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Beach volleyball's big names attract thousands to Vinoy Park

The audience is cooled off with a hose on Saturday at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. The AVP St. Petersburg Open will continue today. Participants include Olympic stars.

LARA CERRI | Times

The audience is cooled off with a hose on Saturday at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. The AVP St. Petersburg Open will continue today. Participants include Olympic stars.

ST. PETERSBURG

The Olympian with the signature blond braid strode out of a makeshift shower, threw a towel over her bikini and waved to a blocklong line of shrieking fans.

"Kerri! I love you, Kerri!"

Between beach volleyball matches Saturday, 35-year-old Kerri Walsh Jennings — the 6-foot-2 winner of gold in Athens, Greece, Beijing and London — signed autographs at the Association of Volleyball Professionals' first-ever tournament in St. Petersburg.

A little girl handed her a T-shirt and a metallic Sharpie.

"Can I use black?" Walsh Jennings asked. "I hate silver."

The seven-stop AVP tour, which started last month in Salt Lake City and ends in October in Huntington Beach, Calif., annually attracts elite athletes and fans from across the country. Roughly 9,000 people flocked this weekend to watch 32 teams play in Vinoy Park, organizers said.

"This is crazy!" said Walsh Jennings, who is training for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "All the love and enthusiasm for our sport here is just beautiful."

Last week, 60 dump trucks unloaded about 1,200 tons of sand onto the grass to make four courts, said local consultant Mario Farias, who worked with the mayor and City Council to bring the tournament to St. Petersburg.

After today's championship games, it'll go into storage.

"We'd like to do this again next year," Farias said, "so we'll have the sand ready."

City officials started "courting" the AVP with a city tour in January, he said. They received the green light in June.

"We're a vibrant society of professionals, a cosmopolitan area," Farias said. "I knew we'd be perfect for it. But this weekend has surpassed all expectations."

He added: "The restaurant owners on Beach Drive are very, very happy."

People in bathing suits and thick sunscreen clustered around the courts Saturday, sipping water and beers from a Bud Light Truck. A 20-foot inflatable volleyball towered near a rock wall.

Donna Kellogg, 60, of St. Pete Beach came for the atmosphere, which was friendly and familiar after eight years of watching her daughter, now a beach volleyball coach at Georgia State University, compete in similar tournaments.

"It's the perfect venue — right on the water," she said. "We've been to tournaments right in the middle of cities. Those weren't as pretty."

Delaney Tindal, 11, brought a friend to meet her favorite athletes, who they watched on TV. She wrote and illustrated a book about silver medalists April Ross and Jennifer Kessy called The Golden Inspiration.

"They signed it for me," said Tindal, who came from DeLand with her dad, David. "We took a picture on April Ross' iPhone."

Beach volleyball's big names attract thousands to Vinoy Park 09/14/13 [Last modified: Saturday, September 14, 2013 10:08pm]
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