A Sport for the Ages! (Playing Competitive Volleyball at 60, 70 and Beyond!)

“Set One” — Lesson One

For seasoned athletes, in spite of age and a relentless clock, the imperative is to stay the course. There needn’t be an expiration date stamped on the psyche, either self-imposed or by public affirmation. Put another way, if one enjoys a healthy mind and body, if joints still flex with relative ease and comfort, it’s possible to play until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it truly is a sport for the ages! The game of the high net, a remarkably fine, vigorous and competitive sport, when played well, when played by the rules. The uninitiated need only watch college volleyball or professional beach or Olympic volleyball.

To illustrate and to cite an exemplary case in point, Steve and Gigi have played for ages, since 1974 to be accurate. The great game continues to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it’s a kind of obsession, and one that has continued unabated for more than 40 years. Now at age 72, Steve, and 68, Gigi, they’re still in its grip.

Obsession is an apt description. In a way, it all began at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a current between extremes, it seems always to race between foreboding and hopeful anticipation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with passion, roped in, initially by the idea, but in the long run, consumed by the game itself, obsessed.

The ringing telephone was loud and insistent. Steve refused to move. Glaring with annoyance in her eyes, Gigi put down a book and walked quickly, almost ran to subdue the obnoxious thing.

“Shall I just get it?” she asked with extravagant sarcasm. “Yes, hullo!”

Steve paid no attention at first, irritated by the instrument’s persistence, its power to interrupt.

“Oh, hi John. What? Yeah, we’re both fine, just hanging out. How’s Joan? That’s good.”

Steve’s attention moved slowly, as did his gaze, to a conversation that was one-sided and cryptic. Her eyes widened. She turned. She paced.

“You think we should do what?” Gigi asked into the instrument, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with a rising level of excitement. Enthusiasm seemed to boost the current running through the wire.

“What,” he said. Who is that?” The question fell flat as if inaudible, trivial.

“Join a league? Couples, co-ed. Yeah, I played a little in high school. Steve? No. I don’t think so. Maybe at picnics, or in the backyard with family.”

“What did I do in the backyard?” he asked. Another feckless question, no reply expected or given.

“That sounds just great,” Gigi said with growing excitement. “Where? And it starts in January? That’s next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we can do as couples with friends. OK, great! Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the time and schedule.” She hung up the phone.

“Was that John O’Connor?” Steve asked. “What were you talking about? What league?”

“I just love the idea,” Gigi replied. “Yeah, it was John. You and I, the O’Connors and the Keegan’s are going to play volleyball in a co-ed league. The six of us. We start next month. We’ll play at a north side school. It’s near Sherman on Green Tree Road.”

“Wait a minute,” Steve began. “We’ve never played. We don’t know the game. Do they have strict rules? Are the other teams in the league experienced, talented? How are we going to do that?”

“Ach… don’t worry,” said Gigi. “I played in school, and we’ll learn. We’ll get better. It’ll be great fun. We’ll have exercise, time with friends. It’ll be terrific. I’m really looking forward to this. Aren’t you?”

“Volleyball,” he said, a strong note of apprehension in his tone. “A league,” he continued, a heavy sigh punctuating. And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he might have offered in opposition. But, within the privacy of his thoughts, there was this: “I’m married for, what, four or so months. I’m just getting used to things. Now I’m in a volleyball league. How long will this last. My god, life’s a runaway freight train; it moves along way too fast!”

Despite an inauspicious beginning, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one that would last for 40 years and beyond, began in 1974.

It was in early September of that year. Six novices appeared on a wood-plank floor at the gymnasium of a north side Milwaukee school, some nervous, some calm and confident. They lined up, three in front and three in the back row. They knew that much. The opposition won the first service. The ball was a meteor, something shot from a cannon. One of the six made contact with the ball, palms up, lifting the volleyball a few feet skyward. It dropped to the floor, between front and back rows of players. Even the ball seemed embarrassed.

