Housed in an old warehouse in the industrial mid-west of Toronto, a stone’s throw from a massive food distribution terminal, adorned by peeling paint, little light, and tons of mid-brown sand, is Canada’s two-year-old training centre for one of the most popular of Olympic sports.
Beach volleyball holds court in the midst of a northern winter and a bevy of players are vying to become the ones chosen to wear Canadian colours come the Pan American Games in less than six months time.
“We as a sport need to grow up a little bit,” chuckles Steve Anderson the national coach. “Beach is the show pony of volleyball. It’s an attractive lifestyle and it’s hard to let go of that in favour of professionalism. It means getting results, managing a partnership and serving those who support you.”
Anderson should know. An American born in Kentucky, he’s coached this booming sport in 14 countries and most notably led Australians, Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottarst to Olympic gold on home sand in Sydney in 2000.
Since his arrival in Canada, two years ago, Anderson has been bent on giving some measure of rigour and structure to a sport which has, at times, been labeled as free spirited and laissez-faire.
“It’s like herding chickens,” Anderson grins. “This sport has all the needs of a team with all the history of individuals. What’s required is a shift in culture and mentality and sometimes that can cause some pain.”
But through discipline and a methodical approach to preparation for big events like the massive one on the horizon in the heartland of the game at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Anderson believes the talent is there to get the job done.
“We, as Canadians, have to get off the plane expecting to win every time we play,” he stresses. “Don’t tell me it’s not a Canadian thing to do. Every Canadian hockey team that gets off the plane is expecting to win. That should be the mentality of every sport.”
Enter Sarah Pavan a six-foot-five native of Kitchener ONT. Pavan may be the most accomplished female to play indoor volleyball in Canadian history. An All-American at the University of Nebraska she led the way to her school winning a collegiate title while being judged the best player in the country in 2006. She’s earned six figure salaries while playing professionally in Italy, Brazil and South Korea where the sport is mainstream and heavily patronized.
But her 65 appearances for the Canadian national team have conspired to leave her with an unfulfilled Olympic dream as she has yet to qualify over the course of three quadrennials. Pavan has now turned her attention full-time to partnering with Heather Bansley, of London, ONT in an effort to make the Games grade on the beach.
“How do I articulate this?” Pavan asks rhetorically when queried about her motivation. “It’s twenty years of thinking about it every single day. I’m doing this not because of the living I can make. It’s because of the prospect of getting to the Olympics and representing my country.”
Sarah Pavan knows that the image many have of beach volleyball… a pickup game and fun in the sun… is only an illusion.
“It’s more complex than you think,” she shakes her head. “It’s an athletic partnership and a team and it’s also very much a relationship like that of husband and wife. I have a newfound and enormous respect for those who play beach volleyball.”
You get the same impression as you see it all unfold on the sand in the dungeon-like warehouse where the hopeful players now toil.
It seems, as TO2015 approaches, a whole new wave is about to hit the Canadian beach.