Kostīmu Kauss: The World’s Best Halloween-Themed Latvian Volleyball Tournament

A video game character, a bearded Boy Scout, a referee, and Mr. Clean walk onto a beach together. No, it’s not the beginning of a cheesy joke. It’s the winning team from this year’s Kostīmu Kauss (“Costume Cup”), held this past weekend outside Los Angeles.

Kostīmu Kauss is a Halloween-themed volleyball tournament founded in 2008 by Latvian siblings Kaija and Aleks Dankers of Hermosa Beach, California. Their idea was simple: invite some Latvian friends and family over to the house for a Halloween party, then go down to the beach the next day to play some volleyball. To maintain the Halloween theme, all players were required to wear costumes. The main focus of the tournament was to bring together friends new and old for a fun event, regardless of volleyball skill or connections. To encourage participation and mingling, participants signed up as individual players and assessed their own playing level as one of the following:

A: “Es ļoti labi protu spēlēt voleju” (“I play volleyball very well”)
B: “Es samērā labi protu spēlēt voleju” (“I am somewhat good at playing volleyball”)
C: “Es esmu spēlējis agrāk” (“I have played before”)
D: “Kā sauc šo apaļo lietu, un kāpēc šajā jūrmalā atrodas stabi ar tīkliem?” (“What do you call this round thing, and why does this beach have posts with nets?”)

Players were then assigned to teams, with players of various experience levels on each team to ensure a fair distribution of skills. In the evening, after showers, everyone returned to the house for a relaxed dinner.

Now in its eighth year, the tournament has proven tremendously successful and its format remains in essence the same. While the first year consisted mostly of local Latvians, the event has grown tremendously in popularity and reputation, and players fly in from all over America. It helps that cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. are just getting their first hints of cold weather- participants from those areas get a last chance to experience warm weather in the California sun before being plunged into winter.

Perhaps the most noticeable change happened three years ago, when the Dankers siblings moved out of the house that once hosted the festivities. Both the Halloween costume party (which occurs every year regardless of whether the tournament weekend falls on Halloween) and the post-volleyball awards dinner moved to local bars and restaurants near the beach. In the first years there were few enough visitors from out of town that everyone could spend the night at the Dankers’ house, sharing beds, couches, carpeted floor space, and sometimes more ingenious sleeping solutions. Today, participants are scattered among hotels and vacation rentals. This year, twenty participants rented a beach house together, continuing the spirit of camaraderie brought about by close quarters.

Lessons have been learned over time. Players quickly realize that it is surprisingly difficult to find a costume in which one can effectively and comfortably play beach volleyball. Most accessories are cumbersome or even dangerous. Wigs and hats fall off. Mermaid skirts restrict movement. Polyester does not breathe, particularly under the hot California sun. And people flying into town need to figure out how to get their Thor hammer or Ninja Turtle nunchucks through airport security, or how to fit their homemade peacock tail into their carry-on bag and overhead bin. This year’s costume selection was further complicated by Halloween falling on a Saturday; this meant that the costume party took place on Saturday evening after play, instead of on Friday, the night before play. Some warriors toughed it out and wore their sweaty, sand-covered costumes to the party that evening, but others had to give up.

Needless to say, people begin dropping costume pieces quickly when it comes time to start playing, and the sideline ends up littered with items such as toy swords and masks. This phenomenon led to the rule that players must keep on at least one piece of their costume at all times. Prizes are awarded every year for the best costumes, and to encourage maximum costume utilization, the judging criteria includes not just creativity and enthusiasm, but also how much of the costume remains on during the actual playing. It’s no surprise, then, that this year’s big winner was Kārlis Memenis, who went as “Left Shark,” the backup dancer made famous during Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show. The full-body costume was epic to begin with, but what truly stood out was the fact that Memenis managed to keep the suit on the entire day, setting the ball with his fingerless foam fins while peering out from the slit between his shark teeth (and, frankly, making those of us with unrestricted movement and a full field of vision look bad by comparison).

The best-costume winner receives a traveling trophy, and there are second- and third-place prizes (this year awarded to a gladiator and a Quail Man, respectively), as well as numerous honorable mentions. Non-playing spectators are encouraged to dress up, too (and most do); this year, honorable mentions went to onlookers dressed as “The Continental” from Saturday Night Live‘s popular Christopher Walken sketches and infamous celebrity chef Paula Deen, recognized alongside player Guy Fieri.

Lest we forget, there is an actual volleyball competition in addition to the costumed revelry. For the past seven years, teams have been made up of four players each, but this year, a large amount of participants led to teams of five or six, with seven teams split into two pools. A single round of playoffs was followed by a final championship game. This year’s winning team consisted of Kārlis Biksa (Mr. Clean), Dāvis “Davey” Bolšteins (a referee), Kārlis “Charlie” Dankers (a Latvian Boy Scout), and Katrīna Kramena (Link from “Legends of Zelda”). They were presented with the prestigious Kostīmu Kauss itself: a plastic jug mounted onto a standard trophy base and engraved with each year’s winning team.

After eight years of consistent and growing numbers, Kostīmu Kauss shows no signs of stopping. Tournament founder Kaija Dankers is confident that the show will go on, and hopes to keep the tradition alive until she is old and gray. Given the enthusiasm of the participants, this result is a solid possibility. Now excuse me while I go ice my joints, apply aloe to my sunburn, and try to come up with a way to one-up Left Shark and win the best-costume trophy next year.

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