A shrill whistle wrenched their collective attention from the shock of the serve and its feckless receipt to the referee’s ladder of authority. “Illegal hit,” the referee shouted. She descended, looked at each of the six in turn and asked, “Has any of you ever played volleyball before?” The question was wound in a thread of astonishment.

“Uh, not really. I mean, some of us played a little in high school, but that was a while ago.” The reply came from Gigi.

“Well,” the referee began, with a nod of apology to the opposing team, now standing and staring at the neophytes, arms akimbo, a look of supreme annoyance on their collective expression. “The first thing you should know about league volleyball, and the rules that apply, is that you receive a service with your arms outstretched like this, hands clasped together in some manner.” She demonstrated the “passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they could learn the proper arms and hands configuration. “And when you set the ball to your hitter, you may not catch and throw the ball, but rather… well, let me show you.” She demonstrated the “setting” technique.

None of them recalls that first outing with any sense of joy or satisfaction, as they were destroyed, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to that kind and patient referee, and then to the opposing team members, as they slunk away from the court that first, fateful evening of league volleyball. They may not have scored a single point, unless their opponents made an error. Even that possibility is lost — probably by design — to the element of memory that protects one’s fragile psyche.

“Set Two” — The Birth of “Poet’s Pride”

Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan at a day camp long ago. The four of them — two sets of young brothers — were all close in age, and a lasting friendship between and among them began almost instantly. Little did they know, then, how volleyball would bond their friendship even more tightly.

At 8:00 PM or so the following day, Thursday, the telephone announced its summons, inserting as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. As usual, he remained unmoved. Gigi raced toward the repulsive instrument. “Hullo.”

Gigi’s audible half of the conversation was as usual provocative, causing Steve to lay aside a novel. She began, “Hi Mike. They are? You’re kidding. I didn’t know that. Wow, that’s great. And they’re willing to work with us? Oh, that’s terrific. When? Saturday! Where?”

“Huh?” Steve asked. A rare reaction, not known for laconic discourse.

Returning to the living room, the echoing “Huh” and Steve, Gigi said, “Jimmy and Carol are excellent volleyball players. They’ve been playing league volleyball for years. That’s what Mike called to tell us.”

“Yeah,” Steve responded. What does that mean for us?”

“They’re willing to coach us, teach us how to play, how to bump and set. Drills. We’re meeting them at (a west side Middle School) on Saturday at 11:00 in the morning. The six of us… and Jimmy and Carol of course. This is just great!”

Steve said, “Yeah, but… “

“I’m calling Joan,” said Gigi, as she walked away from his unheeded beginning of a protest, a questioning of any Saturday plans they may have made, obligations. Steve’s mouth remained open, silent and ineffectual, his hand raised, index finger pointing upward, a mime hailing a taxi.

Saturday arrived. Steve and Gigi, having donned shorts and sweat pants, T-shirts and sneakers, motored off to the school, named for a famous poet. There were eight gathered on the floor of the “borrowed” gymnasium. They greeted one another. The women chatted. The men were eager to begin “the lesson,” more so the physical exercise portion of “volleyball camp 101.”

Jimmy seized everyone’s attention without preamble. In a commanding voice he began, “First let me show you the right way to bump-pass a volleyball. You can practice this with each other, or against a wall. It’s a great drill. I suggest you do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here’s how you receive a serve. It’s really important to pass the ball correctly to your setter. Remember, it all begins with the pass. I mean, if you pass the ball correctly to the setter, she, or he, can then set to one of your hitters. If you do it right, if you start with a good pass, the rest flows easily. You’ll score points.”

They drilled, and drilled that first day of practice. They passed to one another, passed against walls to themselves. For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — all became frequent training partners.

Carol was, still is an excellent setter. She demonstrated. “Frame the volleyball like this.” She set to herself, hands just above her head, framing, head tilted toward the ceiling. “In a way you sort of catch the ball using mainly your thumbs, index and middle fingers. Bend your knees slightly when doing this. Your body sort of acts like a torsion spring. Your hands and arms — in one fluid motion — meet the ball and send it up to the hitter. No, no,” she coached, reacting to one who tried the technique poorly. “Flex your wrists like so. They too receive the ball in a kind of spring action, as if catching and passing in the same motion.”

