Copacabana is beach volleyball Mecca, perfect place for Rio Olympics

Nick Lucena of Cooper City dives for a ball during his opening victory with partner Phil Dalhausser on Sunday.
Nick Lucena of Cooper City dives for a ball during his opening victory with partner Phil Dalhausser on Sunday. AP

There could not be a more fitting place for Olympic beach volleyball than Copacabana, a two-mile crescent of sand with volleyball nets and soccer goals dotting the coastline as far as the eye can see. From sunrise to sunset, players of all ages knock volleyballs over nets with their hands, feet and heads.

And those are just the amateurs.

This week, the world’s best players are competing for Olympic medals on that very sand, in a 12,000-seat, 70-foot high stadium just a few hundred feet from the shore. The sound of crashing waves can be heard during serves. Matches are being played all day and night, including some that start at midnight.

Olympic beach volleyball has been played in parks and in London’s Royal Parade Grounds, but Copacabana is a true mecca, and fans around here are nearly as passionate about volleyball — both sand and the indoor game — as they are about soccer. In fact, the top Brazilian volleyball players go by one name, like the soccer stars. Schmidt. Alison. Larissa. Talita.

The stadium D.J. knew to play the Florida State University war chant Sunday afternoon when Cooper City native and FSU graduate Nick Lucena stepped on the court with teammate Phil Dalhausser for their opening match. The fans in the stands, most of them Brazilians in yellow shirts, clearly understood the nuances of the game (although one little boy, asked by an arena host to name his favorite player, replied “Neymar”).

The Brazilians cheered for the underdog, Tunisia’s Mohamed Arafet Maceur and Choaib Belhaj Salah, but the Americans were too good. Lucena and Dalhausser needed just 35 minutes to win 2-0 (21-7, 21-13).

“Playing in Copacabana is awesome,” said Lucena, 36, a former soccer player at Cooper City and Western High. “The fans were great, and the stadium is beautiful. Beach volleyball and soccer they’re super passionate about here. They like to get against us and that fires up Phil, so it’s good.

“Once they started to play that Florida State chant song, I was ready.”

It was unusually windy Sunday, and dark clouds were rolling in by mid-afternoon, but that didn’t stop the festive scene around the beach volleyball venue. That stadium has become the epicenter of a two-mile Olympic beach party along Avenida Atlantica, complete with street musicians, soccer ball jugglers and vendors of everything from beach towels to bikinis to whistles to jewelry. Throngs of locals and Olympic visitors stroll along the promenade, made of black-and-white stones in a wave pattern — a carryover from Portugal.

And every 100 yards is beach bar/restaurant selling pao de queijo (bread cheese balls), bolinhos (empanada-like pastries filled with meat, chicken and cheese) and caipirinhas, the mojito-like cocktail of choice.

Many of those bars have TVs and show Superliga men’s and women’s professional indoor volleyball matches, as well as pro beach volleyball tournaments.

“You could make the argument that Copacabana is the best beach volleyball beach in the world,” said Dalhausser, who went to University of Central Florida. “I’ll say Manhattan Beach is the best, but we could go back and forth on that. Copacabana is great. They’re really passionate about our sport here. When you play Brazil in Brazil, it’s pretty awesome.”

He told of an exhibition match in 2012 when he and an American team played against Brazil in the Amazon, with the net set along the equator. “The Northern Hemisphere teams stayed on the north side of the net and the Southern Hemisphere teams on the south. We were booed by the Brazilian fans. They’ve booed me so many times I’m used to it by now.”

Next up, Lucena and Dalhausser, who are medal contenders, face a team from Mexico on Tuesday. They were going to work out in the Athletes’ Village gym on Sunday night to start getting ready. Lucena said working out alongside athletes in other sports has been interesting.

“I was there with wrestlers and rugby guys and I was like, ‘I do not look like an athlete,’ ” Lucena said, smiling. “The village is awesome, once in a lifetime. I’ve seen all the NBA guys walking around, Serena [Williams], I met a diver Katrina [Young] from Florida State, a fellow Seminole. That was pretty cool. That was a highlight.”

Lucena’s wife, former pro beach volleyball player Brooke Niles, was in the stands on Sunday wearing an FSU cap. She is the coach of the Seminoles beach volleyball team. Lucena’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, all of whom live in Southwest Ranches, are flying in Aug. 11.

“Hopefully we’ll still be in the tournament when they get here,” he said.

Related stories from Miami Herald