I have been smiling at the thought of ‘volleyball’ for as long as I can remember. The sport is hard-wired into my brain. It’s a childhood thing. By fortunate coincidence my wife loves the beach. Some of her best childhood memories are from Sauble Beach with her parents on holiday. I grew up watching my dad do astonishing things on a volleyball court. My best memories are of playing pepper with Ziggy on court during his time outs. I was a gym rat. And now I feel about volleyball the same way that many Canadians feel about hockey or Americans about baseball. I play because I am truly happy – in every sense of the word – when I am on the court. This is especially true in a game that can go either way. Success in those matches feels good - very good. I have played so many games that lately I am just as satisfied to see someone else enjoy that same feeling. Kate has begun to play a lot and I am thrilled to be starting to see it in her. Here she is hitting a Kevin Benn set one warm evening a few weeks ago - check out the 'straight arm' action.
Last week Kevin Benn and I traveled to Adelaide to represent Canada in the qualifying tournament of an FIVB World Tour event. We won a match and then lost a match. After that I watched thirty plus hours of world class volleyball over the course of the next four days. I have never had the abilities of most of these athletes but this was an opportunity to feel like one of them for a few days. It was an awesome experience. Most of the players in the main draw, including the team that beat us (from Latvia) will play in the Olympics this year.
Here's Kevin Benn on court right before the warmup for our first match.
Normally Canadian World Tour teams would be better (or at least a bit younger) than Kevin and I but Australia is a long way to travel and we turned out to be the only men’s team at the show. With support from some random Canadian fans, we proudly defeated a young team from Kazakhstan - I am serious – and had a whole night to enjoy that winning feeling before two young Latvians promptly wiped the smiles from our faces.
This is me having a swing against Latvia.
Beach volleyball at this level is very cruel and unforgiving. There is only so much money to go around. Last week $350 K was divided between the best 32 mens and 32 womens teams in the world. But there was far more talent than money to go around. I have known many tremendously skilled and dedicated Canadian athletes that have made extreme investments and have come and gone without ever seeing any of that money. The boys and girls on top do not want to share – who would?
There were 40 teams from 20+ countries in the men’s qualifier with us. Eight of them would get to fill the bottom spots in a 32 team main draw tournament. The rest would go home with nothing. Of the qualifier teams, Kevin and I were pretty much the least ‘invested’ (with one week of training together – and no plans to play any other events). It still hurt to lose. But my being too upset about losing would be an insult to some of the other teams that lost with me. After beating us – the Latvians qualified by knocking out an extremely talented team from Spain - a team that could have easily beaten us as well. And prior to having their dreams shattered that Spanish team had won a brilliant marathon match against a Japanese team that would have probably wiped the beach with us too. I don’t mean to sound overly self deprecating… Kevin and I are good players, but I am talking about teams that don’t have day jobs. The Spanish and Japanese teams had coaches, and sponsors, and had invested months upon months of grueling weight room and beach hours to prepare for last week – and they didn’t get to play in the real tournament either.
Incidentally, the Latvians lost their first two main draw matches and walked away with a measly thousand dollars, a few free meals and nights in a great hotel. This did not cover their trip and month long stay in Australia to train with their coach – the Latvian government paid for that.
To quote the wise drunken words of Bender himself: “…to succeed on the world stage in this sport you need three things: funding, coaching, and (lastly) tremendous natural athletic talent”. I would add ‘a spooky level of internal motivation’ to Kevin’s list, but that is definitely not enough by itself.
Here's one of my better pictures from the week: Julius Brink (Germany) hitting against Phil Dalhouser (USA) early in the main draw tournament. The cool think about this shot, if you're not in the 'know', is the height of Dalhouser's block. Todd Rogers, behind the block, is about to dig a line roll shot and win the point. This American team won the World Championships last year and are fair contenders for the gold in Bejing in a few months although I personally don't think they will even medal.
In Canada, many people feel that lack government funding for sport is a big problem. Some beach players, I think, don't even realize what 'good funding' would look like. Australia has fewer people than Canada and athlete development programs here, in all sports, are outstanding by comparison. For example: they have the ‘Australian Institute of Sport’ where the country’s best teenaged athletes (in every sport) live, train with great coaches, and go to a ‘jocks only’ high school together. That has to be a fun school - and sure it burns tax dollars, but it also effectively creates olympians.
Incidentally, last week a men's team from China played in the championship final for the first time in FIVB beach history! Hmmm, aren’t the Olympics in China this year? Coincidence? I think not. I predict that China will medal in beach volleyball in Bejing. This Chinese team was sick! I don’t know where they came from but they’re here now. One of the American boys told me that an enormous (in height and number) Chinese entourage has been training full time in California in recent years. They also had two women’s teams finish 5’th and 7’th. I wish I could afford to train in California full-time. If the Olympics were in Toronto, Ottawa would be taking good care many young beach players too. Just wait and watch how many medals we get in the winter games Vancouver in 2010. It’s not rocket science. It’s economics.
This is 'Team China' serving on centre court in their semi-final match.
I have few illusions left with regard to sport. It is a great way to stay out of trouble as a kid, to make friends, make some good memories, and learn some lessons about success and failure, work ethic and confidence – but it is a terrible way to make a living. My father finished playing professional volleyball after a decade in front of thousands of fans and then went to work for the rest of his life. The same is true of most of the world’s best athletes and certainly most Olympians. I’m sure I have said in the past that I was too distracted by school to ever succeed in beach volleyball. My academic colleagues in the chemistry lab would argue that beach volleyball was a distraction to chemistry and not vice versa. And they would be right, but I have always insisted on doing both and I will never regret the time I spent learning this game. I suppose I could have spent that time reading. But take it from a guy who loves reading, sport is a LOT more fun than reading. There's something to be said for a bit 'fun' in life. Plus, ask Kate if she would have found a ‘well read’ young man impressive when she was 21. Or for that matter, I suppose you could ask my mom the same question.
Let me finish with another big 'Thank You' to Big Bad Kevin Bender for generously agreeing to take this holiday trip to the back side of the world just to see a tiny bit of Australia and play two volleyball games. I won't soon forget it.