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Difference Maker

Volleyball for all on a famous Rio beach

Roberto Bosch's volleyball school was getting nowhere. Then he invited kids from the slums to join for free.

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / August 17, 2012

Roberto Bosch teaches beach volleyball on Leblon Beach in Rio de Janeiro. His students come from both local slums and wealthy neighborhoods.

Jimmy Chalk

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Rio De Janeiro

Roberto "Betinho" Bosch had his glory moments early in life.

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The gangly athlete joined his first volleyball club at age 12; before he was old enough to drive, he was already under contract and being paid for playing the sport. In college, Betinho, as he is known here, dropped out of his classes in economics to travel with a professional team. When he competed in the youth world championships in Italy at age 20, he was considered the best player on earth.

But health concerns made him leave pro volleyball just as his peers were graduating from college. Soon he found he was struggling to find a new direction for his life.

"I was lost for a long time," Betinho says, aimless for some seven years after leaving professional athletics. "I didn't understand anything. [Playing volleyball] was just a part of my life that was being ripped out. I wasn't ready."

Betinho had ridden what he calls a "boom" of volleyball in Brazil. Although football (called soccer in the United States) was the prevailing national sport, volleyball had knocked out basketball as the second most popular. National volleyball idols emerged, and the sport was broadcast on major television channels.

After Betinho made an unenthusiastic attempt to return to college, his wife suggested he start his own volleyball school.

"Given that I was really depressed, really low at the time, I didn't think I was capable" of running a school, he says. Still, he set up a volleyball court on Rio de Janeiro's glamorous, celebrity-studded Leblon Beach.

"In the beginning, it was one old net, three old balls, and one student, which was my wife," he recalls.

Few other students showed up. Then Betinho had an idea – one that would finally bring vigor back to the life of the dispirited former pro athlete: Why not go to the public schools and offer volleyball lessons to students free of charge?

Brazil is a country whose inequality is as famous as its sun-soaked beaches. While apartments in posh neighborhoods like Leblon and Ipanema sell for millions of dollars, children in the precarious favelas (squatter settlements) on the hillsides behind them, and in the city's far-flung shabby suburbs, often live without sewage connections or clean water.

The disparity is coined in the city's jargon, where morro (hill) is used to denote the poor shantytowns, while asfalto (asphalt) refers to wealthier neighborhoods on the level pavement below.

"Here in Brazil we have long had the idea that with social projects you are making a project to fill up time, or to keep kids in favelas out of risky activities," Betinho says. In contrast, he wanted his school to treat students as pre-professionals, working with them on their techniques in long after-school practices that would eventually allow some to join his more competitive teams.

In a testament to their seriousness, his youth teams won every age group in last year's championships in Rio de Janeiro.

As his school became popular among poor public school students, showing their growing abilities each day on fashionable Leblon Beach, children from wealthy homes nearby began signing up as paying students.

"When you put on a uniform, no one knows who is who, who came from where," Betinho says. "I saw [this] as a social project. This was much more interesting than a project that was directed only to a low-income community, in which you don't have interaction with kids of other social classes."

Indeed, his students have a precocious awareness of the income disparity and diversity that belies their ages and adolescent carefreeness.

"It's good because you get to meet different people. I study at a private school, so I have little contact with these people," says Gabriela Polonia, who spends hours each day after school with her fellow players and a handful of coaches handpicked by Betinho.

Nearby a young girl practices serving one-on-one with an adult coach, while some of the more advanced students play a fast-paced match. It's winter holiday from school here, and the children spend hours under the stars at the beach playing and practicing on a weekday.

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