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Mar 07 Beachroots Volleyball in Vanuatu

July 09, 2009, 1:38 p.m. (ET)

 I have come back to where my grandfather, father and a guy named James Michener once travelled and worked.  My grandfather John Fitzgerald, based out of the Tahiti, fighting to eradicate the dreaded Elephantiasis disease from all the thousands of islands, for the World Health Organization and as a parasitologist from UCLA. France gave him the French Legion of Honor medal, their highest award for the work he did. My dad John Delbert, was a captain in the Navy and this was his theater for World War II for his ship.  I remember one story that upset him greatly of how two Dutch ships left the convoy in the harbor where I now am today, in hurry to get to their final destination, only to both be sunk by enemy submarines just hours after departing. He had made good friends with the Dutch as the battle to bond IMPACT manual line so well states.  Author James Michener wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales of the South Pacific in this very town and island I am now working at myself.  

In his book Sports in America, written in 1976, Michener writes about our sport...

In the final three chapters of this book I have been preoccupied with money and violence, and I apologize.  I seem to have lost sight of my preeminent criterion,  that sports should be fun, but it has never been far from my mind.  I should now like to conclude with several short examples of the delight one can find in the sublime nonsense of games.  These are the highlights in a lifetime of following sports:

Hilarity.  The most sheer fun I ever had in sports was playing volleyball, a game I commend highly.  I understand that an effort is under way to establish a national league of professional volleyball teams, and if you have ever seen the great women's teams of Japan and Russia or the equally good men's teams of Cuba or East Germany, you know how exciting this playground game, which requires so little equipment, can be.

I had learned volleyball in the navy, where all the captains and admirals wanted to be spikers, and I found then that a man who can subdue his own desires and master the art of serving others can make himself invaluable.  In choosing sides, the team captain always chose the good spikers on the first and second choice, but then the spikers would grab his arm and whisper, 'Take Michener.'  I was never chosen lower than third, because I was needed. I wasn't good, but I was faithful.

So you know why I take some of my precious vacation days from work, to come to this area and ...well work, for it is part of my heritage, to help these island nations, far from the mountains of Colorado and away from my kids. Two years ago for an FIVB course, I was able to bring both Cody and McKenzie along to Fiji, where I worked 10 days of the 11, while they adventured - going to school, working on a ranch, attending the National HS Track and Field Championships and one day even snorkeling with dear old dad on my one day off.  McKenzie said on the flight back, Dad, it did not feel like we were tourists there, it was like we lived there, a nice observation to hear.

This journey took 35 hours, and five flights, on Air New Zealand, Air Fiji and Air Vanuatu - final leg  on an old 16 passenger Twin Otter, bouncing through the rain clouds - for it is the start of winter here. I traveled most the journey with Ivan, an Irish dairy farmer who I met in Los Angeles, who happened to be making the same long journey to the same town, but in his case, to get on a yacht there and sail away for 3 weeks of vacation. I learned a lot about dairy farming...

Vanuatu, formerly known as New Hebrides, is a nation of 183 islands and 110 different dialects, spread among the five provinces - each with their own culture.  Volleyball and Football are the two biggest sports here, and I am working with Sarah from New Zealand who does a large Women in Sport project, with FIFA support, to see if we can make beach soccer and beach volleyball courts cooperatively.  Espritu Santo, the town/island I am based at has wide roads, complements of the US Armed Forces from 60 years ago. It is known for its great peanuts (served on the root as they come out of the ground) and mandarin oranges. Families must pay for their kids to go to school, and there is a key continue/stop education test given in the 6th grade. With80% being rural, public schools are not common, only found in the larger cities. Average monthly wage is $200, but there are no taxes here, so this is a tax haven for many wealthy, as well as unscrupulous folks from around the world. I am told some 200 Australian Tax police base here, looking to find tax cheats just from their nation. Their national language is a form of phonetic Pidgin English and French . Let me give you a couple of examples from the volleyball book we are using

To  show how beach volleyball does not allow open handed tipping they write "You no allow pushum bol long finga"  or for the rule of not setting the serve they will read "Yu no save setem wan serve"  It is not something I can understand too well when they speak fast, but as you can see, reading it makes general sense.  

