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Beach volleyball discovers unlikely star

Henry Russell plays beach volleyball for a living. You can tell that by looking at him. He is six feet, six inches, handsome, tanned and athletic, his square-jawed face wrapped by metallic sunglasses but defined by a toothy-white smile.

Russell, 28, certainly looks the part. Heck, he is the part, even if just 10 years ago the idea of Russell as a professional beach volleyball player was, well, implausible.

"No one could have seen this coming," Russell said. "Me, my parents, guys I went to school with. It's crazy."

Russell has become a success on the beach volleyball circuit, and it doesn't make much sense on a tour that boasts the very best players in the world, where college All-Americans and former Olympians rule the beach. You don't find stories of Florida guys who didn't play in high school and attended a junior college without a volleyball team and who never had any formal training and who lived in a van for two months while pursuing a dream.

That is, until you speak to Russell.

He wasn't a jock in high school, didn't play sports, had never played volleyball. He graduated from Tarpon Springs in 1987 and joined the Marines, for no reason other than to make Henry Sr. proud.

Once there, stationed in Okinawa, Russell found beach volleyball in a doctor's office at the age of 21. He was there to have his knee fixed after shredding his ligaments during a routine training exercise. One of his rehabilitation therapists happened to play. He suggested to Russell that playing on the beach would be a good way to strengthen his injured knee. So Russell played.

When he left the Marines in 1991 and returned to Clearwater he continued to play. He won local tournaments. He became good.

How good? The way Russell figured it, good enough to make a little extra money while he tended bar at night and attended St. Petersburg Junior College by day.

"I still didn't have any idea I'd be here," Russell said. "I was just playing and having fun. At the end of two, three years, I realized that only myself and another player were the best in state of Florida. I thought it was time for (partner) Burke (Stefko) and I to take our talents nationwide and play on the pro tour."

The AVP was holding a qualifier series in 1994, and Russell and Stefko made plans to compete.

But Russell knew that Florida was not the Mecca of beach volleyball _ California was. So in the winter of '93, he loaded up his Volkswagen bus, emptied $2,000 out of his bank account and drove across the country to prepare for the qualifier series.

"I knew some people," he said, "but I didn't have any solid arrangements."

Russell, who earned his black belt when he was 16, ended up as a valet and taught karate. He couldn't afford his own place, so he lived in his van. Occasionally, friend James Fellows would let him use the shower at his apartment. And often, Russell had no choice but to lather up under the showers on the beach.

He had to remember to move his bus once a week because of street cleaners. He ate Ramen noodles nightly, and swears he can make them better than anyone. He slept in the van bent and twisted.

"I look at it now and don't believe I did all that," Russell said.

It paid off. He and Stefko played in six of the 12 qualifier events because it was all they could afford, but won twice and placed in the top three in all the others. That gave them enough points to play on the tour in 1995.

Russell's priorities shifted. Suddenly, beach volleyball was a job. His first match on tour ended in a 15-1 loss _ to stars Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.

"I couldn't even serve the ball over the net I was so nervous," said Russell, who has since defeated Kiraly a number of times. "It was like a slap in the face: Hey, you're here."

And he plans on staying. Russell, was voted the most improved player on the tour in 1996, won his first tournament in 1997 (with current partner Mark Kerins) on the way to $54,000 in earnings, and this year was seeded No. 8 at the Clearwater event. He plays in Fort Myers this weekend.

He laughs now at his story. Jokes that he misses his van. Reminisces about his days as a bartender and a Ramen chef.

"You won't ever hear me complain about anything," Russell said. "This is a great life. Some of these guys complain about things, but you won't here me complain. I count my blessings every day. As of right now, I'm just trying to live it to the fullest. I'm just stoked to be here."