Life is a day at the beach for George Shermer

By DAVID WINER

George Shermer didn’t coin the phrase, “Life’s a Beach,” but he’s certainly living out his dream.

A self-confessed Beach Bum — perhaps not as eccentric and minimalistic as the Dude in The Big Lebowski — the Torontonian chucked in a good job and checked out from life in lieu of a one-way ticket to California to work, eat and play volleyball in his mid-20s.

Six months later Shermer returned home, not disillusioned, but rather focused on a vision, so vivid, he knew it couldn’t fail.

All he needed, was to sell his grandiose scheme of an indoor beach volleyball facility on financial backers to make it a reality.

Unfortunately for Shermer, a dream that only required six months to form, required two decades to materialize, as Canadians had to warm up to the concept beach volleyball could be a mainstream sport in the land of ice hockey, skating and skiing.

Unlike Canadians, Shermer grew up in Europe. He and his family fled Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now the capital of Slovakia) in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled in during the Warsaw Pact Invasion.

Not only did the upheaval rip the then 19-year-old from his roots, it also separated him from the sport his countrymen held so dear  — volleyball.

“Junior volleyball didn’t exist then (in Canada) and I was a greenie, yet I was among the best in Canada among those who were five years older,” recalled Shermer.

“Instead of being one of the top 1,000 (Junior players in Czechoslovakia) I was top 100 in Canada (overall),” added Shermer, who regained his footing upon arriving by enrolling at the Balmy Beach volleyball club a year later. “It taught me volumes, including how great life can be playing sports.”

And from those early days, volleyball remained near and dear to Shermer as he continued to play, coach and referee while waiting for his dream to come to life.

But it wasn’t until after Canada’s strong showing at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when the men’s indoor team placed fourth, that this country’s youth took notice and started gravitating to volleyball. That’s when Shermer’s ambitious project of an indoor facility began to seem feasible. Canada’s bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games by Toronto’s John Child and Mark Heese provided further impetus.

With the interest meter pointing straight up and more and more Canadians taking to the beaches and indoor courts to play, Shermer found three partners to help create Beach Blast in 1997.

Twenty years later, the North York-based 50,000 sq.-ft. indoor/outdoor creation near the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, is a striving business sporting seven indoor and eight outdoor sand courts that serve as an oasis for Ontarians during the chilly days of winter and the occasional inclement wet, dreary and windy days of spring, fall and summer.

The facility attracts a gamut of clientele from Olympians looking to further Canada’s reputation internationally; to school children taking up the sport for the first time; to corporate types looking to bond on the beach court; to groups wanting to host a party.

“Yes, I have many recollections with Beach Blast,” says Canadian Beach Volleyball coach Hernan Humana. “The most important is the preparations for the 2000 Olympics with Mark Heese and John Child (where they earned their first of back-to-back fifth-placing finishes). We trained there every single day during the winter for the whole Olympic cycle leading to Sydney.”

“Before that, I ran a Sunday group with very young kids for many years,” continued Humana, who also coaches at the Mississauga Pakmen Volleyball Club. “I also started the first beach volleyball club in the country at Beach Blast; the Elite Beach Volleyball Club. Many of the current top players in Canada started in our club.

“Needless to say George Shermer is not only a great guy and business person, but also my brother.”

High praise for Beach Blast, but hardly the lone voice.

Former national beach team player Victoria Altomare, who placed second at the World Championships, won four Provincial titles, two National championships and was a member of Canada’s national team for seven years, was also a member of Humana’s  Elite Beach Volleyball Club.

“Being  a part of this beach club at the facility, I really learned what it meant to practice with purpose and to train in preparation for tournaments,” said Altomare, who like Humana coaches at Pakmen. “Beach Blast also offered me a place to practice in the winter when I wanted to prepare for the outdoor season a little earlier than the others. In all honesty, this place made me fall in love with the game and the culture that surrounded it.”

Fellow national player and Pakmen coach and alumni Daniel Dearing echoes Altomare’s gratitude for the indoor beach mecca.

“Beach Blast is an incredible facility,” said Dearing of the one-time Canadian National Team Training Centre. The seven indoor beach courts they have (make playing) available all year round.

“The owners, George Shermer and Josh Gluskin, love the sport of volleyball and opened this facility because of their passion. George and Josh were extremely supportive and lenient whenever it came to Volleyball Canada’s scheduling.”

On a more personal note, Dearing confides having Beach Blast to count on in the winter, gave him an advantage over many of his opponents.

“Having Beach Blast as a training centre gave me the upper edge to train all year round,” he said. “During my 18U club year with Pakmen, I trained three days a week in the sand, along with three days with Pakmen indoor. With the accessibility to extra training, it gave me the upper edge to be in the best shape of my life and focus on all skills in the sport.”

Dearing recalled making the trek to Beach Blast every Monday, Wednesday and Sunday for two hours of training.

“My partner and I won a bronze medal at the Beach National Championship that summer in 2008 because of our early preparation. And at the end of ’08 and beginning of ’09, I took my skills to the next level that summer, trying out and making the Men’s National Beach Team at the age of 17.”

While there are two other indoor beach facilities in the GTA, Beach Blast thrives above the others for a number of reasons.

