When USA Volleyball asked four-time Olympian Lloy Ball to put together a team for a snow volleyball tournament in Moscow this week, the 2008 gold medalist was eager to accept.
Never mind that he’s never played on the snow before.
Or that, at 46, he’s not a likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic team if the discipline eventually is added to the Winter Games.
“I’ve been playing volleyball my entire life. It would just be an amazing feeling to know that me and my friends would be able to help volleyball grow,” Ball said. “To help be one of the forefathers, to get another discipline of volleyball into the Olympics, it would be awesome.”
The son of a volleyball coach and a member of the U.S. indoor team that won gold in Beijing, Ball played professionally in Russia for six years and was a natural choice to be a part of the first American team to play on the European snow volleyball tour. After what he is calling an exploratory mission, he hopes to report back to the national governing body on how it can help the sport grow.
The ultimate goal: helping snow volleyball earn a spot in the Olympics — perhaps by 2026. If it does, volleyball will be the first sport to be included in both the Summer and Winter Games.
“We want to climb this mountain step by step. We do not want to rush,” said Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the sport’s international governing body, adding that snow volleyball will join the Olympics “as soon as the discipline has an amazing relevance in the world.”
“We have our road map, we have our timeline,” he said. “We really believe it is premature now to mention anything about Winter Olympic Games. I cannot say to you 2026 is realistic or not.”
Still, they are plowing ahead.
After a demonstration at February’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the European governing body held its first snow championships in March. With its 2018-19 tour starting this weekend in Moscow, it has invited teams from the United States to compete. (Teams from Kazakhstan and Brazil were also offered wild-card entries.)
Knowing that he spent time in Russia and would make a good ambassador, USA Volleyball chief Jamie Davis called Ball, who remains active as a coach and a semi-pro grass and beach volleyball player. He pulled together a team with Will Robbins, Kevin Owens and Tomas Goldsmith.
Although they have been training outside in Indiana to get used to the cold, the first time they will play on a snow court will be in Moscow.
“I’m going to rely on my massive amount of repetition and skill training and experience,” Ball said with a laugh. “Hopefully we won’t embarrass ourselves too badly and hopefully we’ll know what to do better next time. I’m going to come back and sit down with Jamie, and maybe say `Hey, this is something that can take off.”‘
The women’s team for the Moscow tournament, which USA Volleyball put together, consists of Allie Wheeler, Emily Hartong, Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook.
“It’s a milestone for us,” Davis said. “We’re starting at level zero and building this up from scratch.”
“My hope is that we’ll get more and more athletes that are concentrating on snow, in addition to beach and indoor,” he said. “What I would hope for snow volleyball is that we’re going to be able to have players — north, south, east or west — be able to go outdoors to play the sport they love to play.”
Growth of snow volleyball
Although snow volleyball has kicked around Europe for a decade, its growth has accelerated over the last five years. The European volleyball federation officially recognized the sport in 2015, and a seven-stop European tour is planned for 2018-19, starting with this week’s event in Moscow.
Azevedo said the FIVB is hoping to add three more events of its own, including one in Argentina that will be the first outside of Europe. Davis said he hopes to host one in the United States next winter.
From there, the FIVB is planning for a snow volleyball competition at the Youth Olympics and World University Games in 2020 and the winter Military World Games in 2021, along with a possible world championship.
“We are really shaping this new discipline around the world,” Azevedo said, adding that it would have much lower barriers to entry than many winter sports, which require ice rinks or luge runs or mountains.
That could help open the Winter Olympics to countries with successful volleyball programs but no ice or snow.
“Possibly snow volleyball is the only winter sport you can just pass by and play,” Azevedo said. “You just need proper clothes, football cleats and you can play.”
Rules in snow
An earlier incarnation of the sport had two-person teams, like beach volleyball, but organizers have tinkered with the rules and settled on three-on-three, with a fourth teammate as a substitute. While indoor sets go to 25 and the beach goes to 21, snow volleyball games are up to 15.
“Thank God, because it is minus 20 in Russia — Celsius,” Ball said.
Although the court layout is similar to beach, the ball is heavier when it gets wet and players wear thermal clothing and soccer cleats for traction. Ball said the sport puts a premium on ball control and serving, because it’s harder to move quickly in the snow.
“As long as you control the serve receive and serve well, I think on any surface you can be successful,” he said.
Martin Kaswurm, who is credited with inventing the sport when he set up a court outside his restaurant in Austria, said having different rules helps distinguish the sport from “its older brother beach volleyball” and could make it more appealing to Olympic officials.
“This should help to position snow volleyball as a unique version of the game,” he said.