Denise Austin is one of the best-known figures on the UK beach volleyball scene. She played internationally as a defender for Great Britain over a number of years, and has competed in countless domestic events, winning a lot of them. She is also a very successful coach, having coached a number of young players from North Devon to national and international level, (including me-thanks for putting up with teenage me, Denise!)
I caught up with her and asked her all about her illustrious playing career.
Please introduce yourself (name, background, position).
Hey! My name is Denise Catherine Tuohey Austin. I was born in Lancashire but moved to Devon when I was two, 49 years ago. We lived in Saunton Park in Braunton, really close to the beach so I grew up with my dad. He was a real water person so we went to the beach every day we possibly could.
How and when did you get into volleyball?
I was 16 and was hanging around North Devon College, waiting for a theatre group to start and I happened across a game being played. I actually didn’t know what the game was called I was watching. Reg Beck, the coach, saw me watching, invited me in, I didn’t think twice and started playing right away. The next morning, I almost passed out when I saw the bruises on my arms! I played ball at college for two years, we won the British Colleges in my last two years. I was selected onto the National team when I was 18, I moved to Manchester, lasted a year in the city and then moved back to North Devon. Being a national indoor athlete just wasn’t anything I really wanted to be.
I played my first beach volleyball events in 1988/89 the South West Pro Beach Tour in Croyde and Woolacombe, my local beaches. At this time my parents had retired to Perth, West Australia. I went to visit them, saw pro beach volleyball being played and that was it, my love of international sport was rekindled!
What is it about beach volleyball that you love?
No one can substitute you. I spent too many international and national league games sitting on the bench. I want to play, I want to learn, if I lose it’s because of something I could have done. There is no one else to blame. You can try to blame your partner and sometimes they take a bigger share of it but ultimately, it’s about you making the most of your partner and bringing the best out of you both.
Plus, I love the dynamic brutality of it, fighting to keep the ball off the floor longer that the other side. I never tire of it!
Talk to me about your international career. Who did you play with and when?
I started my first beach international with Vanessa Malone (now Lucas). We played together in the U20 cup final indoors. I was itching to play but we had very little money. I was living in a tent and camper van, hitch-hiking to events, so I decided to sell a crossword I made up to raise money. I bought the flights for us and we went to Espinho.
We camped. It was freezing and we had to borrow blankets from the main draw players’ hotel! We beat two Portuguese teams but lost to a Brazilian and Canadian team in the last round to get knocked out. Back then the qualifiers were always double elimination, sometimes you could play five or six matches in the qualifier and still not get through! They changed it after 2000 as the days were really long, especially for the referees!
After that I played with Monique Oliver in the run for Sydney, Amanda Glover, Kerri Olding, Melissa Coutts and Millie Constable internationally. Nationally I have played with so many partners-it’s been a really amazing journey and I have loved it all (mostly…).
What is your best ever international result?
In Espinho, Portugal in 2000. We were trying to qualify for Sydney 2000. The previous year we had come out of the qualifier and beaten the no.1 Chinese team to finish 17th, so it was a great venue for us. We were in the qualifier and we won three matches to go through. We then played some amazing teams in the main draw, beating Portugal no. 1, losing to the USA 3 team of Fontanna/Arce 15-13 in the best ball I have ever played, then in the losers bracket beating Japan no. 1, Germany no. 1 and then losing out to Brazil no. 1 Shelda/Adrianna to finish 7th.
It was an amazing event. I am super proud of this finish as there was only one team missing (Holly Mc Peak and Misty) from the event of those who were trying to get to Sydney or who went. It was a deep field and we just had such a good run. Highest ever finish at an FIVB event of that level.
What is your best beach volleyball memory as a player?
That’s a tough one! There are so many. Seeing pro beach volleyball being played for the first time in Australia, saving up enough money to travel to Australia and USA for seven months back in 1992-93, seeing Hermosa Beach for the first time, playing and qualifying in any Brazilian FIVB qualifier event as they are tough, spending six months in Rio 1998-99, laughing with the locals at the end of every day, auditioning for Jackie Silva (1996 gold medallist) to get into her training group in Rio and being given the nod, making your first main draw and walking into the hotel…
Cape Town, Camps Bay, Clifton Beaches, playing the AVP Hermosa and taking a 7th, especially after beating Karolyn Kirby and Karen Kemner in the first round. Breakfast, lunch and dinner at Hermosa Beach for six months, winning the National Championships with Ellie my 16-year-old, oh wow, it’s been such an amazing life, I can’t stop thinking of such special moments. I had better stop though!
What are you most proud of?
Taking the first ever GBR FIVB Bronze medal at the CEV/FIVB event in Italy in 1999. It was a challenger event, so equivalent to a FIVB 3* now. I didn’t really realise until my daughter won the second ever GBR medal this year in a FIVB 1* event in Ios Island. That was pretty special, making history and leaving some history behind you.
What was your hardest moment in beach volleyball?
In Dalian in China. The last event of the Sydney Olympic qualifying events. It was neck and neck between England, Bulgaria and Mexico. It came down to two matches, we had been knocked out and finished 13th. We had to wait overnight and travelled to the venue to watch the two matches that would decide our fate.
If Germany beat Bulgaria, we would be going to the Olympics. Bulgaria won. This game also meant that Mo Glover and Audrey Cooper were definitely not going to the Olympics as they were one place behind us.
Then, if Italy beat Mexico, we would be going to the Olympics. Italy were winning 8-0. Mexico won. There were no words. No one could speak. Tears were the only thing I could do for days. I was catatonic. Looking back, I would go through it all again, but it was heart wrenching. Can you imagine if the two games had gone the other way, we would have had two GBR beach teams at the Olympics, how cool could that have been…
If you had to give one piece of advice to a young new player, what would it be?
Make your own dreams happen, don’t wait for something to be provided for you. Set yourself a target, work hard, push yourself and create your own magic. Be the best individual player you can be, the right partner and team will then happen. Love the journey and the people all times, it’s a magical life!