Learning the Game at 9,500 feet

Sept. 11, 2009, 4:05 p.m. (ET)

I journeyed back to Aspen, Colorado, for the Motherlode doubles tourney over this past Labor Day weekend, a pilgrimage I have been taking for almost 40 years.  It was 1974 when I drove my VW Squareback  (now with 525,000 miles but restored and owned by my son Cody) up over the Independence Pass, ears popping as you peak at 12,095 feet.  Leon Fell and his staff, and tens of thousands of players over the decades, have made this a magical place to grow the game.

Back then I would just walk up the green covered ski hills to a swale that was level, and throw down my sleeping bag after a long day - and awaken to look down on the Charthouse courts to see if anyone had arrived to start play. In '74, I was lucky enough to win the Men's A.  I came back 20 year anniversary, Cody was only 2, and played again with my same partner, Stu McKinlay.

I have mountain climbed and biked, fly fished and hunted all over this area, and skied some of the best powder ever.  My kids and I have camp out, stayed at a real fort, and explored the amazing Aspen institute, all while first watching me play.  Then they began playing in the event themselves, first with me and then with school friends. This year, Cody has come up with a teammate of his from the 18 Open team at JOs this summer - Mitch Beal. There is something about playing this game with a school friend or parent that just makes the game that much more special.  There are teams from over 30 states in this event, many who have been competing in it for over a decade - it is just that kind of special volleyball event.

Watching the game teach the game unfolds over the three days.  Mitch has played no doubles to speak of, and overhead passes the serve, and on day one had dozens of hand calls. So the kids go 1-3 in pool play, becoming last out and lowest seed in the single elimination tourney on Sunday.  The Beals are kind enough to take care of Cody, as I have to get his sister McKenzie to her High School match that Saturday evening, before driving up over the pass at night, arriving after midnight. 

Bright and early, we show up first on the courts by the Aspen Skier HS fields. With 14er Castle Peak in the background, the kids surprise themselves and win in three, then Cody asks me to help Mitch and him referee as this is the playoffs and getting serious and they don't know how to ref when it becomes "losers ref." My response is simple....keep winning you guys and you won't have to referee. Ideas are shared by the adult team they had just beaten, mentoring to help the 16 and 17 years old become better, and Doug and I put in our two cents....and they win again... and again... and before you know it, they are in the finals of this 64 team draw.

Those finals are at 10am Monday by the main Open Division men and women's sand courts, complete with music, Jon Lee announcing, and big crowds. So we head down to eat, shop and then get a look at the playing site. After watching the men's open, Mitch wants to play without shirts - Cody thinks it is a brilliant idea to lull their opponents, two strong husky men in their 30s, into a false sense of confidence.

Amid sunny skies and the hullabaloo of center court - another Kessel takes to the court in Aspen 35 years after his dad did the same. The boys put up a nice effort,  falling  in two, and get a jump on me, as I was 5 years older and more experienced when my win came.  The game taught something special in this game, how effort helps determine a better outcome, the joy of improvement, and how playing doubles helps you work on your weaknesses - fast. It also showed me that spectating makes one far less sore than playing this game.  If you find yourself with nothing to do over next Labor Day weekend, plan an adventure in Aspen which includes playing at 9,500 feet. I will bring the oxygen.