What It’s Really Like To Be A Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball Player

Zara Dampney, who represented Team GB in London 2012 fills us in on the bikinis, rigorous training schedules, leathery forearms and tips on getting sand out of EVERYWHERE.

What It's Really Like To Be A Women's Olympic Beach Volleyball Player

by Jess Commons |
Published on

If you have a look at the beach volleyball themed topics people are searching for on the old Google, there’s a number of things that crop up. 'Beach volleyball bikini’ for instance. ‘Beach volleyball bums’ is another. Not forgetting of course, ‘beach volleyball wardrobe malfunctions.’


Hardly the stuff one would expect people to be searching about a serious Olympic sport no?

Each Olympics, the mainstream conversation around beach volleyball tends to drift off away from the important stuff. Away from the speed, agility and athletic ability of the players and more towards, well, bums.

What people are missing by engaging with this rhetoric though is a bloody fascinating sport filled with incredible athletes. Zara Dampney, who represented Team GB at London 2012, is one of them. Zara was lucky enough to grow up in Bournemouth (sand: key to beach volleyball, who knew?) and, after starting indoor volleyball when she was 12 or 13, moved onto beach volleyball about five years later.


The main difference between indoor volleyball (it’s an Olympic sport too, they wear different uniforms) and beach volleyball is pretty simple. Instead of six players, a beach volleyball team has just has two. Also, beach volleyball is played, duh, on a beach. ‘In indoor volleyball you need much more specialized skills’ explains Zara. ‘You might be a hitter, you might be a setter… Whereas in beach volleyball because there’s only two of you have to be more of a rounded player. Also, you’ve got to be able to jump in the sand. That’s one of the biggest things.’ Sorry Zara, I’m out mate. I can barely walk in the sand.

Leading up to London 2012, Zara’s training routine was gruelling. ‘We’d get up, have breakfast, then usually have two sessions a day; one sand session and one physical session, either in the gym doing weights or cardio. Then, around that, we’d have like psychology meetings or nutrition meetings, things like that.’

Psychology meetings help beach volleyball players connect. Because of course, when you’re working so closely with just one other person, you need to get inside each others’ heads. Dan Goodfellow, Tom Daley’s synchronised diving partner famously moved into Tom’s house in order to sync up mentally with him. Zara and her teammate Shauna Mullin were no different. ‘You’re in each others’ pockets really.’ Says Zara who is still, four years on, ‘more like sisters’ with Shauna. ‘You have to be able to get the best out of each other.’

Food too, was an important part of the lead up. ‘We were on a low fat diet but we could eat a lot because we were training a lot.’ Explains Zara. ‘If we were trying to lean down, you know, to jump high, then we might cut down on things like carbs.’

Just like any sport, there’s always a risk of injury. Zara says shoulder injuries are common, just from the amount of hitting a player does. Backs are also dodgy areas. Most interesting though is what the ball has done to her forearms. ‘They’re like leather!’ She laughs. Compared to other peoples’ skin there it’s toughened up so much over the years.’

Playing at 2012 was, of course, a dream for Zara and Shauna. They finished 17th – not bad for a country that hasn’t been represented in the sport since 1996. ‘There was a lot of pressure being the home nation.’ Zara says. ‘We’re not used to playing in front of a home crowd’. She says she enjoyed it though and that’s the main thing.

People Zara meets are often incredulous about her chosen profession. They react with disbelief ‘People are like “Oh my God I didn’t know you could play beach volleyball in this country!’’ and ‘’Is that an actual job? That’s so weird!’’

The hot topic when it comes to beach volleyball this year is the bikini. Pictures from the Egypt / Germany game showed a stark difference in terms of bodily coverage with the Egyptian team in full hijab-style uniforms whilst Germany opted for the traditional bikini.

The uniform has long been a contentious issue. Up until 2011, female beach volleyball players were required to wear bikini bottoms that were no wider than 7cm at the hip. In fact, in 1999, Craig Carracher the former CEO of Volleyball Australia even said ‘If we can show off these bodies at the same time as presenting our sport then we are going to do that.’ Cool guy.

These rules have now been relaxed but, while some players opt for long sleeve tops or one pieces, many are still happiest in a bikini. ‘I prefer it.’ Shrugs Zara. ‘At the end of the day it’s usually roasting hot, you don’t want to be stuck in something that’s massive. If you wear bigger stuff the sand just gets stuck in it anyways!’

‘I know the majority of the players are comfortable in their bikinis.’ She says. So why do people get excited about beach volleyball uniforms specifically? ‘I don’t know it’s so weird. It’s like pretty much the same size as what the runners on the track are wearing.’

This year, at Rio, body shamers have taken a hit. When trolls attempted to body shame gymnast Alexa Moreno earlier this week, Twitter dealt with them swiftly. Are we finally coming to a point where we the world can, on a base level, view female athletes without succumbing to prejudices about how their bodies should look? ‘I do think people are starting to realise that women are actually very aggressive when they play. They’re competitive, it’s not really about what they wear and what their bodies are like, actually they just want to win!’

Funding for Team GB volleyball is non-existent right now which is a shame because Zara thinks we’ve got some very talented players coming up. ‘There’s definitely some athletes there.’ She says. ‘It’s just about time and resources that need to be pumped into them.’

If you think beach volleyball is the sport for you though, beware. You’ll be covered in sand for the rest of your life. ‘Every pocket of every bag and in the shower.’ Zara laughs. ‘In your hair, in your ear in your eyebrows. The sand get everywhere you just have to embrace it really!’

Zara Dampney is a brand ambassador for Sweaty Betty.

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Follow Jess on Twitter @Jess_Commons

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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