October 1999

Volleyball's Versatile Gabrielle Reece

She works out for endurance and eats to "burn wood"


By Pete Williams

It's a cool, breezy Saturday morning on Clearwater Beach. The American Volleyball Professional beach volleyball tour has come to Florida to kick off its 1999 tour, but it might as well have started in Atlantic City. The beach is deserted, and while this latest incarnation of pro volleyball has taken over several acres of sand, erecting giant plastic beer cans and hundreds of yards of dasherboards emblazoned with corporate logos, only a few hundred hearty fans, wrapped in blankets, have assembled to watch the event.

Most have come to watch Gabrielle Reece, one of the sport's biggest stars and a hometown girl who played high school volleyball in nearby St. Petersburg. At 11 a.m., Reece emerges near center court, where she's quickly swarmed by male and female fans. After signing autographs and doing a few interviews, she takes refuge in the players' tent before her match, promising to return later.

She is one of the world's most recognized people, not only because of her status as a pro beach volleyball star, spokesperson for women's sports, media personality, author and former model. At 6-foot-3, and a formidable 175 pounds, the stunning blonde is built unlike any other woman in the world. Her face and figure have graced the cover of hundreds of magazines. She and her husband of two years, pro surfer Laird Hamilton, are young, beautiful and healthy.

And yet Reece has traveled cross-country from her Southern California home for the chance to begin her first season in doubles volleyball. Unlike the four-person (per side) game she dominated as a lumbering middle blocker for four seasons as captain of Team Nike in the now-defunct Bud Light tour, she is trying to reinvent herself as a lunging, diving, all-around player who can handle the rigors of two-person volleyball.

All this for the opportunity this weekend to win a share of a relatively modest $75,000 pot. Even if Reece were to win--and as an 11th seed in the women's bracket with her partner, Linda Hanley--it appeared unlikely, she would take home a pittance compared to the cash she earns through her other endeavors.

But anyone who might wonder why she bothers with such modest endeavors does not know Reece, or the grueling training methods she has employed for years and augmented over the last year in order to keep up with her less famous, but more talented and experienced opponents. This is, after all, someone who once turned down a one-day, $35,000 modeling job because it interfered with her college volleyball schedule, someone who has resisted lucrative overtures from Hollywood to be cast as some sort of Xena babe action hero.

Volleyball might be the one area of Reece's life where she has not been a runaway success. At 29, she is a fitness columnist for Women's Sports & Fitness who has hosted, reported for, or starred in several sports-related television shows. She was the first woman to design her own shoe for Nike and recently was one of just three athletes named in a survey of the "Twenty Most Influential Women in Sports."

Along the way, she's appeared on several of those fluffy lists that will forever follow her, first as one of Elle magazine's "five most beautiful women in the world," and later as one of People magazine's "fifty most beautiful people."

But while she's been a standout volleyball performer, first at Florida State and now on the pro tour, no one is mistaking her for the female equivalent of Karch Kiraly. "I have to work so much harder at volleyball than the other things," Reece says. "I don't want to say the other stuff is easy, but a lot of it has come about because of people's subjective opinions of me. With volleyball, how I perform is entirely up to me."

Her athletic success is owed to a firm dedication to conditioning, one that began, like her athletic career, relatively late. Raised on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the daughter of a 6-foot-2, U.S.-born mother and a father from Trinidad, Reece did not take up volleyball until she was in the 11th grade. She divided her college career between modeling around the world and playing volleyball, getting by on the court mostly on raw talent and grit.

"I worked out in college, but never embraced it," Reece says. "It was so uncomfortable and new and I wasn't good at it; I didn't feel strong. So I wasn't into it at all. I did it because I was diligent and obedient to my coaches and trainers. But I certainly didn't embody it."

It was not until the four-person tour was created in the early '90s that she began stepping up her workouts. She hired trainer T.R. Goodman, who works with several hockey stars, and began evolving into her current role as fitness editor, columnist and guru. Along the way, she created a new, acceptable image for women as big, strong, kick-ass intimidators who can hold their own with men in any arena. In October, 1995, Outside Magazine proclaimed her "the new female ideal."

It's a role Reece downplays, and not just because she's one of the more modest, down-to-earth pro athletes in a sports culture of millionaire crybabies. "I don't think I'm the one making that (body) image acceptable," she says. "But the fact that it is acceptable allows me to be out there. More doors have opened for me since I started and I see progress being made in the way women and society view it."

Goodman puts Reece through a heavy regimen of weight work at a Gold's Gym near her home along the beach in California. She alternates days between chests and shoulders, legs, and back/biceps/triceps. During the last year, she's mixed in workouts with a second trainer, Flavio Deoliveria, who has created a circuit routine that emphasizes stretching, flexibility, joint movements and high-rep exercises more tailored for the rigors of two-person volleyball.

