When people think of beach volleyball, Chicago typically doesn’t come to mind. California and the East Coast usually are associated with volleyball in the sand.
But over the last three decades, beach volleyball has become increasingly popular among Chicagoans. And our scene has impressed even the snobbiest Californians.
“They think, ‘What could a lakefront bring compared to Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach?’ ” said Joe Smalzer, a former Loyola volleyball player who spent two years overseas playing professionally before becoming active in Chicago’s beach volleyball community.
“Then they come and they see, ‘Oh, this is actually a really big lake, this is actually a really big beach and these are actually some really good players.’”
Chicago’s VB HQ
Every summer, when the 80 to 100 volleyball nets are set up, North Avenue Beach becomes a melting pot. People of all ages from various walks of life go to the beach to play sand volleyball with the city’s breathtaking skyline as a backdrop.
Chicago Sport and Social Club, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, organizes most of the lakefront’s intramural games. It welcomes more than 20,000 participants each summer.
The biggest draw to beach volleyball is that anyone can play it, Sport and Social Club president Chris Hastings said. He believes it’s especially popular among young adults because volleyball is a social sport with an easy concept: keep the ball off the ground and get it over the net within three hits.
Location is also key, according to Hastings.
“The setting of North Avenue Beach is really like nothing else,” Hastings said. “There is no other major city that I can think of that has such a beautiful beach setting so close to downtown. It’s less than a mile away from downtown, and it’s also so close to where many active young adults live. It’s a natural center of activity.”
Amateurs and pros
Sport and Social Club welcomes players of all calibers. There are former college and professional athletes, such as Smalzer. Then there are players who are in it for pure fun, like Connor Ryan.
Ryan, a 26-year-old account executive for a software-services consulting company, uses intramural beach volleyball as an excuse to meet up with friends during the week and have a few beers.
It’s a chill atmosphere with nothing but positive vibes, though it can get competitive at times, Ryan said.
“Some people on my team have never played volleyball before joining this beach volleyball team, and they’re honestly awful,” said Ryan, whose team is named “Hit It and Quit It.”
“And then some people on my team grew up playing it. So it’s a mix, but it’s really relaxed and there’s so many laughs. Seriously, every game I’m sweating and my abs hurt from laughing when someone messes up or when someone gets spiked on.”
Though they’re drenched in sweat and sand, Ryan and his teammates usually hit up a bar in Old Town after the games.
“That’s another fun part of it. It’s really relaxed, and people will be drinking beers,” said Ryan, who occasionally packs a few “roadies” in his bag for him and his friends. “It’s just not too serious.”
Though the intramural tournaments are mainly just for fun, Chicago hosts several high-level beach volleyball tournaments each year, including an AVP event in August.
Jessica Jendryk, 26, started playing beach volleyball for fun three summers ago after her NCAA eligibility expired at Saint Louis. But what started as a way to stay active quickly turned serious.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big thing,” said Jendryk, an assistant volleyball coach at North Central College in Naperville. “I went from thinking my indoor volleyball career was done, and I wanted to give back in coaching, to finding out that I really love [playing] this sport.”
Jendryk and her playing partner, Delaney Clesen, had success in tournaments last summer. Now they’re trying to earn a spot in the main draw.
“We decided, ‘Let’s go after it,’” Jendryk said.
While walking on the beach, passersby usually can tell on sight who’s there for fun and who’s there to compete. The pros typically wear more form-fitting clothing, with the women in athletic bikinis. Teams of average Joes, meanwhile, sport matching T-shirts and shorts.
“Except some guys don’t wear shirts, and it’s like, ‘OK, dude, we get it, you’re fit,’” Ryan joked.
However, one commonality between the competitive and social players is the inclusive culture of volleyball on the beach.
“Beach volleyball in Chicago is really unique because you get people from all different levels of experience playing together,” Ryan said. “We’ll play with people who have played college volleyball, and then we’ll play with my friend Taylor, who has never hit the ball. She misses every time she swings. And it doesn’t matter because either way you’re having fun. And it doesn’t even matter if you win or if you lose.”
Said Jendryk: “It’s a community. We’re welcoming, there’s so many different levels. We see more people that just want to play that don’t really know the sport but they love being outside.”