Nama Volejs: The World of DC Latvian Volleyball

Originally published here on October 28, 2015.

“I was born right here, in the middle of this volleyball court, on a Thursday night back in ’85,” says my brother Alberts with a wink, pointing towards a church banquet hall bisected by a volleyball net hung between two hooks in the walls. His joke isn’t too far from the truth. Many of the players who have gathered this evening at the Latvian Lutheran Church of Washington D.C.’s community center in Rockville, Maryland, have been coming here to play volleyball every Thursday for the past ten to twenty years. A few can even trace their time back to the mid-’80s and beyond.

The group’s longevity and vibrancy are rare, especially at a time when many Latvian-American organizations are struggling to maintain numbers and bring in younger members. A typical Thursday night brings in anywhere from 6 to 18 players, and a key to its success is the group’s inclusive nature. Anyone can participate, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or skill level. “It’s a community spirit,” explains Ēriks Brolis, who has been involved since roughly 1992, when, as a 12-year-old kid, he came along to play with his father. “It’s super unique; everyone is supporting everyone else to play at the top of their game, and so many levels can play together.”

He’s not exaggerating about the many levels. The group contains novices, experts, rec-league players, children, pensioners (the group once surprised one of these members with a 70th-birthday party between sets), and even an Olympian (1984 Olympic gold medalist and volleyball legend Aldis Bērziņš, who has been a Thursday-night regular for 15 years). Of the participants this particular evening, six played for their college varsity or club teams. Playing right alongside these experienced competitors is Māra Anderson, playing for the first time in her life. “I suck,” she says, “but it’s fun, and I’m learning a lot.” Initially apprehensive about joining, she now jokes that it’s been “better than expected, because people aren’t hitting me.”

Standing next to her, Robs Šverns, an eleven-year veteran of the group, is encouraging of her efforts: “If you haven’t played and are curious, you should try it.” Šverns himself hadn’t played before joining the group a decade earlier, and emphasizes that it is a great environment in which to learn.   He explains that it is one of the few places where everyone can play at the top of their game (whatever that may be), free of judgment.

Bērziņš—the Olympic gold medalist—agrees. “With a lot of volleyball you find cliques, and it is hard to get on the court. You have to play at a certain level,” he says. But here, that’s not the point. “Pašam patīk ka ir omulīgi. Nav svarīgi uzvarēt, bet [ir svarīgi] saspēle un draudzība.” (“I like that it’s friendly. It’s not important to win, but [what is important is] teamwork and friendship.”) His favorite aspect of the Thursday-night games is that all age groups play together. He started coming in the first place because he wanted to play with his sons, who started as young children cheering on their dad from the sidelines, but have since all grown up and won a slathering of NCAA championships and spots on professional teams.

The game played on Thursdays is unlike the game played anywhere else not just because of the eclectic mix of players, but also due to the strange set of rules. The players laugh that this may be the only place left in the world where side-out scoring is still in use (which means that only the serving team can earn a point; in more common “rally” scoring, whoever wins the play wins the point, no matter who served).  But the players enjoy the game being a little strange, as it provides a special character missing from other volleyball venues. “I like old-school rules more,” says Vik Bebris. “With rally, it’s one mistake, and you’re down. But the old rules feel more real.”

Stranger than the scoring system is the court itself. The room, used primarily for local Latvian community events such as stage plays, holiday ceremonies, and school graduations, is not quite the size of a standard volleyball court. The lip of a stage juts into the back line at one end; at the other, two air-conditioning vents protrude into the corners. In earlier years walls served as the side boundaries, though they added an extra two feet to either side of what would be an official court. This oddity grew stranger once antennas were introduced at the correct width.  Eventually frustrated players brought in painter’s tape to put down lines and solve some of these issues. But under current conditions, the most recent painter’s-tape lines have been pulled up. The resulting faint residue line is only visible in some areas, but still serves as the court boundary, leaving players to guess and debate whether certain hits are in or out. When a hit is in dispute, the refrain “Mineapolē tas būtu ārā!” (“In Minneapolis that would be out!”) can often be heard; it’s a decade-old throwback joke from when the group was preparing for an ALA Meistarsacīkstes (American Latvian Association Master Games) tournament in Minneapolis, where presumably the courts would be actual regulation size and shape.

A typical evening is flush with this sort of lighthearted joking mixed in amongst play.  Another favorite inside joke amongst players is the “Over 50” rule, which states that only players over the age of 50 are allowed to make certain questionable junk plays, such as windmill attacks. The “Friend Zone” is a three-inch wide strip of ground between the endline and the wall that frustrates attackers (so close, can’t score).  Classic rock plays over the loudspeakers during the games, which is then occasionally danced to by players in an attempt to distract their opponents.  And roughly once a year the group’s leader, Viesturs Timrots, brings in an assortment of delicious sausages, wings, and other snacks for a post-play party suggestively titled “Kas Par Desām” (literally translated to “Oh, What Sausages,” but actually a play on words that means “What a Mess.”)

The players fit so perfectly into this unique playing space that one might think it was built for them. And that is partially true. The roots of the Thursday-night game reach back to at least the 1960s, when the Washington, D.C. sports club “Sigulda,” sponsored by veterans-welfare organization Daugavas Vanagi, had a powerful women’s volleyball team consisting of impressive players like Ilze Pāža, Edīte Tālmane, Ausma Karlsona, and Edīte Āboliņa. At the time, the Latvian-American sports circuit was more developed and better populated, and the women held regular training sessions in local schools under the guidance of coaches Andris Karlsons, Jānis Tērauds, and Juris Ekšteins. The women went on many road trips, competing against Latvian-American teams across the East Coast and the Midwest, including powerhouse rivals New York and Minneapolis. According to Māra Bērziņš, who started playing on the team with her mother and sister Silvija in 1971, the weekly practices were no joke. So when the D.C. Latvian Lutheran congregation began formulating plans to build its own church and community center, it made sense to include the active Latvian volleyball community. Legend has it that the original plan for the banquet hall had a moderately high ceiling, but at Jānis Pāža’s urging, it was moved up by four feet to reach the minimum regulation height for volleyball. The room was subtly rigged to allow for a wall-to-wall net, and upon completion in the mid-1970s, the ladies moved in.

