SPORTS

Canadians savour the sand at London Games with iconic venue and historic backdrop

07/24/2012 04:59 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys blared Tuesday as Canadians hit the sand to train in what will likely become one of the London Olympics' most iconic venues.

The beach volleyball venue is set in the shadow of the Horse Guard Parade, a site that dates back to 1745 and takes its name from the soldiers who have provided protection for the monarch since 1660.

It is perhaps best known for the annual Trooping of the Colour event that takes place on the Queen’s birthday.

But for 13 days starting Saturday, it will be a rock 'n' roll sandbox filled with athletic beefcake and hard-bodied women in itsy-bitsy bikinis.

It's a sport that is the antithesis of golf — fans are encouraged to rock out. The beach party takes place in an intimate, temporary stadium that seats 15,000 and wraps around a court stocked with some 5,000 tonnes of sand brought from a quarry in Godstone, Surrey.

"It's amazing," said Marie-Andree Lessard, sporting a huge grin. "It's so vibrant. The sand's beautiful. The colour's awesome. The site is of utmost beauty and of great historic value as well. So I think we're very grateful and happy to be playing here.

"Beautiful venue," added Martin Reader. "Amazing place in London."

The venue is sure to become one of the television images of the Games, especially from high in the stand that faces the Horse Guard Parade building.

But the entire site is packed with history. Surrounding buildings include the Old Admiralty Building, Household Cavalry Museum, Scotland Office and St. James's Park and the Guards Memorial.

The Duke of Wellington was based in Horse Guards when he was in charge of the British army.

And judging from the automatic weapon held by a police officer at the gate of one of the surrounding buildings, there are still some important people around.

Pairing such history with the rock 'n' roll sport of beach volleyball is a neat twist.

A stone's throw from the sandy court where Lessard and partner Annie Martin went through a training session under the sun in bikinis, a member of the Horse Guards stood guard outside the venue in full uniform and traditional silver helmet.

The women admit they have been spoiled for volleyball venues.

Lessard, from Ville LaSalle, Que., notes they have played in front of Il Duomo, Milan's famed cathedral, on the Champs-Elysee in Paris and at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

"We have been very, very fortunate in the venues that we've played on," she said.

"Some have not been as great," she added. "But the ones I named are a few to feel grateful when you are on court, whether it's going good or bad, you're like 'Oh my God, what a great life I have.'"

Both teams are enjoying London's current sun and heat but packed for all conditions.

"Everything's still tight," Lessard said reassuringly of the cold-weather gear. "We have a lot of gear for cold weather — long sleeves, long pants. ... But from the moment we got here, we haven't seen a drop of rain."

That means they can wear their traditional gear, which could be stowed in a glasses case with room to spare.

Reader, six foot seven of lean surfer dude muscle from Comox, B.C., is trying to put the surroundings and conditions out of mind.

"It really doesn't matter where we play," he said. "We just have to play the best possible, whether it's in front of 15,000 people or back home on Ashbridges Beach (on Toronto). It's still the same for us."

Both the Canadian men and women open on the weekend against host Britain.

"It's going to be loud," said Reader.

"It's not like we haven't been in a hostile environment," added partner Josh Binstock of Toronto.

The Canadian men had to win in Mexico to get Canada an Olympic spot.

"There were a few thousand Mexicans fans yelling not the nicest things at us," said Binstock. "But we relish that. I love playing the spoiler, I love being the bad guy. Of course, I love being supported and loved but either way it's fun having that pressure on us."

After Mexico, the duo had to defeat a rival pair to book their ticket to London.

Given that happened July 14 for both pairs, it made for a whirlwind week before the men headed to Austria to refocus on the Games.

"Literally the moment after we won, we were just getting pulled (from all sides)," said Binstock. "And that lasted for the whole week. I don't remember just sitting down and enjoying a meal the whole week."

The Canadian men are selling London Calling beach towels to raise funds for their volleyball campaign.

"A lot of people are buying towels and showing their support, so it's really motivating and inspiring for us," said Binstock.

Lessard is also no stranger to helping pay the bills.

She won the $50,000 first prize in the Quebec TV reality show "Defie des Champions," which features top athletes doing Cirque du Soleil-like performances. Lessard performed a double trapeze act.

She plowed the winnings back into her sport.

"This prize is going to help me get to the Olympics," she said at the time.

Martin, from Sherbooke, Que., is the only one of the four with Olympic experience. She was fifth at the Athens Games.

Canada's lone beach volleyball medal at the Games came in 1996, when John Child and Mark Heese won a bronze in the inaugural Olympic tournament in Atlanta.

The Olympic playing field is a level one for the Canadians, who benefit from the fact that powerhouse countries like Brazil can only enter two teams in each of the men's and women's draws.

Binstock and Reader are in Pool F with John-Garcia Thompson and Steven Grotowski of Britain (ranked 41st on the World Tour), Pedro Cunha and Ricardo Santos of Brazil (No. 3) and Tarjei Skarlund and Martin Spinnangr of Norway (No. 20).

The Canadians are ranked 41st on the circuit.

The 52nd-ranked Lessard and Martin are in Pool F as well with Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin of Britain (No. 46), Greta Cicolari and Marta Menegatti of Italy (No. 5) and Ekaterina Khomyakova and Evgenia Ukolova of Russia (No. 30).

The top two in each group advance to the knockout first round stage along with the two best third-place teams. The remaining four third-place teams will then play off to see which pairs fill the final two places in the first round.

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For more info on the London Calling towel:

http://www.canuckstuff.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=1272

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