It's not that Reece is completely inflexible. But playing middle blocker in college and later in the four-person game did not require as many quick, diving movements as the two-person game. No wonder she finds herself laboring through Deoliveria's grueling circuit, stretching muscles that had gone mostly unused for years.

"It's a transitional time for me now, as I try to find what I need more," Reece says. "I believe in lifting weights, but I've lifted a lot and found that strength isn't the issue for me so much as a lack of flexibility and endurance. I need more of that in my game. Because I'm pretty solid, I haven't had any real injuries. I'm very balanced in terms of my physique and that's given me the luxury of exploring and fixing some of my weaknesses."

Doubles volleyball presents several challenges, the least of which is the heat of the beach. "You have to move efficiently on sand because you don't have the luxury of a hard surface to make you quick," Reece says. "The great players stay down and take big steps to the ball and it takes a lot of strength to pull that off. You have to be a lot more explosive."

Reece is forever searching for new training methods, not only to improve her performance, but also to keep her workouts from becoming routine. Her husband has introduced her to surfing and mountain bike riding. As the star of MTV Sports and "The Extremists with Gabrielle Reece" in the mid-'90s, she tackled such daredevil sports as skydiving, drag racing and road luging. It's all a far cry from her earlier modeling days, when she trained for looks, not performance. Back then, she weighed 155? 20 pounds less than her current weight. "I might be more ripped when I'm lighter," Reece says. "But I think I'm in better shape when I'm a little bigger and heavier. When you're leaner, you're more prone to injury and you're more tempermental where you're affected by everything you eat and do.

"I feel more steady with this body. I don't want to be a fitness model, I want to be a good volleyball player and there's a big difference. But there's something to be said for exploring where your body can go."

Reece takes vitamins and amino acid supplements, but prefers a high-protein diet of "real food." She takes advantage of the fresh fish available on Kauai, where she and Hamilton spend the winter, the height of surf season. They eat chicken, lots of red meat, egg whites and sushi. Reece says she'll eat just about everything, believing that an active lifestyle can, like a hot fire, "burn all kinds of wood." Having seen how women in the modeling and sports industries struggle with unrealistic diets, she says she's found a happy medium with her food.

"I've given myself the green light to eat whatever I want and that's made me eat less of what's bad because I feel the freedom," she says. "If you have some self-discipline, but you don't restrict yourself, you can work it all out. You're not going to be binging on all the wrong foods."

Which is why, on the Friday morning before the Clearwater tournament, we could walk along Mandalay Avenue behind the beach and consider eating lunch anywhere. "If you work hard, part of the payoff is that you can have that piece of chocolate cake and not feel bad about it," Reece says, shrugging off my first dining suggestion with the air of someone who ate there a million times in high school. "To torture yourself emotionally is a waste of time. I just try and stay consistent. If I've had a few days where I've been eating a lot of junk, I make a mental note and lay off that kind of food for a few days."

It's windy and overcast this morning, and there is little pedestrian traffic along the beach. None of the hamburger joints appear open. We step into a surf shop, where the young dude behind the counter raises an eyebrow when he sees Reece.

"Hey, aren't you, I mean, you're..." Reece just nods. How many times must this happen?

"You're, you're Laird Hamilton's wife, right?"

Reece smiles. This kind of thing happens with increasing frequency, which makes her happy. She's no longer seen as just an ex-model, but half of an active couple that is co-hosting on the Outdoor Life Network, a cable channel devoted to outdoor sports.

These days, Reece often goes unnoticed as the couple travels through parts of the world where Hamilton is instantly recognizable for his surfing and adrenaline-sport exploits. Hamilton, meanwhile, can enjoy Reece's beach tournaments in anonymity, although he often ends up being approached by volleyball fans to shoot photos of them with his wife.

Hamilton did not make the trip to Clearwater, where he would have seen Reece and Hanley upset the 7th seeded duo in the first round before losing quickly to the No.2 squad.

As much as Reece hated to lose, she looked forward to proving to her critics in volleyball circles that she could master doubles. Unlike modeling, television, shooting commercials and writing columns, this involved a serious challenge--one with far greater reward, emotionally anyway. And that's what would get her back in the gym within 48 hours.

"All of this is so new to me," Reece says. "It's like taking up a completely different sport. But I enjoy the process of training and competing and trying to get better, even if it involves a lot of discomfort. That's what's most rewarding.

"I've never tried to measure my life as an external success. I understand that a lot of that is temporary. I'll never be a person who says, 'Oh, now I'm successful.' Don't get me wrong. I like having accomplished things. But I feel I'm successful because I'm with Laird and because I'm healthy and happy."

After she and Hanley lost, Reece stayed and signed the inevitable wave of autograph and photo requests. Shortly thereafter, she would board a cross-country flight back home, back to T.R. and Flavio and their agonizing stretching and training and preparation for the next stop on the tour. It would be three weeks of hell.

It would be a blast.


© Copyright 1999 Muscular Development