“What separates us from them is that we have heated sand, a 35-foot ceiling with high windows, which makes it feel like you’re outdoors, as well as seven indoor and eight outdoor courts that are open from May to the end of September,” explained Shermer. “We can host a lot more people and we can provide the value of offering both (indoor and outdoor) options in May or June. We cannot get rained out, which is a great feature for many schools, corporations and for special events.”

Visitors to Beach Blast are treated to a volleyball environment featuring 50, 22-ton truck loads of sand, kept clean, constantly moistened to prevent flying dust, kept warm at 20 degrees celsius with radiant heating, and regularly spread around with special aluminum rakes and snow shovels.

“We sell people on the quality of the experience,” continued Shermer. “It’s not like food, or watching TV. We provide an experience you can remember for the rest of your life.”

Pakmen founder, Kelly Smith, who divulges Shermer was his “mentor” when first forming the club in 2002, has depended heavily on Beach Blast’s accessibility for both his Pakmen players and his students at David Leeder Middle School.

“Training at Beach Blast taught the players to love beach volleyball and suddenly they were training volleyball year-round and not burning out, because the beach game is so much different and so enjoyable,” said Smith.

“Our first-ever Pakmen team, an U14 boys team (featuring Jessy Satti and Kadeem Clarke), trained (at Beach Blast) two evenings a week during the indoor season from March ’til May and we ended up winning U14 Provincials that year,” recalled Smith. “I’m convinced the main factor was all those extra touches the guys got playing 2-vs.-2 for two months. I witnessed how helpful beach volleyball was, and it became a staple in the Pakmen program. We convinced George to coach in our club while his sons were still playing, and we learned even more from him.

“I used to bring my school to Beach Blast every year for field trips and ran beach volleyball summer camps there,” continued Smith in regards to the extent he depended on the facility. So popular were those outings, that Smith had a hand in building David Leeder’s own beach courts.

Smith and Shermer seem to have a mutual respect for each other’s contribution to the sport of volleyball. It is Shermer who provided guidance to Smith when he was first starting up the Pakmen club. And it was the Pakmen that Shermer enrolled his children in to compete.

“Kelly’s son Eric played volleyball at the (JCC Blues) club that I ran and coached out of North York,” recalled Shermer.

“We got to know each other. He wanted to become a winning coach.”

That bond grew to the degree Shermer maintains, “Kelly and I are extremely close friends. We share the same values.

“He reaches out and helps out through volleyball,” said Shermer pointing to some disadvantaged youngsters Smith has taken under his wing. “Volleyball is the vehicle for him to provide an opportunity to connect with other people. He provides opportunities for people without money,” added Shermer, saying Smith often donned a taxi driver’s hat the way he chauffeured so many of his players home after a practice or tournament.

“I met George shortly after Beach Blast opened over 20 years ago and we quickly became friends because we were both so passionate about volleyball,” recalled Smith. “He taught me a lot about the game and beach volleyball, in particular, and he acted as a trusted mentor when I started Pakmen.

“George was my mentor (when) setting the club up and growing it,” added Smith. “He had run his own club in the past and helped me set the club up the right way, from the beginning to avoid mistakes and keep the focus on the athletes and not the politics. His advice was invaluable and I think the smartest thing I ever did was listen to him and my other volleyball mentor, the legendary Paul Reader, who encouraged me to recruit coaches with the right mindsets, and not worry too much about technical knowledge. We can teach that, he said, but you can’t teach people to coach for the right reasons.”

The final reason Beach Blast is such a success, is that it can be easily transformed into party central.

“For special events we have a unique 30,000 sq.-ft. party area, which is great for throwing a bash,” said Shermer. “Banquet halls offer their own catering services. (But) at our place, you can have pot luck, or have your own caterers and your own prepared meals.”

Among the many groups who use the facility, is the Pakmen club, which holds its annual Christmas party there.

“Many clubs hold a year-end awards dinner at a banquet hall,” said Smith. “We hold a party at Beach Blast. We just hosted our sixth annual party a couple of weeks ago, from 12-7 p.m. on a Sunday and 600 people showed up. (Invitees) were spread out throughout the day (7 hour party) so it was never crowded. We welcomed all our Pakmen players and their families. We also invited our alumni, many of whom are showing up every year as sort of a reunion.

“People ask me all the time what is the main goal of our club — to be the top club in Canada? To win the most at Nationals? To produce the most skilled players who go on to play in university, national team programs and pro? I like all those goals. The most important goal, I feel, is for our players, when they are older and their Pakmen playing days are over, to look back and say, ‘I had a great time playing with Pakmen and I will always treasure that experience’. ”

And Beach Blast is a unique and pleasurable environment for such memories to be rekindled.

“Beach Blast definitely has a party atmosphere and you do feel like you’re in the Caribbean without the expenses,” says Smith. “We’ve had close to 3,000 Pakmen, family and alumni attend our parties. (And) we have several people thank us when they leave — they appreciate a fun outing in a setting with so many people (coaches and peers) they know and like.

“And that’s something I hear over and over again talking with our alumni and it makes me feel amazing.”

“I think the OVA slogan is ‘volleyball for life’,” sums up Shermer. “My life has been the sport of volleyball. I’ve done everything volleyball can offer. For 20 years its been the best ride of my life.”

With the creation of Beach Blast, thousands can vouch it’s been a great ride for them as well.

       

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