The beach volleyball matches we’re used to watching at the Olympics are often played far from the ocean, on man-made courts surrounded by stadium seating (in the case of the 2012 London Games, approximately 4,000 tons of sand were trucked into the 15,000-person venue).
Olympic silver medalist April Ross grew up in Newport Beach, California, and has 31 career wins from tournaments spanning the globe. Her next big stop? Rio 2016 with partner Kerri Walsh Jennings. Twenty years after beach volleyball made its Olympic debut, the duo hopes to take home gold on what Ross deems one of her top-five favorite beaches in the world. Read on to find out why Brazil's capital city is so great—and where else Ross recommends getting a little sandy.
Karon Beach, Thailand
The best beach I've ever played on is Karon Beach in Phuket, Thailand. Minus the occasional ten-minute downpour it's generally hot and sunny, and the sand is perfectly deep and not too grainy. After we play, we always rinse off in the ocean, which is turquoise blue and about 70 degrees.
There is also plenty to do for cheap: parasailing, jet skiing, surfing, or you can just hang out and get a Thai massage on the beach. My favorite pastime, however, is renting a motorbike and cruising the coastline, looking for secluded, exotic beaches no one else has found yet. There is wilderness every where you look, green hills and palm trees surrounding each stretch of beach.
Manhattan Beach, California
Back on our side of the world is Manhattan Beach. This is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It's home to the AVP Manhattan Beach Open, which honors you with a plaque on the pier if you win. Walk to the end of the pier and you will see plaques with the names of some of the greatest players in the sport.
The area is also home to the legendary Manhattan Beach Six Man, which drew more than 100,000 people in its heyday to witness the absolute craziness of amateur and pro volleyball players who dressed up in elaborate costumes and fought for the Six Man tournament title.
Manhattan Beach is also easy on the eyes; definitely one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California, with plenty of shopping and amazing places to eat.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, duh. I've only played there once, but the atmosphere is unforgettable. There is so much energy; everyone is active, socializing, playing something, or in the water. Rio is also known for its beach volleyball history; Copacabana Beach is packed with people playing the game. Doesn't hurt that the backdrop is gorgeous, it's always warm, and you can walk up to the boardwalk for an authentic acai bowl.
North Beach, Illinois
Another one of my favorites is North Beach in Chicago. I like this one because of the mix of beach and city life. It's a preferred place among AVP players to play beach volleyball; in the summer it's warm, the water is refreshing, and the sand is great. I also like the fact that if you want a change of pace you can walk to one of the best shopping streets in the U.S.—Michigan Avenue—or grab the best deep-dish pizza on earth for lunch or dinner.
Plage de Prado, France
I love France, so it's no surprise that I loved competing in Marseille at the Plage de Prado. In addition to the amazing breakfast—croissants!—our hotel served, Marseille had that relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere. Everyone seemed carefree and ready to enjoy themselves, whether it was while swimming, laying out, shopping, or having a cappuccino at one of the cafes on the beach. Plage de Prado was sunny but not too hot, and the water was clear with little coves perfect for floating and jumping off rocks after we played. The whole time I was there I felt like I was on the set of a movie. Also helps that we won the tournament.