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 , Correspondent

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    Roberto Bosch teaches beach volleyball on Leblon Beach in Rio de Janeiro. His students come from both local slums and wealthy neighborhoods.
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Roberto "Betinho" Bosch had his glory moments early in life.

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.

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"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.

"It's good when you have someone who likes the same things as you," Gabriela adds.

Erick Washington, who lives in the nearby favela called Vidigal, has come to the beach volleyball school every day for two years.

"Any problem I have, I come and play volleyball to feel calm," says Erick, a short, poised boy who plans to study gastronomy after graduating from high school. "It is a very professional class. They push to make us better."

Betinho observes the students from a plastic table near a juice bar. In addition to mixing students of diverse social and economic classes, the project has taken on another ambitious mission – to train an upcoming class of Olympic-quality athletes.

While businesses happily sponsor famous athletes who give brands exposure on TV and on other media, those who dream of making it to that level often lack the sponsors they need to train intensely and gain the skills to play in professional leagues, Betinho says.

Beach volleyball, which was first included as a summer Olympic sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games, has a weak network in Brazil to train these young athletes, he says.

"We have a very poorly formed base of athletes for beach volleyball [in Brazil], so this project is to fill this gap," Betinho says.

One help has been 2008 legislation called the Law to Incentivize Sport, which was passed just before Brazil won the right to host the 2016 summer Olympics. It allows businesses to pay up to 1 percent of their income taxes to a list of approved athletic projects, from those that provide leisure and fitness activities for children to those whose aim is to groom young athletes to be future pros.

The automaker Nissan and the Brazilian transportation conglomerate CCR have recently become sponsors of Betinho's pre-professional teams.

Monica Rodrigues, a medalist from the 1996 Olympic Games, says she admires how Betinho has used his volleyball skills since his playing career ended to pass along a sense of professionalism to his students. She and Betinho had played on the same volleyball circuits as youths when Brazil first began to recognize beach volleyball as a competitive sport and not just a seaside leisure activity.

"I admire a lot his own growth and his desire to make [his school] into a great place for beach volleyball training," says Ms. Rodrigues, who has accepted Betinho's offer to become a trainer for one of his competitive female teams. "I went to the girls' team to see these new talents, and to work with young women to see if in four years we will see girls from this school of Betinho in the Olympics of Rio."

Meanwhile, on this school holiday Isabella Alves has left the favela Vidigal to spend the evening training here with her peers next to the high Atlantic Ocean waves. She says she hopes to be a professional athlete, though she also says her good grades in math and physics lead her to want to study engineering as well.

(Betinho requires his students to prove they are attending school regularly and to show him their report cards.)

"There are three people [here] from Vidigal, and three people who are not, and I know them all," she says pointing at her fellow athletes. "It helps us to not have prejudice."

Despite the rigor with which he trains his students, Betinho says he has a realistic vision about whether a career in sports will be feasible – or even the best path – for all his young athletes.

"Few will be able to have a professional [career]," he says. "But physical education, as its name suggests, has more to do with educating than with just reaching a certain level [of performance]."

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