Aspen’s unofficial sport: beach volleyball
The Aspen Times
The transition from ski bum to beach bum is an easy one. And the evidence is at Koch Park, where on any given evening, you can discover one of Aspen’s most popular summer pursuits: beach volleyball.
“I was waiting for the snow to melt this spring,” Pete Mullery, 26, said of his anticipation for the season. “I was checking the courts every day.”
A snowboarder who works for Aspen Skiing Co., Mullery recalled his first time at Koch Park. The most surprising thing, he said, was the welcoming atmosphere.
“That’s what’s great about this place,” said Dan Dolinskas, 27, a volleyball coach at Aspen High School and a Koch regular. “You come out and just pick up somebody and get to meet all kinds of new people. And nothing’s riding on it. … You play and move on and keep having fun.”
Mullery said it was little embarrassing starting out because his skill set was nowhere near where it needed to be. But by the end of his first summer, he was playing at Koch almost every day (he logged 28 days in August). The progression from 2012 to 2013, he said, was huge.
“Last year, at the beginning of the year, we were running around just trying to save balls,” he said of himself and his regular partner. “And this year, we’re actually putting balls where we want to. It’s a totally different game that we’re playing.”
And then there are the days when Mullery runs into Agie Gonzalez, a player he described as the “court guru.”
“He’s competitive,” Mullery said. “He’ll beat your ass, but then he’ll joke around with you afterward.”
Gonzalez, 56, has been playing at Koch since 1995, when he moved to Aspen from Mexico. When he got here, he didn’t know anybody, but volleyball helped change that.
“That’s how I got to meet all the people in town — because of volleyball,” said Gonzalez, who, a year after moving to Aspen, won the doubles B division at King of the Mountain in Vail.
Dolinskas echoed Gonzalez’s sentiment, saying it’s more a social experience than anything else, something he attributes to the sport’s laid-back, beach-town attitude.
“You get a chance to laugh about the last point and give high-fives, catch your breath and get back into it,” he said. “So, yeah, it’s a little bit more social than a soccer game or something like that.”
In 1973, the first MotherLode Volleyball Classic was held in Aspen. It was a one-day event, with 14 teams competing on grass in Wagner Park. Today, it’s a six-day event with 600 teams competing from all over the country, making it one of the largest tournaments in the U.S. Leon Fell, producer of the MotherLode since 1981 and a major reason for the tournament’s growth, estimates that it brings between 3,000 and 4,500 people into town every August.
“It is so unique to have one of North America’s largest beach volleyball tournaments held in the central part of the country,” Fell said, adding that its roots can be traced back to the 1960s, when many transplants were moving to Aspen from Southern California, where the game originated in the 1920s.
“Those people were never hesitant to take somebody underneath their wing and teach them the sport that they loved,” Fell said.
By 1975, he estimates, there were about 30 people playing regularly at Willoughby Park, which was known affectionately as “Aspen State Beach.” Add in youth camps in the 1980s, and it became increasingly clear that Aspen needed more room for this growing sport. So Fell and Andy Hanson, who played at San Diego State and helped organize the MotherLode from 1975 until the early 2000s, lobbied for more courts. In the early ’90s, Koch Lumber Park was built.
As interest in the MotherLode has risen, so has the talent level. Last year, Aspen drew Olympians Martin Reader and Josh Binstock, of Team Canada, who competed at Koch in the men’s open division.
Dolinskas said of watching the Olympians: “It’s cool to see the whole town get excited for volleyball and to come watch the finals and see the pros play on these courts that we’re at all summer long.”
Voted the No. 1 pro-am tournament in the country by Volleyball Magazine, the MotherLode is adding an extra day this year, along with two additional divisions: men’s 55-over and women’s 45-over. Gonzalez plans to compete in the 45-over division, while Mullery will play in the B division.
Just like winter sports, Fell said, interest in volleyball can be a little dormant in the offseason.
“But I think it’s coming out of that right now,” he said. “And it’s kind of, once again, turning into a very active part of the Aspen summer scene.”
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