So what I would propose to all still with me, is to enhance the leave a ball behind program, extending it to Regional Teams ending their season at the RVA Regionals, with each RVA "Adopting" an FIVB nation like Vanuatu - and sending their collection of used, and hopefully good luck signed, volleyballs to the National Federation.  The need for volleyballs is the #1 and #2 need....they can make courts, make nets, and play with passion and skill, but the "pikinini" - the kids - need a ball to play. Here, Debbie, the Secretary General of the Beach Volleyball Federation, a former player from Darwin, NT in Australia, has spent the last five years of her life working to grow the game.  She knows some Americans who come here often, and in this case, if we just ship the balls to her friends in California, they will bring them the rest of the way. So seems to me to be a good way to inexpensively impact the sport in a hugely positive way in these nations.

The former head of Vanuatu volleyball was former MLB player Troy Neel, who played mostly in Japan, then moved here and made some good things happen I am told. They did a raffle to win a kit house, that still sits on the beach training courts area  in Port Vila - which is just a hop over the wall from the national prison. His passport ran out and   "Went down the gurgler..." as the Aussies say.  His new situation can be found here  http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4150634

William, the head of VVF is here administrating the course and translating at times when the ideas or science gets a bit too multisyllabic and confusing. While power here is 240V, I was pleased to see that my projector works, so we are showing them some great Beijing Olympic footage. When I asked the group how many had access to email, nobody did, let alone a computer, or a TV....so these images are all new - they read the paper and knew we had done well in Beijing, but that was all they had seen.

First full day of the course and what do we get? A full day of rain, including rainbows at time, but sometimes raining so hard it drowns out what we are talking about. So lots of theory and not enough practical, but the weather is to turn, and we can get on the court more. The courts are saturated so much the tree trunks used as standards fell inward when we tightened up the net, so had to teach them how to make deadman anchors, in addition to making antenna out of bamboo stalks.  Tomorrow one of the participants is going to teach us all how to make a ball from Coconut Tree leaves. Looking forward to learning that....

There is a relaxed level of time concern here - they call it Vanuatu time....but that does not work when their teams travel internationally to compete and have to be right on time. So Debbie makes their tournaments follow the saying "Time is Time" so that if it is a 10 am start, that is when they start. I guess month one team arrived 10:03, and they simply were not allowed in the event. Next weekend she said that team was there at 9:30. We started our clinic late as well, and then an attendee came up and a "Contract" for the attendees

Offem mobile

Kom long stret taem

No smoke long B/F

Ask em plante kwestin

Sherem ideas

As in, cell phones off, come on time, no smoking allowed (this is a sporting event), ask a lot of questions and share ideas.

One of the reasons for coming here is a friend named Brian Minikin, with the Oceania Olympic Committee who has been a friend for over 30 years since we worked in Australia - Tasmania in fact, on growing the sport.  He knows of IOC grants and other ways to help this area, and a woman's beach team here is the top team in any sport internationally, so they deservedly get big press. Debbie Wooster has done a smashing job in growing the beach side of the game in Vanuatu, and tirelessly has worked to find sponsors, build courts, and get their best athletes playing.

My old friend Natalie Cook, 2000 Gold medalists in Beach now is coaching more and helping these two players, who now have 12 month visas to Oz, stay and train with her. That is a BIG part of why we worked over the years to get Beach VB into the Olympic Games - for of the 220 nations who are members of the FIVB, MOST cannot afford to send or train a 12 person indoor team. However, with just two talented international level players, you can be very competitive at a more affordable level.

Steve Anderson, coach for Natalie when she and Kerri Pottharst won the gold, is also both helping train these two ladies and others, and will be back in Port Vila later this week when I go there to run PE Teacher , referee and player trainings before I return home. The spirit of the Vanuatu people is wonderful to see and with the work of these other people,  I hope to see World Tour and Olympic Qualification from these talented athletes here in the South Pacific. Time to get to the course and share more ideas, beneath the rainbows that come with the rain...

Please feel free to leave your thoughts below in the comments section...I strongly encourage it!

Comments

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On July 12, 2009 Stan Combs wrote

I hope John has the opportunity to get out to some of Vanuatu's many small villages. Out there, volleyball is the real national sport, although male-dominated soccer gets all the publicity. Nearly every, if not every, village has a dirt volleyball court set up in its centre, even if the net is only vines strung between two posts. Most evenings when it is not raining men, women, boys, and girls of all ages gather for impromptu games between teams made up of all genders and ages. Volleyball is also played at more organized social gatherings, such as church picnics.

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