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Pounding the Sand With a Few Pros

There are five fit, tan, bikini-clad women expecting my arrival at the beach, and I’m not looking forward to this at all.

My head’s still spinning from an hourlong workout and the women -- all professional volleyball players -- have more punishment in store.

Holly McPeak, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and the winningest woman in the history of the AVP tour, invited me to practice with her as she prepares for this weekend’s AVP event in Manhattan Beach. But first she insisted I go through a session with her trainer, to get a better sense for what really goes into becoming an elite athlete in this sport.

I couldn’t join McPeak for her training session at Hermosa Beach’s VERT gym Wednesday morning with Meredith Miller (I was busy doing journalistic things such as, um, eating an ice cream cone on a TV show.) But I have my own private session with the woman whose clients call her “Meredeath.”

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“I love Holly,” Miller tells me. “And I love to yell at Holly.”

I’m wondering what she’ll do to a guy she doesn’t even know. Miller puts me through a scaled-down version of McPeak’s workout regimen, which focuses on quick leaping, lateral movement, core strength and stamina. I don’t see where stamina is so critical in beach volleyball. I will find out later.

Miller eases off on the meanness factor as well, although when I do agility drills on the “ladder” (similar to a rope ladder laid down on the floor) she yells, “Don’t touch my ladder!” whenever my foot catches it.

Most of the equipment is computerized, allowing Miller to write specific programs for McPeak and record her performance. The numeric and graphic readouts provide a target to shoot for on the next set or next session. I go through an elliptical machine, stretches with medicine balls and do overhead presses, power squats and jump squats, all with the computerized resistance machines designed for “bi-directional workouts” -- your muscles work on the push and the pull. Finally I do interval training on an arm bike, the real killer.

VERT stands for Velocity Enhanced Resistance Training, but in my case it’s short for vertigo. I’m dizzy, but at least I didn’t throw up. Miller has a rep for making rookies toss their lunch. Maybe I’m spared because I didn’t have time for Miller’s “finishing move,” a series of quick reps on the leg extension machine. “That’s the real puker,” she says, with a gleam in her eye.

Perhaps some other day. I have to run off to Manhattan Beach, where I’m joining McPeak, her partner, Nicole Branagh, AVP rookie Logan Tom and Brazilians Shelda Bede and Tatiana “Tati” Minello. Coach Marcio Sicoli, from Brazil, speaks to them in a mixture of Portuguese and English. They’re on the volleyball courts just north of the pier.

“The sand is hot today,” McPeak cautions.

One of the occupational hazards of the job I never thought about. But it’s something to consider when you’re playing barefoot. McPeak also tells me that, unlike most sports, it’s actually advantageous to be facing the wind, because it allows you to serve harder without worrying about the ball taking off on you.

I haven’t played volleyball regularly since high school, when I took beach volleyball for PE. (Best class ever. We hopped a bus down to the courts by the Santa Monica Pier, played some volleyball, grabbed a cherry lemonade at Hot Dog on a Stick, headed back to school and got credit for this).

My re-introduction to the game consists of a few warm-ups with McPeak. If you’ve ever noticed the difference in velocity when the ball boy plays catch with an outfielder at Dodger Stadium, you get the dynamic here. While I lofted the ball toward her, the ball jumped off her hand.

Before too long I was on the court for the drill, and there was McPeak rearing back on the other side of the net.

I’ve never had a pitcher throw a 99-mile-an-hour fastball, a heavyweight fighter swing at my head or a hockey player wind up for a slapshot while I’m in goal, but at the moment none of that seems more intimidating. It’s never easy to have a professional launch anything at you. Fortunately none of the women bounces a ball off my grill this day. But I do wind up with several facefulls of sand while diving.

At first I struggle just to get to the ball. I always feel a second behind. Moving in sand is like one of those dreams when you try to run but it’s in slow motion.

When I do manage to get to the ball and hit it in the air, the women all shout encouragement. I feel like the scrawny Little League kid who gets cheered whenever he manages to hit the ball in play, even if it’s just a weak grounder to the pitcher.

As they go through their drills, I rotate in for three or four plays, then come out. It’s amazing how tiring 10-second bursts of beach volleyball can be. It almost made me nostalgic for my session with Meredeath.

During a group break, I sit down, look at the sparkling Pacific Ocean and realize I had forgotten we were by the water. Every time I rotated out I either watched the action on the court or stared down at the sand as I panted and tried to recover my breath. This is hard work.

“I used to always go to the beach,” Tom tells me. “Now that I’m always down here, I never go in my free time.”

I can see why. In two hours, my perspective on the beach has changed from pleasant afternoon rest spot to torture chamber.

During the play you’re in constant motion; it’s not enough to dig out a ball, you have to get up and start heading to where you anticipate your partner will set the ball for you. Then you have to get back to a defensive position.

As the two-hour session goes on, I find my touch on my passes and get the timing down for my spikes -- although the women on the other side of the net usually manage to return them. When the pros hit the ball, the next sound is usually the ball hitting the sand.

It’s definitely a lot harder than it looks. I think my next beach volleyball experience will be from the proper place to enjoy this sport: the stands.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.


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