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The 2016 Summer Olympic Games begin next Friday, but sports fans might be drawn to a game taking place outside of the Olympics on the beaches of Rio. It is footvolley. And, as the name implies, it's a combination of volleyball and soccer. It's catching on in the U.S. And, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, it will get international exposure during this year's games in Brazil.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On a beach in Sunny Isles in a town just north of Miami, Benny Astorga is putting members of the USA footvolley team through training drills.
BENNY ASTORGA: Good. Come on. Let's go. Put it away. Good.
ALLEN: He tosses up a volleyball as the players use their feet then their chest to keep the ball in play, and finally a head shot puts it over the net. It's basically volleyball played soccer-style. Astorga says that's how the game got started in Brazil in the mid-1960s. Soccer players were looking for a game to play on the beach.
ASTORGA: It was banned to play football on the sand. They saw some open-court nets, decided, you know, go over there and see who could keep it up the longest and a sport grew out of it, you know?
MELONY POVIONES: People see it, and they're like - they're in awe because they're like, oh, my goodness, I've never seen it before.
ALLEN: Melony Poviones is one of the women on the USA footvolley team set to compete in Rio. The U.S. team will be one of 23 countries taking part in a competition that's not officially part of the Olympics, but instead is billed as a cultural event. Poviones is from South Florida where the Brazilian-born game is gaining popularity. She's 24 and grew up playing soccer. She discovered footvolley while recovering from a knee injury.
POVIONES: I used to see the guys playing, so I kind just asked one day. I was like, hey, can I join? Because I played soccer my entire life. So they were like yeah, cool, jump in. And I was - I started getting the hang of it, and I started to love it.
ALLEN: Another team member Sergio Menezes was born in Brazil, grew up in the U.S. He was inspired to get serious about the game nearly 20 years ago. One day, he and some Brazilian friends were on the beach when they were challenged to a game of footvolley. He recalls the challenger, a Brazilian in Miami on vacation, beat them badly.
SERGIO MENEZES: So he just got frustrated. He said you guys are terrible. You know, you're not real Brazilians. So, that kind of stuck. It was me, a couple of friends of mine. We were all Brazilians looking at each other going, man, we got to learn this sport.
ALLEN: Within a few years, Menezes was into footvolley in a big way. He helped found the U.S. Footvolley Association and began holding tournaments. Later, he and others secured a national sponsor and began the Pro-Footvolley Tour. Menezes is a player, but also a footvolley promoter. It's a fast-paced game, he says, with a lot of fun, excitement and potential for growth of beach volleyball. In footvolley, the money play, the one that gets fans on their feet, is something called the shark attack.
MENEZES: The shark attack is when a player thrusts his body sort of like he's going towards the net and at the very last second, he slams it with the bottom of his foot. And it's very hard to defend because it goes straight down. Yeah, that's our slam dunk.
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ALLEN: That's a shark attack earlier this year at a pro-footvolley event on Florida's Hollywood Beach. Menezes helped convince Brazilian footvolley groups to push for an event at this year's Olympics. The Brazilian Olympic Committee agreed to an international tournament in late August at the beach volleyball arena on Copacabana Beach. It's not quite an Olympic event, not even an official demonstration sport, but Menezes and other footvolley enthusiasts are thrilled.
MENEZES: What it is it's when a guy and a girl started going out, and they don't know what it is. But there's something there. OK? That's what it is. I mean, if you're in Rio and you're in the Olympic stadium, it's an amazing sport, and the world's going to see it. I mean, it's the first step.
ALLEN: The first step for a fledgling sport that Menezes hopes eventually to see as a medal event at a future Olympics. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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