This column appears in the October 19 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The meal is just plain awkward. On a gray September Friday, we sit in a western Pennsylvania pizzeria, sharing appetizers and uncomfortable conversation. A bartender, a trainer, a teacher, a college kid and a couple of hack writers -- six disparate souls with little in common except the dawning reality of what is about to come. We are the Breakfast Club, only this is dinner.
"Anybody wanna split that stuffed mushroom?"
"Anybody know where the bathroom is?"
"Anybody ever done this before?"
A couple of months earlier, one of my editors had called with an assignment. He told me about a wildly competitive volleyball tournament held each September not too far from Pittsburgh at a resort called the White Thorn Lodge. The event has been luring quality athletes from all over the country for 39 years: D1 players, national team members. The comp is of such a high caliber, they call it the Super Bowl of Volleyball. "Anyway," he said, "we want you and Struby to round up a team and write about playing in the thing." (Struby is fellow Mag writer Tim Struby, whom I'd met a few times but knew nothing about other than that he's more than a half-foot shorter than me, used to model and didn't seem the volleyball type.)
"Sweet," I replied. "Sign me up."
"One more thing," the editor said. "White Thorn is a nudist lodge."
Legend has it that nearly 3,000 years ago, a Greek runner named Orsippus won an Olympic race after losing his loincloth. And now I'm being asked to follow his lead, to proudly continue the legitimate if under-the-radar tradition of nude competition. Now, I may never have had a proper nudist experience, but I will admit to being a bit of an exhibitionist. I spent the first couple of years after college working at a Club Med resort, where I was approximately 8 percent clothed during the day -- and even less so at night. But finding four others who are both good at volleyball and willing to take nudism for a spin -- in front of millions of readers, no less -- seemed a nearly impossible task. Making it harder still was a mandate from The Mag to field two female pros (for gender equity's sake).
Against all odds, though, Struby came through, landing a pair of blonde bombers, Carol Hamilton and Michele Rauter, who played at Cal State Dominguez Hills and Wyoming, respectively, before going pro in Europe. Born in Long Beach and raised in San Diego, where she tends bar in the off-season, Carol is no stranger to public nudity, having been more than once to the world-famous Black's Beach in La Jolla. "I've always been very comfortable with my body," says the 6'2" lefty. Ditto Michele, a 5'9" native of Vancouver, B.C., who doubles as a personal trainer and tells me that visiting a nudist camp is on her bucket list.
Pros in pocket, I filled the fifth slot with a friend of a friend: Noah Kaiser, a free-spirited teacher from LA who played outside hitter at Westchester High, looks like Lenny Kravitz and is always down for anything. The final golden ticket went to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend named Greg Hunter. Greg is a newly-graduated Rutgers setter who spent the summer playing the East Coast beach circuit in a Speedo. Add yours truly, a former regular at the famed Rosecrans courts of Manhattan Beach, and we are a roster of gamers.
I've worked out like a fiend for the two months leading up to the event, so I have no fear of what lies ahead. No inhibitions at all. Or so I think, right up until we get back in our RVs after our get-to-know-you dinner. As we rumble in tandem along State Line Road near Beaver Falls on Friday night, just minutes from our destination, my head suddenly swims with doubts. Exactly when will we have to get naked? Did I work out enough? Should I have trimmed down there? Should I have tanned? Will anyone notice the cluster of freckles on my right butt cheek that looks like a chocolate chip cookie? Will anyone not? Is it too late to get implants?
I'm not the only one with issues either. Carol has her period. Michele has ingrowns from her Brazilian wax. Noah frets about not being circumcised. Greg? He's stressed about having broken up with his college girlfriend the day before. And Tim? Well, he's anxious about playing a sport he doesn't really know how to play.
