Glorious sunshine, perfect beach setting, vibrant music, giveaways and world class athletes vying for supremacy in front of a huge appreciative crowd – who get all that entertainment for free. As a spectacle, sport doesn’t get much better than this.
Beach volleyball captured the sporting public’s attention with the fifth consecutive staging of the NORCECA tournament at Public Beach last week.
The men’s title was retained by Puerto Ricans Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez and Eric Haddock, who defeated the celebrity pairing of the US’ Todd Rogers and Ryan Doherty, 21-16 and 21-18, in the gold medal match.
Cayman had two men’s and two women’s teams there. Cristin Alexander and Jennifer Bily were Cayman’s top women tandem, while newcomers Stefania Gandolfi and Jessica Wolfenden also played and impressed with their agility and commitment.
Shervin Rankin and Duncan Hamann came in 10th, while Richard Campbell, who partnered with Philippe Deslandes, gained experience playing together.
Canadians Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas crushed Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik of USA-A in consecutive sets (21-15, 21-13) to claim the women’s gold medal.
The bronze went to USA-B team of Jennifer Fopma and Brooke Sweat, who defeated Mexicans Bibi Candelas and Martha Rveuelta, 21-13, 21-15.
Alexander and Bily are well established as Cayman’s top pairing now and although they only won one of their four games, two were against full-time pros who play at Olympic and world championship level.
They beat Honduras but lost to sublime Mexico and US teams before closing out to defeat to El Salvador.
All Cayman’s national players are part-timers who have to squeeze training and playing in the exceptionally demanding tournaments around busy day jobs.
“The tournament was good,” Alexander said. “We faced teams at competition level that we’ve never faced before.
“We went up against Mexico, who are actually their Olympic team and the defending champs from last year here and also faced the US team of Fopma and Sweat.
“Both are amazing pro teams, so it was an incredible experience just to get the opportunity to play at that level because usually we don’t have it normally.
“It was fun. JB and I have been really gelling. Our chemistry has been great. We’ve been doing as much as we can, obviously, and we’re enjoying it right now.”
Their next NORCECA event is undecided but they hope to get to five or six of the 17 this season as it improves their ranking.
They are ranked 11th on the tour now, not bad considering they are part-timers. Alexander, 25, is marketing executive at Digicel. Bily, who turned 41 last week, is a licenced chiropractor and personal trainer. She is planning to soon open a 24-hour boutique-style gym with husband David Berry.
Alexander added: “We worked really hard last season even though we only made five stops. But we just keep chugging along trying to make our achievements.”
Their focus now is to medal at the Island Games in Bermuda in July and improve their overall NORCECA ranking.
JB said: “We strive to get better every day and every training session. You always have in sports ups and downs but I feel that this has been our most solid performance at home ever.
“Even though we had some really tough competition, our communication improved, confidence in each other and our skills.
“We always try to do better and the tougher our opponents are that’s what’s going to help us improve.
“We learn more from the better teams because they are faster, taller and know a lot more. As soon as the match is over I want to run it back and go again because it’s so much fun. “The girls that we train against are improving so much but when you train against the same teams over and over you get complacent because you know what works and doesn’t.
“But facing new teams you have to be really that much quicker and work on reading each other. It’s great, awesome.
“I want the community to be proud of us and that we’re fighting hard to do well. Us losing doesn’t really reflect the big picture and what’s really going on.
“We like a win against teams that are not of that top calibre but there is still nobody at NORCECA that you can take lightly.”
At one time last season Bily and Alexander were ranked first in the Caribbean, jumping up 10 places.
“We pulled out some crazy wins when maybe we shouldn’t have and had some really tight loses against some amazing teams so it showed that our tenacity and fire was paying off,” said Bily.
“It takes going on trips, a lot of effort and funds and time off work. That’s what Cayman wants, a real commitment.”
Since the NORCECA tour started here four years ago, volleyball interest has increased significantly although there has not been a massive wave of youngsters taking up the sport.
“Yes, there is a lot more buzz and people are looking forward to it throughout the year,” said Bily.
“However, the juniors are doing really good indoor. We need those juniors to come out.
“There was a lot of interest and skill after the last NORCECA. You either love it or hate it. Once you get the bug you find it’s hard. It’s fun but you’ve got to put the work in playing in the wind and sun.
“It’s very difficult to do the fitness and conditioning. All sports have their challenges but with the win and elements this requires a lot of effort.
“Right now on a consistent basis there are four or five girls that train. That’s only two full teams. We need more. If there’s an interest out there in the juniors or even young adults give us a shout.”