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

Sport, Volleyball, Girl, Nature

For seasoned athletes, in spite of age and a relentless clock, the imperative is to stay the program. 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 comparative ease and comfort, it is possible to play with until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it really is a sport for the ages! The game of the high internet, a remarkably fine, vigorous and competitive sport, when played well, when played with the rules. The uninitiated need only watch college volleyball or professional shore 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 proceeds to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it’s a type of obsession, and one that has continued unabated for over 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 started at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a present between extremes, it appears always to race between foreboding and optimistic expectation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with enthusiasm, roped in, initially by the idea, but in the long term, consumed by the game itself, obsessed.

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

“Yes, hullo!”

Steve paid no attention initially, irritated by the instrument’s persistence, its capability to interrupt.

What? How’s Joan? That is good.”

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

Gigi asked into the tool, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with an increasing level of excitement. Enthusiasm appeared to improve the current running through the wire.

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

“Join a league? Steve? No. 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.

“Where? And it starts in January? That’s next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we could do as couples with friends. Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the schedule and time.”

Steve asked. “What were you talking about?

“I just love the idea,” Gigi responded. “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 people. 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 have never played. We don’t understand the game. Do they have strict rules? Are the other teams in the league seasoned, talented?

“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 is going to be terrific. I’m really excited about this. Aren’t you?”

“A league,” he continued, a heavy sigh punctuating. And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he may have offered in opposition. But, within the solitude of his thoughts, there was this:”I’m married for, what, four or so months. I am 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 start, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one which would last for 40 years and beyond, started 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 college, some nervous, some serene and positive. They understood 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 ground, between front and rear rows of players. Even the ball seemed embarrassed.

A shrill whistle wrenched their collective focus from the shock of the serve and its feckless receipt to the referee’s ladder of authority. “Illegal hit,” the referee shouted. The question was wound in a thread of astonishment.

I mean, some of us played a little in high school, but that was some time ago.” The answer 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 in their collective expression. “The first thing you need to know about league volleyball, as well as the rules that apply, is you get a service with your arms outstretched like this, hands clasped together in some fashion.” She demonstrated the”passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they might learn the proper arms and hands configuration. “And when you put the ball to your hitter, you may not catch and throw the ball, but rather… well, let me show you.”

Not one of them remembers that first outing with any feeling of joy or satisfaction, since they were destroyed, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to that kind and patient referee, 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 chance is lost — probably by design — to the element of memory that protects one’s fragile psyche.

Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan in 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 next day, Thursday, the phone announced its summons, adding as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. Gigi raced toward the repulsive instrument.

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

Steve asked. A rare response, 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 ages. That is what Mike called to tell us.”

“Yeah,” Steve responded.

“They’re prepared 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 people… 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 start of a demonstration, a questioning of any Saturday plans they may have made, obligations. Steve’s mouth stayed open, quiet and ineffectual, his hands raised, index finger pointing upwards, 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 assembled on the ground of the”borrowed” gymnasium. They greeted one another. The women chatted. The men were excited to start”the lesson,” more so the bodily exercise part of”volleyball camp 101.”

Jimmy captured everyone’s attention without preamble. In a commanding voice he began,”First let me show you the ideal way to bump-pass a volleyball. You can practice this with one another, or against a wall. It’s a great drill. I suggest you do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here is how you receive a serve. It is really important to pass the ball correctly to your setter. Remember, it all starts with the pass. I mean, if you pass the ball correctly into the setter, she, or he, can then set to one of your hitters. If you do it right, if you start with a fantastic 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 . For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — all became frequent training partners.

Carol was, nevertheless is an exceptional 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 with mainly your thumbs, index and middle fingers. Bend your knees slightly when doing this. Your body type of acts like a torsion spring. Your hands and arms — in one fluid movement — match the ball and send it up to the hitter. No, no,” she coached, reacting to one who tried the technique badly. “Flex your wrists like this. They too receive the ball in a kind of spring action, as if passing and catching in the same motion.”

The remaining 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’ll stand the six of you.”

