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On South Mission Beach, Transplants Find Their Footing

The city's beach volleyball courts have become a place for out-of-state and international residents to call home
San Diego locals playing volleyball at the Mission Beach volleyball courts
Photo Credit: Ariana Drehsler

South of Crystal Pier, past the Mission Beach Lifeguard Tower, are a dozen or so beach volleyball courts. Like moths to a flame, people descend here whenever the sun is out, leaving behind their jobs, responsibilities, and shoes. The scene can be intimidating to newcomers. The posted rules employ finer print than a credit card application, and participants zone in on the action, their backs turned to curious spectators.

That is, until they need a player.

“One of our friends bailed,” Matthew Holmes says in my direction. “Want to play?”

When I meet him, Holmes, a three-year Little Italy resident by way of the Bay Area, is waiting for the first game of an unofficial tournament. The prize: a gold trophy ordered from the internet.

While it wasn’t my intention to play, I stretch for 20 seconds before jumping in. The allure of that trophy is too great to pass up.

San Diego locals playing volleyball at the Mission Beach volleyball courts
Photo Credit: Ariana Drehsler | Pictured: Ben Schiesl

People have been playing volleyball, of course, long before the advent of Amazon—but not as long as you might think. It’s believed the sport was born in Hawai‘i in 1915. Southern California imported the game shortly after. As the first club teams were forming in Santa Monica, sugar tycoon John D. Spreckels was developing Mission Beach.

After World War II, the city began transforming Mission Bay from a tidal marsh into a recreational park. Volleyball nets were installed on South Mission Beach in the 1960s. In 1974, the city hosted its first-ever commercially sponsored beach volleyball tournament.

Today, sand courts are on all the beaches, bays, and parks. They are on military installations (one needs base privileges to faithfully reenact the iconic Top Gun montage), as well as high school and college campuses. Sure, surfing and skating are the sports most often associated with San Diego, but beach volleyball is arguably more representative of it. A ball, a net, and a beach are accessible in ways board sports aren’t. Especially for those of us who are getting older.

Photo Credit: Ariana Drehsler | Pictured: Ken Ekanem (left) and Harrison Jackson (right)

At South Mission Beach, I’m thrown into my first game, a four-versus-four affair. The only time I spent playing beach volleyball was at family reunions back home in New Jersey, so I’m rusty. Twice, I lose the ball in the sun, and it lands gently beside me each time. Two knocks against my pride, two points for the other team. One of my serves lands 20 yards wide of the court. A third knock. I pull a butt muscle. We lose, but, still, my teammates offer high fives and polite tips.

Between games, Holmes cracks jokes with our teammates and points out Matt Wilson, the tournament’s organizer. Wilson is also new to San Diego, having moved to Pacific Beach only a year ago, but he looks the part nonetheless: windblown hair, well-worn athletic clothes, sunglasses-shaped pale circles around his eyes.

He had connected with the tournament’s crowd through a text thread. “We have about 40 people,” Wilson says of the different chats he’s on. Ahead of a free weekend, he’ll raise the bat signal, and his friends answer the call. Many of them bring their own friends to the beach, who then get added to the chat. The group that day is mixed-gender, multiracial, and full of young professionals who welcome this out-of-shape 33-year-old.

“Two of them are native San Diegans,” Wilson says of his growing roster. “It’s great to have a sober activity to bring new people together.”

Photo Credit: Ariana Drehsler

The sport’s camaraderie extends all the way to the professional level. “Some of my best friends [are people] I met through beach volleyball,” says Kendra Dahlke, a Fallbrook native and outside hitter for the San Diego Mojo, the city’s indoor women’s volleyball team. She says the beach volleyball scene in San Diego is much better than it used to be.

The scene does seem to be thriving. It’s fun, maybe even welcoming. Although it would help if I was up to speed. My second game is more competitive—I have a chance to tie it late. Jumping the few inches I can to block a spike, I tip the ball straight into the air. Not knowing I could hit it again, I let it drop on our side of the sand. Game over. Our team is eliminated, but I receive more encouragement. They say they couldn’t have even played without me. A highest compliment.

After the game, I ask Holmes if there’s a volleyball scene back home in the Bay Area. “Not like this,” he says. I believe him. Though I limp off the beach, I feel buoyant, refreshed. I imagine this is what players feel each week, and why South Mission’s courts will always be a place for them to call home.

By Brendan Dentino

Brendan Dentino is a U.S. Navy veteran, writer, and public servant based in San Diego. He writes weekly about baseball and politics at Out in Left.

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