Planting roots in the sand

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

Once upon a time beach volleyball was what TV networks showed when they ran out of real sports.

As athletic events go, it had an appeal similar to watching a girl jump out of a cake, or a wet T-shirt contest. It had all the public acceptance of a pile of doggie-do. Some cities had laws forbidding the game.

"Where we're playing the Canadian championships this weekend at Ashbridge's Bay, there used to be a bylaw against playing beach volleyball," Mark Heese says.

"In the early '90s they had signs like those stoop-and-scoop ones you see today warning dog walkers. They didn't want you playing it."

But Heese played anyway and went all the way to the Olympics in Atlanta, winning a bronze medal with partner John Child. Heese watched the birth of a sport that now includes a world tour with stops in Asia, Montreal and South America.

In Brazil, it is the second-most watched sport after soccer. In Europe this year, says Marie-Andree Lessard, one half of the top-ranked women's team this weekend, "they charged 2500 Euros for a VIP pass and the stands were packed from qualifying to the final ... it has the potential in 20 years to be just like tennis."

Even in Toronto, perpetrators of beach volleyball no longer are considered borderline felons.

"You talk about change. Now there are 100 city-installed courts down there and they're packed every evening," says Heese, who along with new partner Ahren Cadieux (Child has retired) is ranked No. 21 on the world tour. "It's the complete opposite from 15 years ago. The Olympics had a lot to do with that. People realized the athleticism involved."

The Canadian championships won't decide who goes to the Olympics but the prize money helps competitors pay the $5,000 per event it costs a team to compete on tour.

"The top 22 (on the world tour) qualify for Beijing. We've been as high as 16 but slipped," Heese says.

Now 38 with a wife, Janet, and four kids ranging in age to eight years from three months, Heese knows this will be his last shot.

That puts him in the same situation as the No. 1 team on the women's side at the championships. Lessard and Sarah Maxwell are four spots from qualifying for Beijing. Unlike Heese and Cadieux, who still are searching for cohesion, Lessard and Maxwell have been together for six years. They have played more matches together than all but four other teams on tour.

"We were playing when Athens was on but we weren't in the running ... this time it's there for the taking," Maxwell says. "There's a lot of stress because we're both retiring after 2008 and know we've put all our eggs in this one basket."

Their long-term bond has helped.

"You spend a lot of time together off court. You have to not get on each other's nerves. A lot of partnerships break up because they can't stand each other off court," Lessard says.

So, it helps they are friends first.

"We call ourselves the old couple," Maxwell says. "We share a room. We eat together, we practise together. A lot of the men tease us because they tend to be a bit more solitary. We even live together in the off-season."

Heese and Cadieux are hoping to find a similar connection. A top-ranked player in the world can earn up to $200,000 a year. In 11 events this year Heese says they've earned about $50,000, leaving them "on the bubble" for Beijing. The "under construction" sign on the relationship remains.

"Ahren is a very solid player, but John (Child) and I played so long together there was an innate ability to communicate. We knew instinctively where the other was going to be. We won a lot of matches because of that. Ahren and I are working on that," Heese says.

In both team's cases, this weekend is a release from the tension of qualifying and life on the road.

"Not that I'm complaining," Heese says, "after all it's beach volleyball ... coed, on the beach, it's glamorous and ..."

Suddenly, Heese stops, sensing a familiar trap.

"Just worried about my quotes," he says, laughing. "I'm having a flashback to Atlanta when every article was about the T&A factor. In the press conference someone asked me about sex and I said, 'I just won a bronze medal for Canada. To be honest, I'm not thinking about sex!' I was up to my ear with those questions about what I figured was a legitimate sport."

Which brings him back to the sport's birthing grounds. Turns out he would have a use for those stooper-scoopers after all. Who knew?


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