From Bettystown to Tokyo: Irish beach volleyball dares to dream
Despite being underdogs, UCLA's Izzy Carey is helping Ireland’s Olympic qualifying hopes at home
UCLA’S Isabelle Carey joins the Ireland squad thanks to her father; a first-generation immigrant from Dublin to California. Photograph: Han Duong
Bettystown in Co Meath is the venue for an Olympic beach volleyball qualifier in June. That may seem unlikely, but all the players need is sand and nets with sunshine only an optional extra. A change of attitude towards the wind from bitter to refreshing, and the scene is set.
Miriam Gormally is the doyenne of Irish beach volleyball – player, administrator and general promoter of the sport. Well-used to slagging from Irish people surprised to find her playing on beaches from Dollymount to Ballybunion, her defence is people play rugby in the rain so why not volleyball on breezy beaches.
“It’s windy more than cold. I know people associate it with California, but it’s not that different to playing other outdoor sports. I train winter and summer long. Sometimes in winter I’ll be wearing three or four layers of Under Armour gear; warm but not heavy. Sand-socks. People dress for the weather,” she says.
There’s zero funding for beach here. It’s an Olympic sport but here we are just trying to put the sport on the map”
With just two people on the team instead of six as for indoor games and no substitutions allowed, it doesn’t take long to warm up. Called “Beach” for short, the game is fast with only three touches including a block currently allowed before the ball must cross the net.
And, as Gormally mentions more than once, players are running on sand so fitness levels must be high.
The bikini-dominated image of women’s beach comes from top-level competitions like the Olympics with rules set by the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball.
Female players in Rio chose from one-piece swimsuits, cropped tops worn with bikini bottoms or long-sleeved tops with matching pants. Just one option for the men: loose shorts with a vest-style top.
Will the Irish teams make it to the Tokyo changing rooms?
Gormally says the difference between the set-up here and elsewhere is huge, but she’s determinedly optimistic. The six woman on the Irish squad, Marie-Claire Sabogal, Alex Graves , Izzy Carey, Regina Ní Halpín, Stacy Nevin and Gormally are all experienced at international level.
“We are definitely the underdogs, it’s daunting but exciting. We’re a pro-am team, we train a lot but we’ve no full-time facilities or full-time coach. And there’s zero funding for beach here. It’s an Olympic sport but here we are just trying to put the sport on the map.”
Nets take about an hour to put up and the same to take down with locations determined by the wind. Olympic beach athletes are advised to train for an hour and half daily, but the Irish squad go for longer sessions less frequently as the set-up time makes daily training impractical.
Gormally started playing volleyball in the Community Games and when she starts explaining the differences between beach and indoor volleyball, you get the sense that it’s not only about the medals for her anyway.
“You have to run a lot more because there is only two of you. The court is a little bit smaller but it’s still a massive space to cover. You are in the sand as well so that makes it harder to move.
“I would say the indoor game tends to be a lot more about power and strength, but for beach is maybe more tactics and communication with your partner. You have to outwit your opponent rather than out-gun them. I love it, I love playing on the beaches.”
That need to communicate has built friendships on the sands.
Players on the international squad must hold an Irish passport but she says many ordinary players in Ireland come from Poland and Brazil. Walk past the nets on Dollymount on a training weekend and it can be hard to hear an Irish accent.
In the FIVB rankings, countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Norway are surprisingly prominent along with teams from Brazil and the United States.
US college player Isabelle Carey joins the Ireland squad thanks to her father; a first-generation immigrant from Dublin to California. Her team-mate Alex Graves is also from the US, playing on a newly-acquired Irish passport.
Scroll down Carey’s social media accounts for one blue-sky shot after another. Then you hit the Irish scenes. Same sport but with sand-covered leggings and long-sleeved tops under grey skies.
Carey who’s known as Izzy says: “The American scene is really developed with tons of girls and women in the sport. But the Irish programme is really fun to be a part of, so up and coming. They’re really trying, the women are working and playing on the side. They’re bringing the sport to the youth I think too, which will be great.”
It definitely gets emotional when you put in 20 hours per week for a whole year, or years
Carey is finishing a Business Economics degree at UCLA this year, funded on a partial scholarship for her beach skills. The Title IX ruling in America says universities must fund women’s sport to the same level as men’s which has been a windfall for sports like netball and beach volleyball.
Her scholarship requirements meant about 20 hours of weekly training combined with study. That broke down to Monday to Saturday schedules with hours of travel and plenty of 6am starts.
“It’s definitely a massive commitment. It’s basically a full job on top of school, so we’re very very busy but it is definitely worth the time. It’s a really cool experience to be able to have and be able to share with everyone here, and the other teams. It definitely gets emotional when you put in 20 hours per week for a whole year, or years,” she says.
Years that included playing with the under-19 and under-17 US beach national teams. That kind of exposure to the high level game at a young age is something Gormally dreams about for Irish teens.
Taking one small step towards this is the Open Net planned for the Olympic qualifier – working with Meath Local Sports Partnership to set aside a section of the beach for children to train on and meet the teams.
She put me in touch with the Irish squad, it was so random. I would never have expected someone from Ireland to be at that camp.”
Carey says a chance meeting during her time on the youth teams set her on the road to Bettystown.
“I used to do youth training. I made the teams but I wasn’t quite at the top. They got a new director, Megan Burgdorf and she’d spent six years in Ireland. I met her a camp, and just went up to her afterwards. I said I’m Irish and I didn’t know they had anything like this over there. She put me in touch with the Irish squad, it was so random. I would never have expected someone from Ireland to be at that camp.”
That coincidence changed her volleyball plans. Part of a team winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title in May, the plan was to focus on work and leave volleyball as a school experience.
But now, the outside chance of Tokyo dangles in front of her. Carey says: “I’ll probably only play now if I’m playing for Ireland, I don’t plan to do a lot more in the US for a career. I’ll more just play for fun and for Ireland as and when I can.
“I think that we can do really well. Alex and I will be a good pairing together. The winner moves onto the next round of qualifiers, so if we get there, I would have to figure that out at that point. I have no plans right now for a future in volleyball but now we’ve no idea what will happen, I’ll figure it out.”
See Beach Volleyball Ireland on Facebook for updates on the 2019 CEV Beach Volleyball Continental Cup in Bettystown, June 1st and 2nd. https://www.facebook.com/BeachVolleyballIreland/