SALT LAKE CITY — Olympian Jake Gibb has played beach volleyball in some of the most exotic and beautiful places in the world.
But none of those courts holds the allure that the 37-year-old Bountiful native finds in playing in the same Salt Lake City park where his professional volleyball career began when he was earning his business degree at the University of Utah.
“For me personally, I couldn’t be more excited to come here and play in front of my home crowd, to play in front of my family,” Gibb said Wednesday afternoon at a press conference announcing Salt Lake’s Liberty Park as the location of the first stop on the AVP’s 2013 seven-city tour that begins Aug. 16. “I’ve played on some of the most amazing world stages, and I think I’m more excited to come here than any of those. I’m really excited.”
Gibb, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, will compete on the same courts where he grew up playing “any chance I got,” he said as aspiring players scrimmaged behind him in the sunshine. The AVP’s tournament opener will feature 16 men’s teams and 16 women’s teams, and it will be the first time the AVP has held a competition in Utah.
Gibb, a two-time Olympian and cancer survivor, now lives in California, but said he’s proud to be a product of Utah volleyball. And while Utah may not be known for its beaches, players like Gibb have certainly put it on the map for the caliber of players it produces.
“Utah beach volleyball is quite an amazing thing actually,” said Gibb, whose partner Casey Patterson is a product of the BYU men’s volleyball program. “You look at where the great players come from in the U.S., and Utah, in my opinion, is in the top five.”
He pointed to California and Florida as places that are known for their beach volleyball programs and players, but he said Utah “is right there.”
“I don’t know what to attribute it to,” he said smiling, “but I think BYU men’s volleyball helps a lot and University of Utah women’s volleyball — and I’ve got to give a shout out to the University of Utah men’s club volleyball team that I played for. For whatever reason Utah is known as a little hotbed.”
That hotbed could get even hotter as youth and feeder programs are already in the works as a way to nurture this new partnership with AVP.
Dick Carle, the AVP chairman, said he doesn’t see this tournament as a one-time event.
“The warm embrace we’ve felt lets us know we have an awful lot of potential for this partnership,” Carle said, noting the rave reviews Utah received after hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I know you guys can really throw an athletic party.”
He thanked the city and local businesses for their support, and said he knows the event will be a long-term success.
“This will be the beginning of a great outdoor volleyball program in Utah,” he said. “We’re really looking to do something 365 days a year and really become part of the Salt Lake area.”
There will be tournaments for local aspiring professionals in the days leading up to the AVP tournament that will allow Utah teams a chance to play against the world’s best. The AVP tour features Olympic gold medalists like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, as well as Olympic silver medalists April Ross and Jen Kessy.
Gibb might not be looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd were it not for the foresight and efforts of a Utah County man. Frank Tusieseina, whose daughter graduated from Lone Peak High, moved to Utah from California six years ago. He represented a former Olympic gold medalist and has always believed Utah would embrace more beach volleyball opportunities.
He called Carle and asked for a meeting after hearing the AVP was looking for tournament locations. It just so happened that Carle was stopping in Utah as he has a home in Park City.
“We had lunch that afternoon and that was it,” said Tusieseina. “It’s significant. People don’t realize that Utah is a huge volleyball state, and that it’s produced some great players. I’m trying to let the country know Salt Lake City and Utah is a world-class volleyball state.”
The sport has a lot of potential with new outdoor volleyball facilities in Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as the NCAA’s decision to sanction women’s beach volleyball.
Gibb asked one favor of volleyball fans as the press conference broke up and he prepared to play a pick-up game on the courts where he got his start.
“I think this is going to be a great thing,” he said. “Let’s blow this thing up so we can keep coming back every year.”
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