Summer 2017. Quadrennial Year Numero Uno. #RoadToTokyo
Change is a hard thing to deal with for a lot of people.
Even if it’s one little thing.
One little thing just to throw off your routine a few degrees can have serious effects.
This summer with our Canadian Women’s Volleyball Team we not only had some change, we had the most change ever deemed possible. Can I go as far as saying the most change that this program has ever seen at any given time? 2017 was the start of our four-year cycle, a quadrennial, or the first step in a four year-process to qualify for the (Tokyo 2020) Olympics. I was personally entering into my third quad and my ninth year on the Senior Team (how terrifying is THAT!). Looking back to my first summer making the team back in 2008, our head coach Lupo told me that he saw me having a large role within the team for the next 8-12 years. I actually laughed out loud in disbelief and I remember talking to my mom on the phone after that meeting thinking how crazy he was to believe and assume I would (and could) be playing for three Olympic cycles. Jokes on me. Because here I am. From being the youngest player on the National Team for SO long (I had the duty of checking the cooler on every airplane, dragging to and from every practice, filling it up with ice before we left the hotel, for about four years straight), it truly felt like I blinked and became one of the oldest Senior National players still committed to the dream. Still playing with and for the maple leaf on my chest.
So not only did I find myself with a larger role within the team, there was the fact that we were uprooted from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, to the Richmond Oval in Vancouver. The bid committee had worked so unbelievably hard over the last few years to make a competitive bid and 'Bring The Team'. It was a humbling experience having so many people in our Vancouver volleyball community pull together to try and make this happen, try to make our transition easier, and try to provide all the things necessary to foster a competitive, top of the line training environment. Personally, it was a dream come true to come home after living in Winnipeg for so many summers and then have to leave straight to various professional teams overseas. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt returning to Vancouver knowing that this was Team Canada’s new stomping ground. I realize that there are only a handful of players that call B.C. home but I do hope that with our incredible support systems and community in place, everyone will be able to call it home very soon. Our manager Chrissy Benz worked her butt off (and still is to this very day) trying to find the players short and long term accommodations after a key housing-plan within the bid kind of fell through. We were at a hotel within walking distance to the oval during our training camp in May and then most of the selected team was placed with various families in a home-stay environment. Never a dull moment here! Sidenote: we are still looking for apartments / homes / rooms to rent for this coming summer so if you know of any options feel free to send me a message!! We are so beyond grateful for the families who stepped up and took some of our girls in for the summer on such short notice. I know so many of my teammates had wonderful experiences and now will always have a Vancouver-family in the years to come.
The next big change that was implemented this summer is that we received a new coach. Not just any coach but the infamous (I feel like I can give him that title) Marcello Abbondanza. I knew him from his time coaching Fenerbache, one of the most talented volleyball teams in the world that competes in the Turkish and Champions League. They’re always at the top. He also coached the Bulgarian National team for a few years, taking them to the World Championships in 2010 in Trieste, Italy where we actually had our final match against them. It’s funny how when he first got the job and showed up for tryouts a lot of us were doubting and wondering why he actually took it. You think we would give ourselves a little bit of credit after working our butts off for so many years at endless practices and grueling tournaments. But we still doubted ourselves and were left wondering why one of the best coaches in the world was coming to coach us.
That was one of the most monumental things Marcello taught us this summer; we don’t give ourselves enough credit and our volleyball skills are actually just as good as any other top team. Okay then, so why were we losing games we knew we could win? It was all about our internal self belief – something that he quickly brought to the surface, which had us all pretty shocked. We can fake the confidence in ourselves for the most part, quickly sweep the self-doubt under the rug but come push to shove, it wasn’t where it needed to be especially to have huge success at the international level. Our team went through a period of intense and extreme growth this summer, to say the least. The first two months with Marcello were maybe the most intense in my entire volleyball career. Not only were we working extremely hard on court and in the weight room to refine skills, we were also called to shape our mentality, entire belief system, and take our volleyball level/IQ’s to the next level. So through the many uncomfortable and extremely challenging situations both physically and mentally, on and off the court where at times we were sure that our new coach hated us (have you ever had an Italian coach??), Marcello was also teaching us that he believes in us. So if one of the best coaches in the world thinks we’re a skilled volleyball team, why the heck can’t we think that of ourselves?
