraly believes the spread out schedule, combined with the forgiving sand surface, allows players to hold up longer on the beach.

“Playing indoor is a lot of pounding on the body and I was getting really bad tendonitis in my knees,” Larsen said. “Since I’ve been playing on the beach, I haven’t had any injuries at all.”

Despite the movement toward beach at lower levels, the very best U.S. indoor players rarely leave their lucrative overseas clubs and national team prospects to start from scratch on the AVP tour.

So it’s striking that Alix Klineman — a four-time All American at Stanford and successful professional player in Italy and Brazil — made that leap this year. She expects to play in San Francisco next weekend.

The 27-year-old hatched the plan two summers ago while watching the 2015 AVP beach volleyball tour from the stands in her hometown of Manhattan Beach. With hopes of competing in the Olympics as an indoor player fading, she saw an opportunity to pursue the same dream on the beach.

“She’s taken a real risk in terms of shutting down her indoor game, which is a good game,” Kiraly said. “We even had discussions about her playing with USA this year, and she decided to go the beach route. But that [choice] is definitely the exception rather than the rule.”

Through four competitions on this summer’s AVP tour, Klineman’s highest finish was seventh place. That’s nowhere near the Olympic level she aspires to reach, but with daily adjustments to her game, she senses progress.

It’s not lost on her that the choice to forgo the indoor scene came with higher stakes than the players who transitioned to the beach right out of college. She was a star outside hitter at Stanford, and maintained a stable career abroad and held ties to the indoor national team, helping the U.S. win gold at the 2015 Pan American Cup.

But Klineman felt she needed a change to reach the Olympic stage she craved.

“If I come up a little short and don’t get as far as I would hope,” Klineman said, “at least I know I gave 100 percent.”

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