Beach volleyball players flock to St. Pete for competition and culture

Beachgoers gather around the St. Pete Waterfront to play volleyball. | | Courtesy of City of St. Pete

By Kendra Reese Community & Culture Beat Reporter

Pepê Costa’s journey from his childhood in Rio de Janeiro, where he spent his days in the sun-soaked sand, to his current role as a decorated beach volleyball coach, has been defined by his passion for the sport.

Having coached in 49 countries, including professional and Olympic teams, he has now settled in St. Petersburg. Here, he is determined to use his expertise to guide the local beach volleyball community to its full potential.

“People here are fanatics about beach volleyball,” said Costa, who landed in St. Petersburg as the technical director for Optimum Beach Volleyball, one of the area’s premiere clubs. “There is a tournament every weekend; they never stop.”

In the active St. Petersburg area, a driven community of beach volleyball players grows and thrives. The city is known for its bustling, active and healthy community of outdoor sports lovers. Amongst this fiercely competitive community are beach volleyball players, who sleep, breathe and certainly eat sand.

As parks like Northshore and Gulfport provide a haven for beach volleyball players, organizations like the USF St. Petersburg Volleyball Club and Optimum Beach Volleyball Club gather competitive talent. At the helm of this movement is The Sunshine State Outdoor Volleyball Association (SSOVA), which hosts competitive tournaments allowing for the growth of community and culture.

This hobby has generated camaraderie among a diverse group of people who enjoy getting outside and competing in a sport. It has even attracted talented and seasoned figures, like Costa, who holds national and world championship titles in many countries, including Brazil, Australia, Paraguay, Japan and Qatar.

“St. Petersburg provides me with the life I’ve always been used to. I feel at home here, where we play beach volleyball 24/7,” said Costa, referring to his childhood in Brazil.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s USFSP Volleyball Club gives students a chance to compete, improve and make lasting friendships. The club’s president, Abby Carter, orchestrates the day-to-day activities of the club.

“The culture of the volleyball team is something that’s super special,” Carter said. “We are like a big family.”

The group focuses on building friendships, skills and teamwork. The team hosts weekly practices and participates in multiple tournaments throughout the season.

“I find that a lot of the volleyball team hangs out as friends outside of practice and tournaments, which is really cool,” Carter said. “I can speak for myself and say that most of my really close friends are on the volleyball team, both boys and girls that I’ve met in college, it’s just really cool to see that continuing with other players on the team as well.”

SSOVA owner and director Isabelle Thayer-Persaud has devoted her life to the beach volleyball community. From meeting her husband to watching her firstborn toddle around the beach, she has built a life around the sport.

“The most amazing opportunities I’ve had in life have been because of volleyball,” Persaud said. 

Something that holds many people back from joining a new activity is the cliques, or close-knit friend groups that may be hard to infiltrate. For beach volleyball in St. Pete, there seems to be an open policy regarding newcomers.

“I feel like beach volleyball is so inclusive; it can be a little cliquey at times, but honestly, I think this area is the least cliquey of them all. I guess the hardest part is finding a court that’s open, these days, we’re growing so much that we need more courts,” Persaud said.

Unlike other areas that attract beach volleyball players, the locals describe the St. Pete community as inclusive, welcoming and friendly. In such a competitive sport, it can be hard to find areas that are willing to welcome newcomers with open arms; a problem that is not apparent in St. Pete.

Groups like SSOVA are dedicated to bringing forth positive change through the insistence of green practices. This company strives to leave the beaches cleaner than they found them and even bans players from returning if they are found to leave trash on the beach after tournaments.

The unique community built upon not only talent but friendship, diversity and good old-fashioned competition makes St. Petersburg stand out as a hub where individuals not only excel in their own abilities but foster lifelong connections.

These friendships are what make this beach volleyball community special. From the pickup games at Northshore Park to the competitive tournaments hosted by SSOVA, players in St. Pete value sportsmanship, connection and fun above all else.