It starts as a day at the beach, but it could end up as a hobby that will last the rest of their lives.
Twenty-two youngsters ranging in age from 8 to 18 took part in a developmental clinic for beach volleyball at Public Beach on Saturday, receiving instruction from several members of the Cayman Islands national team that will compete in this weekend’s North/Central America Caribbean Volleyball Confederation tournament, known as NORCECA.
The clinic, inspired by the homecoming of national team member Marissa Harrison, started with basic skill-building and by the end of the afternoon wound its way to playing out points. Notably, it took place just one court removed from the center stage of the NORCECA tournament.
“It’s good that we have this event now, just before NORCECA, because the kids can go out and get a taste of volleyball,” said Kennedy McGowan, president of the Cayman Islands Volleyball Federation. “And then this week they can come back and they can see volleyball being played at the highest level.”
Almost all of the area’s primary schools were represented, including Montessori by the Sea, where Ms. Harrison attended before moving to San Diego at age 9. Now 15, Ms. Harrison is back and poised to be the youngest player at the weekend’s tournament.
Last week, Ms. Harrison and her coach, Jeff Smith of 692 Beach Volleyball in San Diego, visited a couple of local schools and tried to entice the kids to come out and try a new game. And then on Saturday, they personally led them through the basics of digging, serving and passing the ball.
“I’m really excited because you just never know,” said Mr. Smith. “I’m not from here, so I’m really unaware of how everything works in junior programming. It’s a new program we’re trying to start, but as you can see, there’s 20 kids or so here. I think they’re ready to play beach volleyball on this island.”
Mr. Smith volunteered to coach the women’s national team last week, and he relished the opportunity to start from scratch with the local youth. He had the help of Ms. Harrison and her national team partner, Stefania Gandolfi, as well as former national team member Cristin Alexander-Bruton. Ms. Alexander-Bruton also happens to be Ms. Harrison’s cousin, and they imparted their wisdom with the intimate feel of a family gathering. During the two-hour clinic, Mr. Smith said, you could see the skill and enthusiasm of the kids starting to build to a crescendo.
“It takes years to be proficient at any of these skills, but they’re doing great,” he said. “You can tell a lot of the kids are very athletic, even the 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds. You can see how good their hand-eye coordination is. There are a lot of athletic kids here, but even if they’re not, they’re here for a lifelong sport. They’re going to be able to play until they’re 70. And that’s what it’s about.”
The sands at Public Beach easily accommodated the 22 youngsters, and Ms. Harrison, who did not pick up volleyball until age 11, recalled what it was like to be in their position. She has parlayed her passion and skill into a verbal commitment to play for Florida State University in Tallahassee.
And now, in addition to her growing skill, Ms. Harrison relishes the opportunity to help grow the game in her homeland. She hopes it will happen organically, and by helping the kids find an affection for the game, she cannot help but feel that she is giving back to her sport and to her country.
“I’m really happy about how many people came out,” she said as the clinic concluded. “They had a lot of fun, I think, so hopefully they’ll keep on coming and this will become a weekly thing.”
That is exactly what the CIVF is aiming for. It’s not hard for Mr. McGowan to envision a future where beach volleyball is the signature sport of the Cayman Islands. They certainly have the facilities, he said, and now it’s just a matter of getting people to sign on and help build the enthusiasm for the game.
“We’re very blessed to have the natural resources that we’ve got in Cayman to be able to hold this type of event,” Mr. McGowan said of the clinic. “It’s a niche market, and one of the areas that the Cayman Islands Volleyball Federation is pushing for is being able to market the tourism product. We just have the natural resources here and it doesn’t cost a lot of money in terms of the maintenance of the site. It actually makes sense to stress beach volleyball here as opposed to indoor volleyball.”
Mr. McGowan said the CIVF is indebted to Coach Smith and to Ms. Harrison for lending their time and passion, but he said the future of the game will very much depend on support from the local community. The federation hopes to sponsor more youth events, but it will not be able to sustain the game’s growth and development based on the effort of volunteers alone.
Greenlight Capital Re, a reinsurance company based in Ireland and the Cayman Islands, is the first sponsor of the youth development program. But Mr. McGowan said it will take new investors and more community response to help the next generation of Cayman volleyball players.
“One of the directions we’re trying to move towards is for us to get enough funding – whether from government, NORCECA, the Olympic committee or our corporate sponsors – to be able to hire a development officer,” Mr. McGowan said. “It’s very important for us to have a dedicated resource to be able to coordinate those youth programs. “We’re currently running on volunteer personnel, and it’s important to have those, but we need to have a dedicated development officer who has the expertise to coordinate the type of programs we need.”