Former professional beach volleyball player Gina Kirstein shares her love of the sport at Wilmington Beach Academy, her new training facility in Leland.
Gina Kirstein believes that in the world of beach volleyball, it takes a village to help athletes reach their goals. As the founder of Wilmington Beach Academy at Volley Village, the former Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) competitor offers private lessons and group classes at her new training facility in Leland. Kirstein’s mission is to use her expertise and deep love of the game to make beach volleyball more accessible to the Brunswick County community.
Kirstein grew up playing indoor volleyball in her high school in Southern California before moving on to play for both the University of Illinois and Colorado Christian University. It was in Colorado where she first gave beach volleyball a try in the late 1990s, but initially she wasn’t a fan of the dissimilar version of her favorite sport.
“I didn’t like it when I first started because it’s such a different game, and that frustrated me,” she says. “But I was determined to be good at it, so I just kept on playing and ended up playing professionally.”
Kirstein says even though indoor volleyball and beach volleyball share a few skill sets, they are truly unique sports. Aside from the differing court locations and surfaces, beach courts are also smaller, measuring 8×8 meters as opposed to the 9×9 meters of indoor courts. In addition to the smaller playing area, it’s the smaller team size that Kirstein finds most appealing.
“The reason I enjoy beach volleyball more is because you have to be a well-rounded athlete and good at all the skills, because you’re involved in every play and don’t have a specialized position,” Kirstein says. “When you’re playing doubles, there’s no substitutions and you’re involved in every play, whereas in indoor volleyball, there are six players who’re only responsible for one sixth of the court. If you’re playing beach volleyball and you’re tanking, it’s brutal, but that’s just a part of the game.”
Kirstein believes another benefit of beach volleyball is the forgiving nature of the surroundings on your body.
Diving in sand doesn’t tend to hurt nearly as much as on an indoor court. Also, since beach volleyball is more of a finesse game than a power game, there are fewer instances of shoulder or back injuries and less likelihood of physical contact with fellow teammates. Plus, the outdoor environment is just plain fun.
“You’re playing outside in the sun, usually with music playing, and it’s a more laid-back scene,” Kirstein says. “With indoor volleyball, it’s inside, it’s loud, and it’s just a different feeling.”
Having found her true calling to be in the sand, Kirstein competed in the AVP Tour from 2002 to 2007, but in her down time coached indoor volleyball and worked as a mortgage lender. She and her husband, Erik, moved to Wilmington in 2004, the same year she and her teammate won the Motherlode Tournament, one of the most popular pro-am volleyball tournaments in the country. After several years traveling back and forth to California, training and competing on the AVP Tour, Kirstein decided to turn her focus to coaching a younger generation of beach volleyball enthusiasts.
“After playing professionally I took a few years off, and when I came back to the sport, I still enjoyed it but my perspective had changed,” she says. “I realized winning just wasn’t as important to me anymore. It was more about sharing my knowledge of the game with other players and helping them achieve their goals.”
From 2011 on, Kirstein competed in the occasional pro-am tournament for fun while continuing to coach indoor volleyball at a local club. Knowing, however, that beach volleyball was her true passion, in 2018 she started Wilmington Beach Academy. Using the sand courts at Dig & Dive Bar and Grill as her location, Kirstein began offering private lessons to middle and high school students.
It wasn’t until the restaurant permanently closed in the beginning of 2020 that she decided to take a leap of faith and open her own training facility. Situated just off Village Road at 9892 Wayne Street, Volley Village includes two beach volleyball courts, a 450-square-foot lounge building and restroom and unlimited potential.
“It’s truly been a labor of love,” Kirstein says. “Aside from the actual courts being installed, my husband and I have done all the work. We built the seven-foot fences around the property ourselves, and we remodeled and refurbished the little building, which was in rough shape.”
The bulk of Kirstein’s clients are juniors ranging in age from middle grades all the way up through high school seniors. She also coaches adults and plans to offer more clinics, leagues and tournaments as she expands. Many of the players she trains have no prior beach volleyball experience, while others come having played indoor volleyball and wanting to transition to beach. Kirstein also coaches athletes looking to play at the collegiate level and she enjoys helping these young athletes develop their skills and achieve their goals.
“I love coaching, so my hope is that I can introduce people to the game and have them fall in love with it,” she says.
“I want to help my players with whatever their goals are, whether it’s playing recreationally and having a good time or training to make their middle school, high school or college team.”
Wilmington Beach Academy is open to players of all ages, genders and skill levels. Kirstein’s facility isn’t affiliated with any particular travel clubs, a decision she hopes will keep her offerings affordable and accessible for players and their families. Her goal is to make sure Volley Village is a safe, welcoming training institution for all.
“My facility doesn’t have a restaurant or a bar, and I’ll never sell alcohol or allow tobacco products on my campus,” Kirstein says. “I really want to promote a healthy lifestyle and a safe environment.”
Although Kirstein’s focus has now turned from playing to coaching, she still enjoys occasionally getting out on the sand and competing. Just last year she and her teammate finished second in an AVPNext event held at Dig & Dive, proving she can still hold her own with the best of the best.
Wilmington Beach Academy is a true testament to Kirstein’s dedication and passion for this lifelong sport.
“I’m really excited to bring this facility to the town of Leland,” Kirstein says. “I want to share my love of the game and help grow it here in Brunswick County. I guess you could say I’m just obsessed with volleyball!”
Want to check it out?
Wilmington Beach Academy, aka Volley Village
9892 Wayne Street, just off Village Road, Leland