“What!” Said Steve, reacting in shock amazement. That’s not fair.” It was. They murdered the”new children,” the two of them, beating them easily, embarrassingly so. “They’re really great. 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 months, stretching into months on a succession of Saturdays. They practiced and practiced and drilled some more. Finally, they, the six novices, began to”get it,” to comprehend and then implement the passing, setting and hitting techniques. And 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 function, or a hitspike or kill, the latter term currently used most widely in volleyball circles, especially by professional announcers. They truly wanted to learn how to perform, 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, really beginning to win matches, not a lot, but a few. They learned a whole lot of trivia about volleyball, the net and the court, its measurements. The net is all about 8-feet high, or to be exact, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for girls. The court is roughly 60-feel long, 30-feet broad.

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

Steve doubted whether the namesake would have been proud; more importantly, they were proud of these, a pride of lions ready to challenge rivals and to pursue their quarry relentlessly. They would become emboldened, fearless, a band of big cats, powerful and proud. The team wanted a symbol of hard-won dedication and skill, an emblem of collective pride. “Wait! T-shirts! We have to have team uniforms,” declared John with authority.

Soon they’d team jerseys, white and green”uniforms” with the recently adopted name emblazoned on left chest place in white lettering. They were beautifully attired for conflict. They not only had the training, the acquired ability, the chutzpah and heart, they had the appearance. 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 group 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 had been ready to give voice to his team’s collective astonishment. He discretely pointed out the anomalous individual. “See that guy? His name is Milan, I believe.

“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.

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

“That’s outstanding. 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. Very good god!”

“Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and respect that”old guy,” possibly 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, which makes 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 down and up, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it did not matter as much as playing, becoming better, gaining experience. In the long run, of course, to most who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they began to win championships. And they won a lot of these, together with useless decorations, finally replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and a lot more desirable sign of volleyball achievement. None of them remembered or even cared about the win / loss record of that first pivotal season. It launched most of these — some of them — into a lifelong love affair, an innamorata, a secondary love perhaps, but real, enduring and consuming.

“Set Three” –“Sand and Unusual”

Not satisfied 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 true, sand volleyball, because most courts available for league play were — and are increasingly now — in back or side enclosures of tavern and pub properties. It began in the Summer of 1975. Gigi was pregnant with her first child.

Amusingly illustrative of her growing passion for the game, 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 on the court for hard-hit spikes?” The doctor, while judicious in his guidance, ultimately gave in to Gigis demand for honest 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 girl. Their teammates purchased their newborn daughter a very small T-shirt. It was green and white, and imprinted on the left side of the front were the words,”Poet’s Pride.”

In one of their outside playground seasons, teammate, John, captured an out-of-bounds hit by the resistance, simultaneously shouting,”Time!” They had been locked in a tie, but the timed session was running short, and John thought his team could re-group and win that season-ending championship game. The thing was, nevertheless, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any contact of the character causes a point for the opposing team.

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

As summer surrendered to collapse and fall into the invasive chill of winter, the prideful band of ever-improving volleyball combatants played in many different places, 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, constructed specifically for co-ed team volleyball. Wherever league play and obsession beckoned, they would enjoy the usual three game set, and then repair to a sponsor’s tavern or a sponsoring centre’s bar for post-game beverages and seemingly endless conversation about the evening’s play, teams and the ability, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were philosophical and analytical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not really”their lives,” at least a significant and crucial element of those lives. And volleyball — it was Gigi who first observed the obvious –“is like life itself.

As if calculated to prove the assertion, teammates would come and go. Some lost interest and dropped out of the game. Partners, wives and husbands split up and eventually divorced.

Personalities in volleyball are as varied 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 first catalyst to start playing the grand game, was a lefty, became an excellent hitter, or master of the”kill,” and consequently 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, producing little sand storms as she landed and then rose up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had huge feet and was continuously imperiling opponents. He would jump, land unceremoniously and frequently commit”foot fouls,” sometimes wounding feet and ankles 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 start 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 , were occasionally well educated and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or fair and occasionally downright inept. Needless, perhaps, to include, player protests and complaints would frequently assault the ears of individual referees, and quite frequently players would be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the match.

