This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
Kristina Valjas and Jamie Broder announced arrival earlier this year by winning world tour event.
Beach volleyball players Kristina Valjas and Jamie Broder recently did something that Canadian women have never done before.
They won a FIVB World Tour event. And what shook the sport is that they had to beat the American team that everyone expects to see playing for gold in the next Olympics to do it.
Not bad for a team that has to raise funds to pay for volleyballs and gets coaching on the road via Skype and text messages because they can’t afford to have their coach travel with them.
“It’s kind of historic,” agreed Valjas, during a quick visit home to Toronto after the Fuzhou Open win in China at the end of April.
Kind of historic?
It’s not that she’s dismissive of their win, it took both of them years of hard training and overcoming plenty of setbacks to get it. But what matters far more to Valjas and Broder, her Victoria teammate, is keeping their success going over the next month so they can qualify for this summer’s Pan Am Games and, beyond that, the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There’s no chance of surprising their opponents on the sand court now. Everyone is paying attention to the duo that came in ranked third in Canada and 13th in the world tournament and knocked off the American team of Kerri Walsh, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and April Ross, an Olympic silver medallist.
That semi-final match against the superstars of this sport, where the Canadians came from behind to win in the third set, changed everything.
“The other teams looked at us differently (after the victory),” Valjas said. “We just proved to ourselves and everyone else that it is possible.”
That’s something that beach game in Canada needed.
Canadians were early adopters of the doubles game, playing it at the Balmy Beach Club on Toronto’s waterfront all the way back in 1960s. There was even a bit of a pro tour in the ’90s. And the peak came when John Child and Mark Heese won a bronze medal in the sport’s Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
But, as if often the case, Canada did well in the sport’s early days and yet couldn’t keep winning once the rest of the world started paying attention and developing young talent and supporting elite athletes.
“Two great athletes doesn’t make a system,” Ed Drakich, the high performance director for beach volleyball, said about Child and Heese’s winning history.
But he is hoping that the win by Broder and Valjas is the first sign that Canada’s relatively new system is starting to make a difference.
Volleyball Canada opened its first high performance centre to develop and support beach players in 2012 at Downsview Park in Toronto.
“What we’re doing now is what we should have done in the ’90s,” Drakich said.
The indoor facility offers 60 development-level and elite players year-round access to sand courts — saving them from paying $100 an hour to rent them in the winter — an Olympic-experienced head coach in Steve Anderson, and quality support staff including a strength coach, physiotherapist, massage therapist and performance analyst.
But because of limited funding, much of this integrated support team is part-time and none of it travels with the athletes.
All told, Volleyball Canada spends less than $1 million on supporting beach volleyball. Brazil puts in eight times that amount, Drakich said.
“We’re bringing spoons to a gun fight, we want to get some knives at least,” he said, noting that continued success will hopefully attract funding from Own the Podium, Canada’s elite sport funding body.
“A lot of the teams they’re competing against have full staff with them, coaches, physiotherapists, videographers,” Drakich said. “Ours cope on their own.”
They book — and pay — for travel to tournaments themselves, which costs a top team about $60,000 a year, he said. They hire their own personal coaches and buy volleyballs to play at $60 a pop.
It’s a world far removed from what Valjas’s brother Lenny experiences. He competed for Canada at the Sochi Olympics as a member of the national cross-country ski team, which has long received more government sports funding and corporate sponsorship.
Still, things seem to be moving in the right direction.
In 2012, Canadian men and women produced no top five finishes on the world tour at all. In 2013 they managed two, then, in 2014 there were 11 and, this year, at the first tournament in China, three women’s teams and one men’s team produced top five results, Drakich said.
“Jamie and Kristina doing well raises the others, too,” he said. “You always need a breakthrough in sport.”
The beach volleyball world was plenty surprised by the manner of the Canadian breakthrough and even Valjas, who was sure they’d win eventually, didn’t expect it so soon.
“It was a combo of preparation, learning from past losses and both my partner and I being in the zone together at the same time. We dream about experiences like this happening,” she said. “Everything fell into place.”
Now, she just wants to repeat it.