Celebrating 25 years of volleyball on the Geordie shore
26th May 2017
Not many people will naturally associate the beaches of Tyne and Wear with the sport of beach volleyball. Yet one of the most picturesque beaches in the region, Tynemouth Longsands, will again play host this year to the Tynemouth Beach Volleyball Tournament as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
As this most northerly of English volleyballing outposts commemorates a quarter-century of volleyball on the Geordie shore, tournament organiser and co-founder Sue Sowden is committed to keeping her beloved tournament exactly the way it is.
“I know this probably sounds rather crazy nowadays – when it’s all supposed to be about growth, growth, growth – but I don’t want this tournament to get any bigger than it is now”, explained Sue. “It has a reputation for being a fun weekend tournament, sociable yet competitive, where people get real value for money. I wouldn’t want further growth to compromise that.”
The tournament first appeared on the beach volleyball circuit in 1991 when Sue and Eileen Anderson were job-sharing the role of Volleyball Development Officer for the North-East. When the council in North Tyneside asked them to lay on a tournament on the Tynemouth beach, the tournament was born (when family considerations got in the way, the tournament did subsequently miss a year, hence why it’s only celebrating its 25th anniversary now).
Over the years, the tournament has attracted players from the Midlands, the North-West and Scotland but the majority of its teams now tend to be locally based. With some NVL powerhouses on their patch though, this can mean that the playing standard can be pretty high at the elite level of the competition.
The tournament’s far-flung location can sometimes be a factor in keeping the number of entrants down to a manageable level but so too can the beach itself. Courts on the long but narrow Tynemouth beach have to be arranged in single file, meaning that having too many courts would see the competition sprawling too far down the beach to retain any sense of cohesion.
“Ten courts is typically my maximum,” continued Sue. “At our absolute capacity, we’ve had 30 men’s pairs on occasion. More typically, we’ll play host to 20 men’s pairs and 12 women’s pairs most years. They play on the Saturday, followed by four-a-side mixed teams on the Sunday. In all instances, we start with an open draw and then get into ability-specific groups in the afternoon.”
Although still ably assisted by her old comrade-in-arms, Eileen, and a squad of fellow volunteers on the weekend of the competition, the burden of organising the whole tournament falls to Sue. With two months to go until this year’s tournament, she finds herself tying up the negotiations with a new sponsor while at the same time trying to source a replacement vehicle from which to run the tournament logistics.
“The local authority used to supply an events trailer from which we oversaw all the tournament admin over the weekend. It was getting old though and it finally fell apart. One long serving volunteer, Bob Brown, supplied a replacement for a few years but he’s now converted that into a caravan he’s going travelling in (complete with our competition logo still on the side!) so I guess I might have to go out and hire a van now. I was also hoping we might be able to get a big sponsor onboard this year, so that we can make the 25th anniversary celebrations just that little bit more special, in terms of what we can lay on and the mementos we can give out to the players. Thankfully, that has now happened and I'm delighted that The Energy Check has come onboard to support the event.”
It’s quite clear that Sue isn’t about to start winding down any time soon, despite being heavily involved with other local volleyball activity as well, through her local club Newburn, Team Sunderland in the NVL and NEVA, the regional association. Even being diagnosed with MS 20 years ago has failed to cause her volleyballing appetite to wane.
It’s no surprise therefore to hear that, 25 years after setting up one tournament, she’s about to set another up and running in nearby South Shields.
“As a venue, the beach at South Shields is amazing. It’s a broader, flatter beach with the potential to host more courts than Tynemouth. It’s got the facilities already in place for hosting a competition and storing all the equipment. Plus, the local authority is actively developing the site as an entertainment venue, complete with outdoor concerts and theatre productions, and want to make the best possible use of it. The beach used to host a tournament years ago and now we have the chance to revive it.”
This year’s first event at South Shields is being kept deliberately low-key while the organisers test the waters, just as they did at Tynemouth in the early 1990s. If South Shields can match Tynemouth’s longevity, you sense that Sue would be happy, so long as it remains manageable.
“We have to remember that these are wholly volunteer-driven undertakings”, she concluded. “That’s another reason for not wanting them to grow so large that they become unmanageable. It’s hard enough keeping everything going as it is. I’ve retired this year and the common observation seems to be that I’ve swapped a paid-for job for an unpaid job! That’s ok though because although I now live in Chester-le-Street, Tynemouth was my childhood beach. I grew up there and it’s just a wonderful place to play volleyball.”
This year’s Tynemouth Beach Volleyball Tournament takes place on the weekend of July 16-17. Teams wanting to enter can do so via the tournament website.