The rest of the novices practiced the technique. Drilling and passing and setting to one another, back and forth, over and over. “OK,” said Carol. Let’s try to play a game. Jimmy and I will stand the six of you.”

“What!” said Steve, reacting in shock amazement. That’s not fair.” It was. They murdered the “new kids,” the two of them, beating them easily, embarrassingly so. “Good god,” Steve said to Gigi and their four partners. “They’re really good. Unbelievable.” Trite, but the only words that seemed able to escape Steve’s flabbergasted brain. “I mean, holy mother of Henry Wadsworth, they beat hell out of us. Just the pair of them!”

The practice sessions went on for weeks, stretching into months on a succession of Saturdays. They practiced and drilled and practiced some more. Eventually, they, the six novices, began to “get it,” to understand and then execute the passing, setting and hitting techniques. And then they practiced the overhand serve, or the underhand or sidearm service, and, of course, receipt of service. They practiced “digging” the ball, or receiving and sending aloft a hard-driven serve, or a hit, spike or kill, the latter term now used most widely in volleyball circles, especially by professional announcers. They all truly wanted to learn how to play, the right way — not like “backyard” hacks who “carry” the ball or receive service with feckless, against-the-rules open-handed lifts — but like “real” volleyball players, Olympians and college varsity players and beach volleyball pros. They never stopped practicing and playing, until — like so many who have fallen in love with the game — all six were hopelessly hooked.

The new team of six continued to play in the Wednesday night league, actually beginning to win matches, not many, but a few. They learned a good deal of trivia about volleyball, the net and the court, its dimensions. The net is about 8-feet high, or to be precise, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for women. The court is approximately 60-feel long, 30-feet wide.

As they began to acquire skill from hours of practice and drilling, their confidence grew, along with a certain level of bravado. They decided to name that first team. Because of the learning experience, and because the school’s name seemed to some of them remarkably obvious, they dubbed themselves, “Poet’s Pride.”

Steve doubted whether the namesake would have been proud; more importantly, they were proud of themselves, a pride of lions ready to challenge rivals and to pursue their quarry relentlessly. They’d become emboldened, fearless, a band of big cats, strong and proud. The new team wanted a symbol of hard-won skill and determination, an emblem of collective pride. “Wait! T-shirts! We have to have team uniforms,” announced John with authority.

Soon they had team jerseys, green and white “uniforms” with the newly adopted name emblazoned on left chest position in white lettering. Each had a number on the back in eight-inch high print, using heat-sealed numerals. They were magnificently attired for battle. Now they not only had the training, the acquired skill, the chutzpah and heart, they had the look. Uniforms, unity of purpose, precision and a keen sense of momentum, a bravado that lasted until the next time they were roundly trounced by an opposing team.

The team that vanquished theirs, on one memorable occasion contained a remarkable oddity. All were aware of it, but it was Steve, always bright and observant, who was willing to give voice to his team’s collective astonishment. He discretely pointed out the anomalous individual. “See that guy? His name is Milan, I think. Do you know how old he is?”

“Uh, no,” John replied. “But he’s certainly a heckuva lot older than the rest of us.”

“He’s in his mid-forties,” Steve continued.

“Come on,” said John. “I mean, he looks a lot older than us, but mid-forties. Can someone that old really still play league volleyball. I mean, he’s their best player. He’s exceptional. What a hitter!”

“He’s about 46,” said Steve. “That’s what one of his teammates told me.”

“Holy jumpin’ up and down,” said John. “That’s incredible. Do you think we’ll still be capable of playing volleyball at his age? I mean, that guy plays like he’s 26, not 46. Good god!”

Steve pulled a quizzical face, shrugged and shook his head. “Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and admire that “old man,” perhaps the best player either of them had ever seen, live and in person. And he and his team had just beaten Steve’s team flat, making it look way too easy.