I’ve said it before but our Women’s National Team has always had difficulties with confidence. It doesn’t matter the quad, it doesn’t matter the team, it doesn’t matter the tournament or what girls are in the meeting, it’s one of our greatest weaknesses. I’m not sure where it comes from, actually. Maybe as women we are constantly trying to measure ourselves up to someone who we think is more skilled than us. More prepared. More naturally gifted. More more more. Thinking that we are less than when of course, that is absolutely not the case. The funny thing is that we believe so wholeheartedly in each other. We don’t doubt our teammate’s skills for a moment. Yet we are so hard on our individual selves that even though we’ve performed the skill a million and one times, come crunch time we are left wondering if we are ready or can execute what we need to. But our teammate? No problem – they’ll perform absolutely. Of course THEY can do it.
Switching gears for a moment, back to the beginning of May: after tryouts our newly selected squad had about a month to train with each other and get used to our new totally-Italian support staff (head coach, assistant coach, trainer, osteopath). This was yet another thing we had to adapt to; having a full European staff kind of felt like an extension of our professional seasons abroad. I think after a while we got settled into our own groove of things and embraced that this is what our National Team would feel and look like from here on in. We got used to the coaches, how they did things, travelling rules, plus the immense amount of work we needed to do outside of the volleyball court. Not sure what I mean by work? Well on our Pan Am Cup and Grand Prix trip, I don’t know if we had more than 20minutes of down time in our respected rooms. We were busy doing our own scouting of each team and sometimes spending upwards of more than five hours in video sessions. But that’s the thing… you think when it gets that hard, when someone is that hard on you, you’re going to curl up and die. Quit. Think it’s not worth it and bow out (which, he said, was perfectly understandably if you didn’t want to continue – no hard feelings). But none of us did. We gave it our all, we adapted to extreme conditions, and in so many examples, rose to the challenge.
After this month of training in the oval we jetted down to Anaheim, California for some practices and a friendly match against Team USA at a high school. The sets were close and I felt like it was a good starting point for our team. From there we trekked down to Lima, Peru for the most grueling tournament: the Pan American Cup. Grueling because you’re playing about eight or nine games in ten days which is a lot for some of these old bodies! I celebrated my birthday in Lima, as I have for the last decade (it always falls on the Pan Am Cup Tournament dates) but by now they’re all kind of blending together – there have been a fair few! But it wasn’t all birthday cake and Starbucks dates – two of our starting players, Marie-Alex and Sarah Chase both went down at the very beginning of the tournament in our game vs. Cuba. I will try not to go off about how infuriating it is when other players come crashing under the net… but oh did we ever feel the grunt of it. So for the most grueling tournament of the summer we were down two players in a 12man roster. Regardless of early tough luck, our team leaned into each other for support and motivation and Giorgio (our then new Italian Osteopath) performed a lot of crack cracks and kinesiotape tape-jobs in order to hold us all together. From there we flew back home, had a quick few days to do laundry and sleep in our own beds, and before we knew it we were back on a plane back down to Argentina for the first week of Grand Prix. We had some early success, beating the home team on the first night in a very intense 5 set match, in which afterwards we somehow found ourselves being THE halftime show and performing some form of Zumba. Marcello gave the announcer the go-ahead and well, you can't say no to BigBoss. Still slightly horrified that happened.
With some great, successful games in our first weekend we jumped over to Puerto Rico for the second week. Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of success which was devastating because we knew we had the ability to go 3-0 as opposed to 0-3. I think after a long previous couple of months our excessive amount of video watching and sleepless nights were catching up with us. I remember feeling so drained on this lag. My roommate Megan Cyr and I were constantly trying to rally ourselves to push through this week as home was just around the corner. For the third week of Grand Prix we found ourselves at home. As amazing as that was, I was struggling hard individually on the mental and physical side of things. I couldn’t lift my arm more than twenty degrees and felt like I was on the verge of a breakdown. Well, it turns out I was because I had booked a doctor’s appointment with a GP at the oval to discuss some other health concerns and at the end of our appointment when she asked me how I was really doing, I burst into tears. Keep in mind this was the first time I had met this woman. I think I scared her a little bit. But this is the battle that so many (all?) of us face each day as a professional athlete. We have A LOT of things going on in our lives that have nothing to do with volleyball. Yet we still have to pick ourselves up and perform… do our job. And my job wasn’t done for another week. So despite not being in the most optimal of spaces, I rallied, looked for comfort in my teammates who were around me, my family, fiancé at the time, friends, and our volleyball community who were all ready to cheer extra loud for our first National Team games in Vancouver. Of course playing at home is a feeling that you can’t quite recreate anywhere else. To know that your loved ones are in the stands supporting you makes all the difference. Germany, Peru, and Czech Republic were in our pool for that weekend and of course my favorite game was our five-set thriller vs. Peru on the Saturday night. I hope it sparked some interest in the younger athletes that were watching on tv or in the stands and that we’ll have many more opportunities to play some matches in various cities on home soil in the future. The volleyball community is so large that I think our women’s team could really have an impact highlighting Canadian Volleyball as well as inspire the younger age groups. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for more opportunities!