When we drive through White Thorn's front gate, all of our concerns disappear, replaced by sheer and utter disbelief. An elderly man carrying a clipboard approaches on the driver's side. He wears one of those Day-Glo orange vests that are popular with parking attendant types -- and nothing else. I can't help but gawk at his manhood. Not surprisingly, it looks like every other one I've ever seen. Next to him stands a stout woman with short gray hair. She's in jeans and a burgundy flannel shirt, unbuttoned halfway to reveal two bronzed, sagging breasts in their entirety (I swear I've seen her on HBO's Real Sex). Jeans and a flannel? Yes, it is unseasonably cool for the last week of summer -- temps are in the low 60s -- but still. "We're nudists," the woman says, "but we're not stupid."
Through the trees to the right is a view unlike anything any of us has ever seen: a swirl of naked bodies and volleyball nets, sprinkled with bobbing white balls. It's like one of those computergenerated movie scenes in which the hero lands on another planet and stumbles upon a mass congregation of inhabitants praying to a different god. Or performing some unknown ritual. Or playing nude volleyball. We are in another world.
The planet Naked.
The camp was founded in 1961, back when there was an actual naked volleyball association called the Tri State League, made up of real-deal squads from Penn Sylvan (Pa.), Sunny Heights, (N.J.) and Pine Tree (Md.). The league led to White Thorn's hosting of the inaugural Super Bowl, in 1971. What started with five squads is now a 70-team event. Whatever we might think about naked sports, this is serious naked sports.
We've arrived just in time for the opening ceremony. The evening is crisp, but that doesn't stop the two flag-bearers from performing their duties in full glory. Nor does it stop last year's champions from parading around the clubhouse lawn in nothing but socks and shoes. The team goes by the name Tiki Tomba, and its members look less like nudists and more like athletes. "I thought the volleyball was going to be crappy," says Carol, eyes wide with shock. "But these guys look like players." We find out later that almost all the Tiki Tombas were on the East Stroudsburg University volleyball team.
From the moment we rolled into camp and noticed that the weather had put the clothing back in clothing-optional, we expected not to have to get naked until our match the next morning (Rule No. 1: If you're playing, you're naked). We also expected to be able to practice some before having to show off our goods, so to speak.
But when the opening ceremony wraps, the White Thorn brass asks us to take the court. We've requested a spot in the all-male AA level, the tourney's highest division, but given our estrogen-laced roster, the powers-that-be are dubious that we'll be able to hang with the Tiki Tombas of their world. They're afraid someone will get hurt, maybe take a 110 mph heater square in the face. I tell them these women are pros; if anybody's going to get hurt, it sure as heck won't be one of them. In any case, they want us to face the music. I feel like a pole dancer on amateur night.
Turns out, White Thorn has had trouble keeping the participation of a certain national sports magazine a secret. As we stand beneath an inky sky on the green asphalt of Court 1 -- White Thorn boasts 11 outdoor courts -- the buzz of the lights gives way to the buzz of spectators. Hundreds of bodies that moments earlier weren't there line each side of the playing area. Many are clad (they're nudists, not stupid) and curious. "We're on a stage," says Michele. "Everyone is waiting to judge us."
Sensing we'll chicken out, a topless woman, who had been warming up with others on the other side of the court, crosses under the net, introduces herself and cajoles us into huddling up with her. "We've been dying for you ESPN guys to come," she says. "See all those people? They want to see a game. Just one, just for fun." Then she turns to Carol, who's dressed in sweats and a tank top, and yanks off her shirt. Game on.
We end up playing not one but two games, in varying degrees of nakedness. Noah, who had conquered his demons as soon as we parked the RVs, plays completely naked. Greg wears shorts. Carol is half-clothed, Michele fully so. "It was freaking cold," she says later. "Plus, I was too concerned with playing well." So am I, which is why I keep my T-shirt and shorts on. But during the first game, all I can think about is an insight shared by a White Thorn vet: When you're around a bunch of naked people and you're the one wearing clothes, you feel like an idiot.