But then, in the following week’s match, “Poet’s Pride” rebounded. They regained confidence, momentum and the winning side of the ledger. Such is the up and down, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it didn’t matter as much as playing, getting better, gaining experience. In the end, of course, to most who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they began to win championships. And they won lots of them, along with useless trophies, eventually replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and far more desirable symbol of volleyball achievement. None of them recalled or even cared about the win / loss record of that first pivotal season. It launched most of them — some of them — into a lifelong love affair, an innamorata, a secondary love perhaps, but real, enduring and consuming.

“Set Three” — “Sand and Storm”

Not content with indoor volleyball, exclusively, usually played on hardwood courts, the newly formed team of six decided to venture into spring / summer sessions, outdoor court play, and eventually onto the sand of “beach volleyball,” well, to be accurate, sand volleyball, as most courts available for league play were — and are increasingly today — in rear or side enclosures of tavern and bar properties. It began in the Summer of 1975. Gigi was pregnant with her first child.

Amusingly illustrative of her growing passion for the sport, Gigi had asked her pediatrician, “Can I play volleyball without jeopardizing my baby in the first trimester? What about the second? The third? Can I dive onto the court for hard-hit spikes?” The doctor, while judicious in his advice, in the end gave in to Gigis demand for truthful answers and compromise.

“Just be cautious,” said Dr. Ken. “Do what your body tells you to do.” Gigi continued to play until a week before she delivered the couple’s first-born child, a daughter. Their teammates bought their newborn daughter a tiny T-shirt. It was green and white, and imprinted on the left side of the front were the words, “Poet’s Pride.”

Prior to their devotion to sand-court volleyball, in the spring and summer seasons of 1975, “Poet’s Pride” played on green grass and on asphalt-paved city park playground courts. In one of their outdoor park seasons, teammate, John, caught an out-of-bounds hit by the opposition, simultaneously shouting, “Time!” They were locked in a tie, but the timed session was running short, and John thought his team could re-group and perhaps win that season-ending championship game. The thing was, however, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any contact of that nature results in a point for the opposing team.

“Point,” the referee shouted. The game and the championship were lost in that instance. Deflated but ever optimistic, Steve’s team resolved to learn by their mistakes. “There’s always next season.” The words were spoken with faint confidence and without much enthusiasm by a few of the six as they retreated from the court, heads bowed and shaking in disbelief.

As summer surrendered to fall and fall to the invasive chill of winter, the prideful band of ever-improving volleyball combatants played at a variety of venues, high school and middle school gymnasiums — including one that was part of a religious order’s facilities in suburban St. Francis — grade school gyms, anyplace that was devoted on a weekday evening to league play. They even played in an indoor sand facility, built specifically for co-ed team volleyball. Wherever league play and obsession beckoned, they’d enjoy the usual three game set, and then repair to a sponsor’s tavern or a sponsoring facility’s bar for post-game drinks and seemingly endless conversation about the evening’s play, teams and the skill, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were analytical and philosophical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not actually “their lives,” at least a significant and key element of those lives. And volleyball — it was Gigi who first observed the obvious — “is like life itself. A metaphor for life. A microcosm of the human experience.”

As if calculated to prove the assertion, teammates would come and go. Some lost interest and dropped out of the sport. Partners, husbands and wives split up and eventually divorced. Fellow players with whom Steve and Gigi developed friendships came and went, moved away or disappeared from their spheres of consciousness.

Personalities in volleyball are as diverse as the teams and individual players themselves. Fond of them as Steve especially was — certainly more than most — nicknames were attached to certain players and their idiosyncratic behaviors. John, the original catalyst to begin playing the grand game, was a lefty, became an excellent hitter, or master of the “kill,” and thus was dubbed, “Captain Southwind.” “Florence of Arabia” was famous for her dramatic dives onto sand courts in her valiant efforts to dig hard-hit spikes, creating small sand storms as she landed and then rose up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had huge feet and was continuously imperiling opponents. He would leap, land unceremoniously and regularly commit “foot fouls,” sometimes wounding ankles and feet in the process, causing opposing players to howl in pain and issue loud, often obscene protestations.