Steve and Gigi’s participation has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a great variety of teammates and fellow fans. After some 20 years, or so, into their team volleyball experience, having gained and lost their original and lots of subsequent teammates, they finally reunited with their teachers, 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 will play until we are can not play any longer.”

“Maybe’til we are dead,” Steve added, aiming to get a little comic drama.

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

Like a set of stereo speakers, obnoxious twins doing a gum commercial, they replied almost in unison,”We’d really like to. Where, when? … ”

In Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1994, there was a facility constructed almost exclusively for volleyball and the co-ed league play happening that it had become in the late 1980s, into and during the decade of the 90s, and well beyond, obviously. That fine sports complex was a comparatively long drive for the four newly reunited teammates, but they would share the driving duty, each couple alternating months. 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 exceptional facility. The floors were made of a”forgiving” rubberized material, easy on the knees, simple on aging bodies diving to dig”kills” delivered by talented opponents. The four-person team won, perhaps, eight of ten championship rounds as many seasons or seasons of play. The four of them had”aged gracefully” into the terrific sport. If they’d lost a bit of speed and quickness, they made up for it in”smart play” Jimmy was possibly the best positioning hitter among legions of fellow players, in fact one of the best many players had ever seen, and many commented on it with incredulity. He had been the master of the”long dink,” a method of sending the ball to the other hand or corner of the court, an”uncovered” space. Carol and Gigi were and continue to be excellent setters, good occasional hitters and adept at protection, placement and”drop shots.” Steve was and is a competent defensive and back row player, and a consistently competent hitter.

Within a brief period of time through 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 this venue also. They frustrated opponents, many if not most of them half of their age at the moment. They would be warming up, passing, setting and spiking the ball to one another as opponents appeared on the court. The four”more seasoned” players can see, and often hear younger competitors snickering, commenting without pretense or disguise.

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

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

And like seasoned, aging warriors, with dignity and aplomb, the four would answer their questions respectfully, even paying compliments, as elder states-persons or teachers may 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. They have a good friend and fellow volleyball player, Gene, who’s 70-years-old. Gene is master of the”pancake dig” a technique of diving flat for a spike and getting a hand under the ball as it reaches the floor, causing the ball to pop up, ideally, to the setter. Abie is in his late twenties. Many of their present, fellow players are in their late thirties or early to mid-forties. Many are younger, twenty-somethings. In 72, Steve says that 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 in a tavern in the commercial center of Milwaukee’s”River West” neighborhood. That team experience ended for diverse reasons, but they 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. Gigi, Steve and Carol are, as far as they know, the only three active players one of their original cadre of fellow volleyball devotees. Much like heavy sweaters on a heating spring afternoon, they shrug off the admonitions of those who suggest,”You’re all nuts for continuing to play with league volleyball at your age.”

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

Many — the truly seasoned players who are also avid audiences — comprehend the game’s finer points, such as the fundamental 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 courtroom position of the number two player, back row center, and that player’s responsibility for”kills” or well-placed long shots. In 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 his usual Monday night volleyball session. Many fellow players noted that Gigi implemented a spectacular dive to dig the resistance’s kill, Carol hit the floor with a dig and a roll. Both regained their feet in time for another play. They are 68 and 71 respectively. Remarkable! On that very occasion, a group of young audiences witnessed the game. With shocked looks, their hands flew to their faces. “Are you OK? Are you hurt?” Gigi is almost offended by such responses to her”floor ”

“I would not 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 match. 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 starts 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 battle, then when he hit the door of his home and was able to wrestle the cap off the bottle, swallowed three aspirin! A weekly and very necessary ritual.

In many ways, volleyball is its own ritual, a type 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 faculty, beach and Olympic volleyball — Steve and Gigi have enjoyed its various stages of evolution, made lasting friendships, reveled in its own culture and its camaraderie and benefitted enormously from its health-enhancing, vigorous exercise. Quit? Not yet. Their new purpose, they say , is to play until Gigi reaches age 70. “Then, who can say? Eighty? Eighty-five? Stay tuned. Maybe we’ll begin a blog, possibly 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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