On nearly all accounts, Aspen is an unlikely place to hold a beach volleyball tournament.
At just over 7,900 feet, it’s certainly not the ideal location for sea-level athletes who mainly sprint and jump. And, well, there’s the conspicuous absence of a beach.
Yet, despite the odds, The MotherLode Volleyball Classic is celebrating its 41st annual tournament this weekend in Aspen. Along with a notable average height increase in town since the six-day tournament kicked off on Wednesday, every sand court at Koch Lumber and Willoughby parks and nearly every blade of grass in most of Aspen’s other major parks have been taken over by the event.
“This year The MotherLode truly becomes a full-fledged festival,” says event organizer and longtime Aspenite Leon Fell. “We’ve extended the event by two days and added a men’s 55-over division and a women’s 45-over division. We’ve also changed the format of the festival, which allows multi-day participants to play even longer. The top teams will move into the ‘MotherLode Championship’ division and the rest of the teams will move into the ‘Festival’ division, meaning plenty of play and plenty of fun for everyone.”
Fell says The Motherlode Volleyball Classic has been the largest doubles tournament in the nation for well over a decade. He estimates that more than 5,000 players and spectators converge on Aspen for the weekend, where about 600 teams compete. Fell said it costs about $80,000, including about $30,000 in prize money, to put on the event annually. Most of that cost is staffing.
There are nearly 20 discrete categories, ranging from the open level all the way down to the BB level. And Koch Lumber Park will be the center of operations for the event, with the open-level players competing on the sand courts. Burgers, hot dogs and beer will be for sale. The Motherlode is the only major beach volleyball festival in Colorado, and is a free event for spectators that’s filled with music, food and family fun.
Many Olympians and beach professionals have graced the MotherLode’s courts in recent years, including Dax Holdren, Dain Blanton, Sean Rosenthal, Pat Powers, Laurel Brassey, Rachel Scott and current USA pro beach star Casey Patterson.
Among the many hundreds of teams competing, legends of beach volleyball also participate in the men’s and women’s seniors and masters divisions. Top collegiate players can be seen in the upper divisions of the grass tournament, as well as USA indoor national team members.
Riley Salmons, outside hitter from 2012’s Olympic Gold Medalist indoor squad, will compete in the open division on the sand courts at Koch Lumber Park.
The MotherLode tournament got its start back in 1972 when a group of friends gathered at Koch Lumber Park for some volleyball and some partying. By 1981, the original 14-team tournament, organized by the MotherLode Restaurant, had grown to 164 teams. At that time, the restaurant owners hired Fell, a local volleyball player and event promoter, to take the event to new heights. The restaurant shut its doors nearly a decade ago, but the tournament lives on.
“We’ve held steady in terms of size since the late ’90s,” Fell said. “But its stature has grown considerably over the past five or six years. Why?
“Location, location, location. Aspen’s a great venue,” he added. “People make this trip their vacation, which is why it’s been called the social event of the outdoor volleyball season.”