“Did you see that?” Someone would call time and launch a harangue at the referee. “He might have broken my foot. Didn’t you see that? Pay attention to the (expletive deleted) game, fer crying out loud!” Referees, like the players themselves, were sometimes well trained and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or mediocre and occasionally downright inept. Needless, perhaps, to add, player protests and complaints would frequently assault the ears of patient referees, and quite often players would be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the game.

Steve and Gigi’s participation has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a great variety of teammates and fellow enthusiasts. After some 20 years, or so, into their team volleyball experience, having gained and lost their original and many subsequent teammates, they eventually reunited with their mentors, their original “teachers,” Jimmy and Carol.

Gigi and Steve encountered Carol at a social function, perhaps at a coffee shop, might have been a grocery store. “Are you two still playing volleyball?” Carol asked.

Gigi replied. “We’ll play until we’re can’t play any longer.”

“Maybe ’til we’re dead,” Steve added, aiming for a touch of comic drama.

“Jimmy and I would love to have you two join us, as a team, the four of us,” Carol said. “What do you think?”

As if a pair of stereo speakers, obnoxious twins doing a gum commercial, they replied almost in unison, “We’d love to. We’re in! Where, when?… “

“Set Four” — Four Decades and Counting

In Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1994, there was a facility built almost exclusively for volleyball and the co-ed league play phenomenon that it had become in the late 1980s, into and throughout the decade of the 90s, and well beyond, of course. That fine sports complex was a comparatively long drive for the four newly reunited teammates, but they’d share the driving duty, each couple alternating weeks. They began their “four-pack” experience shortly after the volleyball venue in Waukesha opened its doors.

They were four players in a six-person league. The center contained six full volleyball courts; it was and remains an excellent facility. The floors were made of a “forgiving” rubberized material, easy on the knees, easy on aging bodies diving to dig “kills” delivered by talented opponents. The four-person team won, perhaps, eight of ten championship rounds in as many seasons or sessions of play. The four of them had “aged gracefully” into the great sport. If they had lost a bit of speed and quickness, they made up for it in “smart play.” Jimmy was perhaps the best placement hitter among legions of fellow players, in fact among the best many players had ever seen, and many remarked on it with incredulity. He was the master of the “long dink,” a method of sending the ball to the far opposite side or corner of the court, an “uncovered” space. Carol and Gigi were and continue to be excellent setters, good occasional hitters and adept at defense, placement and “drop shots.” Steve was and still is a competent defensive and back row player, and a consistently competent hitter.

Within a short span of time during its history, the volleyball center in Waukesha added an enclave of sand courts in its “backyard,” and the four-person team won summer-league championships on that venue as well. They frustrated opponents, many if not most of them half their age at the time. They’d be warming up, passing, setting and spiking the ball to one another as opponents appeared on the court. The four “more seasoned” players could see, and often hear younger opponents snickering, commenting without pretense or disguise.

“My god,” one would begin, “look how old those guys are. Is that their whole team? This won’t take long.” And they’d grin and snicker and chortle into cupped hands.

After the four beat their “six-pack” opponents handily, opinions, expressions of surprise and post-match banter were often remarkably similar. Too polite, on most occasions, to question ages directly, they’d invariably ask, “How many years have you guys been playing?” Or, “How long have the four of you been together, I mean, playing volleyball as a team?”

And like experienced, aging warriors, with dignity and aplomb, the four would answer their questions respectfully, even paying compliments, as elder states-persons or teachers might offer to young students or callow youths who have come into newly acquired knowledge with a sense of wonder and astonishment. A secondary aim was to keep the younger players interested, motivated and encouraged to improve their skills.

Gigi is now 68 years old. Carol has surpassed 70. They have a good friend and fellow volleyball player, Gene, who is 70-years-old. Gene is master of the “pancake dig,” a method of diving flat for a spike and getting a hand under the ball just as it reaches the floor, causing the ball to pop up, ideally, to the setter. Abie is in his late sixties. Many of their current, fellow players are in their late thirties or early to mid-forties. Many are younger, twenty-somethings. At 72, Steve says he hopes to play “until I’m dead, or very nearly there.”

