Not just a kids’ sport, volleyball torches calories and improves muscle tone at any age.

Beach volleyball got its start on Waikiki Beach in 1915. Nearly a century later, a string of U.S. Olympic gold medal wins have transformed the sport into a national craze, and a handful of Hawai’i-born athletes are leading the charge here in the islands.

For beach volleyball coach Alika Williams, an average work day begins with a group of competitive moms, continues with rambunctious 8-year-olds tumbling across the sand, and ends with teenagers hoping to one day make their college team.

“I’m coaching pretty much all day, six days a week,” says Williams, a Hilo native who got his volleyball start at Punahou in ninth grade. After playing indoor volleyball for UC Santa Barbara, Williams played professional sand volleyball for five years before returning to Hawai’i just as the sport’s popularity began to explode.

“It’s a combination of the last three Olympics, with the U.S. winning gold in women’s sand volleyball, plus it becoming an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sport in 2012,” says Williams, explaining the sports’ phenomenal growth. Its augmenting popularity with women is evidenced by the 70-percent female participation rate in Williams’ Hunakai HI Performance (hunakaihiperformance.com) program.

“I love coaching a really high level of athleticism. I have a handful of girls I’ve coached in high school, and getting to see them blossom as great college players across the country is incredibly satisfying. I envisioned this as a business when they announced it would be a college sport. What I didn’t envision was the turnout with adults, which has been a pleasant surprise.”

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“It’s good for the soul and a good laugh,” says Steph Gambetta, who takes a class twice a week with other moms, playing in sand volleyball’s calorie-busting standard formation of only two players on each side of the net. “I love what it does for the leg muscles—having to work in the sand and the interval bursts for cardio and the heart.”

Sand also provides a forgiving cushion, allowing players to bump, set and hit right into their golden years with fewer injuries. William’s oldest student, a 73-year-old woman, turns up every week to play with other women nearly half her age. On the other end of the spectrum are the grade school kids too short to reach the net.

“Technically the kids’ groups are bigger, as they’re not at a point where they can really rally back and forth,” Williams says. “We’re working on eye coordination strength, basic rally skills and getting touches—skills that are eventually going to help them play.”

Once those kids start playing, they’ll join a century-long tradition in Hawai’i. The sport was first played on Waikiki Beach in 1915.

“There’s a legacy in Hawai’i for beach volleyball. Ninety-nine years ago, it was George ‘Dad’ Center and Duke Kahanamoku playing at Outrigger Canoe Club. Hawai’i has those roots,” says Kevin Wong, a 2000 U.S. Beach Volleyball Olympian and two-time NCAA Champion at UCLA who announces matches, including the Olympics, for NBC.

“When we were broadcasting the gold medal match, we had 29 million people watching it on NBC. That’s bigger than the BCS college football championships.”

Raised in Pearl City, Wong is a Punahou grad who founded Spike and Serve (spikeandserve.com) clinics focusing on 5to 18-year-olds—a generation Wong thinks will flock in unprecedented numbers to beach volleyball.

Tanya Fuamatu, a UH Hilo grad and former professional volleyball player, agrees. “With indoor volleyball, you’re playing six kids at a time. They’re fighting for playtime.

A lot of kids coming from indoor will get pigeonholed into playing just one position. When they come to beach, they’re having to do it all and they gain a lot of confidence,” says Fuamatu, who coaches 12to 18-year-olds with Extreme Fitness Club (efchawaii.com).

“Millennials and younger [players] want to be outdoors; they want less coaching, more creativity,” Wong says. “That’s all feeding into the popularity of beach volleyball. It’s fun. You feel like a kid.”

So is there any downside to a sport that lets you feel like a kid, keeps you playing well into your senior years and whips you into shape?

“After a day on the court, my feet always feel hot,” Williams laughs. “Even at night, while I sleep.”

Photos courtesy Hunakai Fitness unless otherwise noted