Wednesday April 23, 2014




Beach volleyball brings London splendour, big stars to Horse Guards Parade for Olympics


General view of the Beach Volleyball venue at the Horse Guards Parade at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 27, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

LONDON - From chiming Big Ben to the London Eye. From Lord Nelson's statue to Buckingham Palace. Every view from the Olympic beach volleyball stadium is London in all its majesty.

Getting inside won't be easy, either.

Players knew they would be competing in the showcase venue of these Summer Games. And now that they've finally seen it in person, almost every one of them is in awe heading into Saturday's opening matches of pool play.

"It's really perfect, that's the only word I can say," Swiss coach Stefan Kobal said Friday as he scouted a Russian opponent at one of six side-by-side practice courts tucked among the trees and greenery.

During training, a squirrel carrying a nut in its mouth scurried through the sand on one court.

A lush, picturesque park surrounds spectacular Horse Guards Parade, and to this day only Queen Elizabeth II herself can ride through one nearby gate. Not enough grandeur for you? Also right outside is Westminster Abbey.

Defending gold medallist American Todd Rogers is quick to acknowledge the beach volleyball players have it better than most.

"Other athletes are probably annoyed because their sport has been around 100 years and we're the spoiled children. From my perspective, it's great," Rogers said. "I think beach volleyball is just so fortunate. Over every Olympics, everyone has raved about the venue, from Sydney on. We have such a historical site."

Two-time U.S. defending gold medallist pair Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor will be the feature match Saturday in the beach volleyball grandstand.

"It's amazing. Just this area in itself is so special," said Walsh Jennings, who has had two boys since Beijing. "You have the Horse Guards right there and the changing of the guard and you get to see this and all the historic culture. Really, really cool. I've been picturing this for so long, and to see it in person and have it come alive is awesome."

To think this open-air venue came together in an astonishing 35 days, beginning June 18 at the conclusion of the queen's annual Trooping the Colour birthday parade.

Architect Peter Richardson and lead project manager Duncan Firth spent Friday performing final checks and working out any potential last kinks.

"For a venue of this magnitude, built in this time scale, it has never really been done before," Firth said. "The Americans have said this is the equivalent of having beach volleyball on the lawn of the White House. This will never happen again."

And it will be torn down after the games.

"It's here for 12 days and then it's coming down. It's so disappointing," Richardson said. "The original concept was to keep London as the backdrop."

He pulled it off beautifully and what more might a fan want, without the queen waving from the Horse Guards' balcony, of course?

The public address announcer sure had fun with his final tuneup under grey skies and light rain Friday afternoon, repeatedly calling a British victory as the ever-changing music blared through an empty 15,000-seat arena biggest yet by far for beach volleyball.

Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor will open Olympic pool play against the Australian duo of Tamsin Hinchley and Natalie Cook, who is competing in her fifth and final Olympics.

"We're so lucky," said three-time Olympian Hinchley, who got married and had 2 1/2-year-old son, Arley, after Beijing. "We've heard it's the best venue. The backdrop, from the London Eye and all the buildings, you know you're in London."

Hinchley handed over her two allotted tickets for Saturday's first match to her family members to fight over who got to be in the seats to see it.

Rogers plans to purchase two extra tickets when he plays so he can take care of his supporters. Those who do get in for any portion of the tournament are in for a treat.

"It's beautiful," said Netherlands coach Michiel Van Der Kuip. "I've never seen something like this before."


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