No sand, no beach: Snow volleyball takes Alps by storm
Players compete during a match of the Snow Volleyball Tour 2014 in St. Anton, Austria, on April 6, 2014 - by Wildbild
Think of it as beach volleyball at 6,500 feet (2,000 metres), played on white powder with skiers whizzing by.
Casually, the sport has been around for years, but organisers of the Snow Volleyball Tour -- set up in 2009 and now including stops in Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland -- hope it could soon become a competitive event.
As winter sports fanatics enjoyed the last runs of the season, the Austrian ski resort of Sankt Anton hosted the final of the Tour earlier this month in a beach-like atmosphere.
Players dug, set and spiked, surrounded by potted palm trees and peppy cheerleaders. But instead of bikinis, the choice of attire was a little heavier and warmer than usual, with football boots de rigueur to guard against frozen toes.
"It's a mad setting! I went skiing yesterday and it was an incredible feeling to ski to the 'beach volleyball' court," said German player Ulrike Pfletschinger, who made it to the final in her first snow volleyball tournament.
"The tactics are exactly the same. You also plan everything beforehand but the movements are completely different. You slip an awful lot, you can't really brake so you don't jump as high. But it's a great challenge, it's super!"
Some 50 teams from around the world, including active beach volleyball and indoor volleyball players, took part in this year's Snow Volleyball Tour, held in March and April.
Past participants have included Olympic, world championship and European championship medallists.
"People have always set up a net (in winter), but marketing it this way, as a professional event with an international tour in the Alps, that's never been done before. We're unique," said Martin Kaswurm, one of the masterminds of the tournament.
The Austrian volleyball association (OeVV) has already recognised the sport, and talks are under way to get a green light from the German and Swiss authorities.
"We want to become an official sport in the alpine region, and then perhaps one day we can become an Olympic sport," Kaswurm said with a grin.
- Boost for tourism -
Amid sunshine and springlike temperatures and with a DJ pumping out dance music between points, several hundred volleyball fans and relaxing skiers cheered on the players. Over the whole tour, organisers said they attracted some 15,000 spectators.
"It's a fun idea," said Kristine Kindler, a German tourist taking a break from skiing with friends.
She said she could imagine this becoming a bigger attraction in years to come, much like ski halfpipe or snowboard slopestyle, which made their Olympic debuts this year in Sochi.
"A lot of sports weren't taken seriously but then established themselves... I think if you want to reach young people, you need to offer this kind of thing."
For OeVV head Peter Kleinmann, "snow volleyball is definitely a nice plus for alpine countries," as well as a potential boost for tourism.
Held before the start of the beach volleyball season, the Tour already offers a good training opportunity for players and a useful preview of the competition.
"It's good to see how they improved during the winter... We will figure out who is better, who is worse and then we will know the tactics," joked Czech player David Kufa.
Since the Snow Volleyball Tour began, other tournaments have followed in Slovenia, Spain, the United States and Canada.
"That's great for us because the more people play this sport, the more recognition we will get from international associations," Kaswurm said.
"And that's our goal in the long run: to really make it a widespread sport in the next five to 10 years."