Around the same time, a coterie of male players under the leadership of Jānis Tērauds was playing weekly pick-up games at Langley High School in Virginia. My father (and current Thursday-night regular Knuts Ozols), played with them in the late 1970s. He describes these “Vecie Siguldieši” (“Sigulda Old-Timers”) as a friendly group that enjoyed going out afterwards to local pizza joint Rocco’s. Eventually, the school chose to shut down the games, and rec centers never quite panned out as an alternative. Over time the women’s team also dissipated, as players got older or moved away and no new women joined. (The lack of female players would last from the mid-1980s until only very recently. This year, for the first time in almost 30 years, Sigulda was able to contribute a partial female team to the annual ALA Meistarsacīkstes—and that was only possible by combining forces with another partial team from Canada.)

But the gap in Latvian D.C. volleyball did not last long. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Harijs Plūcis recruited other Latvian volleyball enthusiasts such as Jānis Bebris, Jānis Mūrnieks, Raimonds Pavlovskis, and current group leader Viesturs Timrots to join his local team, which played in a Montgomery County (Maryland) adult recreational league. The squad, named the Weekend Warriors, began using the banquet hall at the Latvian church for extra practice. In the early 1990s, the Latvian ambassador to the United States, Ojārs Kalniņš, in attempt to integrate arriving diplomats from the newly-freed Latvian Republic with the established Latvian-American community, invited his staff to join in, eventually forming their own embassy team that played in the same county league as the Weekend Warriors.  Soon the Thursday-night practices were flooded with both local players and diplomats. Though it forwent drills for pick-up games, the group continued to call the sessions treniņi (“training”).

Their format and nature have remained virtually unchanged ever since. The group still operates as part of D.C.’s Daugavas Vanagi and calls itself Sigulda, and officially Thursday nights are still called treniņi. Though the number of players fluctuates over time, with the slowest nights bringing in four players, and the busiest nights bringing in four teams worth of players, the game is always there for anyone who wants to play. “Zinu, ka te vienmēr ir spēle (‘I know there is always a game available here’),” says Ivars Ārums. Nicknamed “Key Component” on the court, Ārums is also a key component to the group’s off-court success. When he comes to play, he brings along his kids and even grandkids, reinforcing the group’s inclusive multi-generational vibe.

In fact most of the current active players got involved as children, tagging along to treniņi with their parents. Ēriks Brolis became the first of this new generation, joined soon thereafter by his brother Andrejs, and describes being the only child on the court: “Būtu trīs spēles, tad divas stundas sēž [runājoties ar draugiem], un es biju skolā nākamā dienā (‘We would have three games, then two hours of sitting [talking with friends], and I would be in school the next day’).” Around this time in the early 1990’s, a short-lived fathers-and-daughters game ran on Wednesday nights, which I attended with my father. Though it quickly ended due to lack of interest, my father and I moved over to Thursday nights. Eventually we “dragged along” my brother, as he remembers it. It was “towards the end of the fathers-and-daughters days and I kinda liked it,” he says. “And since then I’ve been here for the last two thousand straight Thursdays.” He pauses, then adds: “That number is approximate.”

Soon the Thursday-night court was flooded with teenagers who had come to play with their friends and parents. Affectionately nicknamed “Geezers and Teens Volleyball,” this late-1990s era saw the court frequently divided into games of old guys versus kids, with a small handful of age outliers in the middle. When it came time for D.C. to host the ALA Meistarsacīkstes in 2002, there were enough players to fill a competitive “A” team, a young-blood team of kids still learning the game, and a team of older players from the good old Weekend Warrior days.

Many of these players are still playing today. They are joined by people of all ages and skills levels as more Latvians migrate to the D.C. area and/or to the sport of volleyball. The newest crop of players also shows promise for the return of an active female volleyball presence in the region, with several female players coming by to either pick up the game or polish their existing skills. They cite the balance between competitiveness and lightheartedness, along with the presence of good teachers, as to why they enjoy the experience. “You get to work out kinks, there’s great company, and you get touches on the ball. [In other places] it is tough to pick up this game,” says Katie O’Rourke, now in her third year on the Latvian volleyball scene.

Over the past decade, Sigulda has sent players to almost every single Latvian-American volleyball tournament in North America, from East Coast competitions Kursas Kauss, Austruma Piekrasta Spēles, and Zelta Bumba to the West Coast’s Kostīmu Kauss, the Midwest’s 4-2, and the ever-migrating ALA Meistarsacīkstes (the one known exception was Meistarsacīkstes in Toronto, when the team had to drop out due to a late player injury). The team has even befriended the Estonian-American volleyball community, sending players to the Sportipaav and Baltic Bash tournaments and welcoming local Estonians who come to play on Thursdays.

Earlier this year, Sigulda hosted the 2015 ALA Meistarsacīkstes. Reflecting the Thursday-night games’ spirit of inclusion, the planning committee included members of different generations, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s.  After the tournament, the players went back to their regular Thursday-night games, playing volleyball, eating home-cooked wings, teaching the basics to newcomers, and enjoying each other’s company. As this year’s ALA Meistersacīkstes MVP (and 15-year Thursday-nighter) Grants Osvalds puts it, “Vienmēr ir vietas—nāciet spēlēt! (‘There is always room—come play!’)”

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