Jimmy and Carol, Steve and Gigi ended their four-person team and league play at the end of the 2008, perhaps it was 2009. It was their final sand-court season at a tavern in the commercial heart of Milwaukee’s “River West” neighborhood. That team experience ended for varied reasons, but they all still talk about their “seasons in the sun,” their championships on sand.

Gigi and Steve haven’t given up the sport, not by any stretch, but found, not another league, rather a “co-ed volleyball recreation program” for adults. The program is sponsored by the a suburban recreation department, an adjunct of the community’s school district. Gigi, Steve and Carol are, as far as they know, the only three active players among their original cadre of fellow volleyball devotees. As with heavy sweaters on a warming spring day, they shrug off the admonitions of those who suggest, “You’re all nuts for continuing to play league volleyball at your age.”

Each reply to those who question their sanity is usually remarkably similar: “If I feel good, if my body responds to the physical demands of volleyball, why should I quit playing? If I’m still able to compete with the younger players, there’s no reason to quit. I’ll play until I’m physically unable to receive and pass, set, dig a hard-hit kill attempt and hit the ball with some authority over the net… “

Many — the truly seasoned players who are also avid spectators — understand the game’s finer points, such as the basic 4-2 serve – receive system or rotation, or the 5-1 rotation normally found in college volleyball. Their current corps of players, however, eschews the more sophisticated systems and concerns itself, with a simplified discussion over whether to play “center up” or “center back,” meaning the court position of the number two player, back row center, and that player’s responsibility for “kills” or well-placed long shots. At Steve’s age, at this juncture in his “volleyball career,” he just wants to play well enough, skillfully enough to give the opposition a competitive contest.

On his 70th birthday, he played in his usual Monday night volleyball session. Many fellow players noted that Gigi executed a spectacular dive to dig the opposition’s kill, Carol hit the floor with a dig and a roll. Both regained their feet in time for the next play. They’re 68 and 71 respectively. Remarkable! On that very occasion, a group of young spectators witnessed the game. With shocked looks, their hands flew to their faces. “Are you OK? Are you hurt?” Gigi is almost offended by such reactions to her “floor dives.”

“I wouldn’t be playing competitive volleyball if I couldn’t dive for a kill,” she says in response.

As for Steve, he dove, rolled, scored a few kills himself, dug a number of attempted kills, served a few aces and otherwise played a respectable game. His teammates feted Steve with a happy birthday song, a card and, of course, cake, homemade cake, decorated in a volleyball motif. “What a perfect way,” he remarked, “to gain entry through the septuagenarian gate.” Steve has always been rather poetic.

After passing through that gate and playing rigorous volleyball for two solid hours on a Monday evening — a session that begins after 7:45 PM! — he strutted like a proud young rooster out to the high school’s parking lot and into his car for the drive home. But shortly after climbing in, out of sight and earshot of his fellows and driving homeward, he groaned from the aches and pains of the session’s combat, then as soon as he hit the door of his home and was able to wrestle the cap off the bottle, swallowed three ibuprofen! A weekly and quite necessary ritual.

In many ways, volleyball is its own ritual, a kind of religion to those still obsessed, even after 40 years. Through it and their history as avid participants — not only as players but as spectators of college, beach and Olympic volleyball — Steve and Gigi have enjoyed its various stages of evolution, made lasting friendships, reveled in its society and its camaraderie and benefitted enormously from its health-enhancing, vigorous exercise. Quit? Not yet. their new goal, they state emphatically, is to play until Gigi reaches age 70. “After that, who can say? Eighty? Eighty-five? Stay tuned. Maybe we’ll start a blog, perhaps film a documentary,” says Steve. The obsession continues to hold and enthrall, and will, the two insist, “until something unexpected comes along and breaks the spell.”

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