World stars unnoticed in work outs on sand

By Kelly Exelby

They didn't warrant a second glance from many of the competitors but beach volleyball royalty were going about their business at Mount Maunganui beach this week as the national age-group championships played out.

New Zealand's No1 pairing, Kirk Pitman and Jason Lochhead, ranked 33rd in the world, trained on a makeshift arena alongside Germany's Julius Brink and Jonas Reckerman, the third-best men's team on the planet and world champions in 2010.

Norwegians Tarjah Skarland and Martin Spinnangr (17th) were also there, while just along the beach Germany's eighth-ranked female pairing, Sara Goller and Laura Ludwig, trained, watched by Kiwi coach Craig Seuseu.

Two British teams, Shauna Mullin and Zara Dampney (ranked 34) and Denise Johns and Lucy Boulton (50) are also based at the Mount to train, although only one pair will get to go to the Olympics.

Pitman and Lochhead will switch it up this weekend in the opening round of the national tour at Lake Karapiro, with the duo disbanding to play with Tauranga's O'Dea brothers, Pitman with Ben, and Lochhead with Sam.

"With the Continental Cup Olympic qualifier coming up at the Mount [in mid-February], we're just using the opportunity to experiment with different scenarios," Pitman said.

"We'll need to make the top three at the Oceania qualifier to make the top 16 in the Asia final in China, so there's no harm in mixing it up this weekend."

Sweden's Hannes Brinkbourg and Steffan Gunnarson (30th in the world) and the US's Ed Ratlege and Jesse Rambis will arrive to play on the pared-back national tour.

Pitman said the Mount was becoming a training mecca.

"A lot of teams go to the Canary Islands to train but now the sun's out the Mount is ideal, especially for the Kiwi teams wanting to get some quality training in."

Dutch team Marleen Van Iersel-Sanne Kaiser, seventh in the world and with two world tour event wins last year, will also pop up on the national tour.

National tour spokesman Richard Casutt said the international interest was in contrast to the small-scale national tour, which survived last summer on volunteer labour after a lack of sponsorship forced the previous organisers to walk away.

"The [global] financial crisis and the funding into the Rugby World Cup has seen the sponsorship market remain extremely tight, with Volleyball New Zealand unable to secure any sponsors or promoters for the 2012 series," Casutt said. "But the beach volleyball community are still here and have taken on the challenge again."

National tour events:

Karapiro Open, Lake Karapiro, January 20-22.

North Harbour Open, Mairangi Bay Beach Volleyball Centre, January 27-29.

Hamilton Open, February 3-5, Te Rapa courts.

NZ Open, Mount Maunganui, February 10-12.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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