Volleyball returns to the beach with AVP Champions Cup

Olympic beach volleyball hopeful Tri Bourne was more eager than most to get back to competition after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world.

But first, he needed to have a talk with his doctor.

Bourne missed most of the previous two seasons after being diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a chronic inflammatory muscle disease that puts him at greater risk of serious complications if he contracts COVID-19. So when the domestic tour announced it would be returning this weekend for the start of the AVP Champions Cup, Bourne paid special attention to the infection control measures.

“It was definitely something that was on my mind,” Bourne said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Right from the get-go it definitely put my mind at ease to know how many precautions they were taking. Every email they sent to us, it was like a new protocol.”

A native Hawaiian who was third in qualifying for one of the two U.S. spots for men at the Rio Olympics, Bourne then missed much of the next two years after being diagnosed. He and current partner Trevor Crabb finished tied for ninth at this season’s FIVB opener in Doha in March before the rest of the international tour was suspended.

“We had to get back from Qatar before they shut down the border,” Bourne said. “This offseason is where I finally had the chance to get back to peak form, and then the season got canceled. I really didn’t have a chance to put that on display yet. This AVP Champions Cup is really my first chance.”

The AVP canceled what had been an eight-tournament season and replaced it with the Champions Cup — three events on successive weekends in Long Beach, California, with qualifying matches starting Friday. Teams will play for $700,000 in purses, including a $100,000 bonus pool for the pairs that do the best over the series.

Among those entered in the women’s brackets are the top two teams in the world: two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and her partner Alix Klineman, and Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser (2008) and his partner, Nick Lucena, are the top seed on the men’s side, with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Trevor’s brother, as the second seed.

AVP spokeswoman Megan Hanson said all of the athletes have passed the pre-tournament protocol, which included weekly testing since July 6. A confirmed positive test would take a player out of the tournament.

Although the competitors and staff will not be sealed inside a bubble-like environment, players will remain separated as teams in “pods” in a holding tent until it is time for their match. Their only contact with the opponent will be play at the net; balls will be sanitized after each point.

Sack lunches will replace the usual buffet-style catering.

“We all miss live sports,” AVP owner Donald Sun said. “Our team has been working around the clock to build out this site and create a ‘beach’ that our athletes can safely compete on with the smallest footprint possible and give fans the opportunity to cheer them on without having to risk a sunburn.”

Bourne, who manages his illness with daily medications, weekly injections and monthly transfusions, said he liked that testing started before the tournament, so he knew the teams he was training against had tested negative.

“It allows us to really focus on the game — especially for me,” he said. “I get to have my mind at ease and just focus on playing.”

Although beach volleyball is one of the most watched broadcasts from the Olympics, the sport prides itself on its in-person party atmosphere, with a DJ to fire up the crowd and dance teams entertaining fans between points.

To make up for the fan-free experience, the tour is planning to mic up the referees and coaches, with additional sound from the court that might not have been heard over the crowds. The tour’s hype man, Jeremy “DJ” Roueche, will be on-site.

“It will for sure be different, especially when we first step out there,” Bourne said with an audible sigh. “But we’ll adapt really quickly, and I don’t think anyone will be using it as an excuse.”

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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