By game's end (we lost), I realize he's right. And as I shed my threads for the second game, I'm not as concerned about how my body looks as I am obsessed by the sight of my underpants. When you anticipate that your skivvies will be on display -- maybe you're headed out for a romantic dinner, or maybe you're Soulja Boy -- you dress accordingly. Preparing for a naked volleyball game isn't one of those times. I hastily yank off my shorts and sagging, moth-eaten daddy briefs in one fell swoop. Out on the court, readying myself for the start of play, I quickly realize how exposed my backside feels. The serve receive position is similar to the classic ready stance of most sports: wide base, knees bent, butt sticking out. Mind you, I'm in the back row, which puts my keister that much closer to the watchers. You know the gem about the sun not shining on a specific spot of the human anatomy? It holds true for me, but only because it's night.
Struby, after surveying the talent on the court, decides to stay on the sideline on account of the whole bump-set-spike thing, although he's not exactly heartbroken about missing the whole nudity thing. "I have no problem getting naked," he says, "but I want to do it when I want to do it, not because everyone else is doing it." Luckily, Ian, a White Thorn regular, is willing to take Tim's spot for the weekend, and Ian has no issue with being au naturel -- not now, not ever. Feeling pretty good, we win the second game.
On Saturday morning, the only thing that has changed is the sky, which has brightened all the way to a deep gray. It is still chilly, and we are still on another planet. Dozens of angular, naked bodies have already flooded the courts to practice. Then there's us, the Breakfast Club, on Court 1, doing hitting lines, fully clothed. "None of us is ready to get naked," says Michele. But by the time the ref (naked) blows the first whistle, we're all rocking birthday suits. As it turns out, it's not unlike rocking a new pair of prescription glasses. At first we're very conscious of the difference, but before long we don't even notice. Everyone else is doing what we're doing, so by definition, it's normal. And playing a very high level of volleyball, we all get caught up in the game. "At first I felt unprotected," Carol says later. "Like, just because I had my clothes off I was going to get hit in the crotch. But after about five minutes, I totally forgot I was naked." Between points is a different story. "That's when I noticed everything," says Michele. "I thought my boobs would hurt from bouncing around, but during the game I didn't even feel them. The only time they bothered me was between plays." What bothers me between plays is not knowing how to interact with my teammates.
Part of what makes volleyball a great nudist pastime is that the game itself requires no physical contact. Problem is, no sport features more high-fiving and ass-smacking than six-on-six volleyball. Every single point is a slap-and-tickle fest waiting to happen. When you're clothed, that is. When you're naked, slapping and tickling doesn't come so easily.
But winning overcomes everything, even on planet Naked. Especially on planet Naked. In its all-out party environment, winning is the drug that shatters the ice. In each of our first four games of Saturday's pool play -- all close losses -- our interpoint interaction never goes beyond mild high fives and the occasional fist pound. Although we're comfortable in our own bare skins, a collective self-consciousness infects our side of the net. But in our fifth game, a miraculous, come-from-behind win against a stacked team we have no business beating, all propriety gives way. We are the Ohio State Buckeyes, only instead of stickers on our helmets we have handprints on our butts. Greg, riding a mix of ample rumpus and inspired play, is by far the most decorated among us.
We don't win again, and we'll be eliminated in the first round of Sunday's playoffs, but it doesn't matter. We've gone from strangers who barely know each other to friends who know each other barely. Even Tim gets in on the action. Late Saturday, with another throng watching our final pool-play match (our women make us the Michelle Wie of White Thorn; everywhere we go, a gallery follows), Tim pops up from the sideline, strips down and subs in for a single play so he'll be eligible for the playoffs, just in case. "Until then he was an outcast," says Michele. "After that, he was one of us."
The meal is just plain easy. On a golden Sunday afternoon, hours after our final match, we sit and share roasted corn and belly laughs. A bartender, a trainer, a teacher, a college kid and a couple hack writers. Thrown together by the nudity gods, we are six kindred spirits.
"Can't believe we won only one game."
"Can't believe the handprints on your ass are still there."
"Can't wait to come back next year."
Eddie Matz is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.