In the end, Marcello was not satisfied with how we performed for our last game of Grand Prix and neither were we. Feeling so burnt out we just couldn’t pull it together for a win. Unfortunately that loss loomed over us for our upcoming break and resettled once we got back to training. Yet... maybe it provided that extra bit of motivation?
But first, following the Richmond tournament, it was time to breathe. A VERY large exhale. It felt like nobody had done that since May. Through tryouts, getting settled into a new city and new home, working through the kinks along side Volleyball Canada, making the first cut for the California/Pan Am Cup roster, battling to make the Grand Prix roster amongst some changes week-to-week (as coach wanted to see all of us in game-action), and adapt to an entirely new Italian coaching staff. It was not easy. We hit a lot of extremely low points mentally and it was such a battle but through that time we still worked so hard every single day on court and in the various gyms and time zones we found ourselves in. I'm always so impressed by my teammates to withstand such intense circumstances. Now it was time to relax and spend time with family, spend time at home, sleep a lot, and recharge our batteries for three weeks. I’m not sure how ‘re-charged’ I got as Rudy and I were in full wedding planning mode but that of course was thrilling to plan as the day became so close. Back to training for a week, I got married on the weekend, had a three-day honeymoon, blinked, and was back in the gym training for six weeks before our final tournament: the NORCECA World Championship Qualifier. I wont go into too many details – but another chance to play in the Lower Mainland in front of a home crowd – even if it was at my rival-university gym Trinity Western University. We swept the tournament and beat Cuba in the final match in straight sets. A nice little ribbon to tie up the summer with; very thankful we could end on a positive note before we left for our university or professional teams. My wonderful brother in law hosted a gathering at the Trading Post Eatery in Fort Langley where we could hang out with each other and our families one last time! So strange saying goodbye after spending every moment with each other for the past five months. A handful of girls flew to Europe the following day to start their next adventure – something that made me incredibly anxious but they all did it with strength and grace. I swear that these unbelievably females inspire me on the daily, whether or not I’m looking for it or not. Gosh, I love them.
I’ve always had a very positive outlook on the future and ability of our Women’s National Team. At first, especially during the first two quads I was part of the team, I attributed it to me being one of the younger athletes on the team. Maybe when I became a veteran player I wouldn’t “believe” in our team as much, especially if we weren’t seeing so much success. Fortunately, that’s not it. I just have an incredible belief in all of my teammates – from the ones I played with this past summer, to the women I played with nine years ago. I am so fricken blessed to train and grow up with such strong, powerful women every single day. There is no other job on this planet that can foster the depth and strength of the relationships I have made. I don’t think you would ever, anywhere, be able to recreate the heartbreaks and the extreme joys that we go through each summer in regards to volleyball or just life, supporting one another every step of the way.
Through the tremendous amount of change we experienced this summer I really do want to say that we had a lot of success. We took a big step (or a few!) in the right direction with Marcello leading the charge. I have always had belief in my teammates even when I felt like our Volleyball Program as a whole did not. When certain Committees did not and coaches would come back from meetings empty handed. We have always done a great job at coming together. I feel like the women I’ve spent the last decade playing along side still choose to show up every single day despite the odds stacked against us, despite the comments or the disbelief, and choose to get better every drill, every practice, every day. Making the move to Richmond, I hope that people’s belief in us starts to change. If it hasn’t yet, I invite you to talk to Marcello… he’s a pretty persuasive individual. Maybe he’ll be able to change your minds. Or talk to me – I always have a lot to say.
Looking back, our last Olympic Qualifier in 2016 was devastating for me. I truly believed that the group we had competing was going to be the ones that took our women’s team to the Olympics. We were one game and one win away from doing just that. Just one last win against Puerto Rico would have qualified us for Rio 2016. Last year we saw a lot of turnaround within the program as a lot of our top veterans decided to part ways with the program. But a few of us stuck around. And actually along with myself, Jen Cross, and captain Lucy Charuk, this fall we were invited (for the first time ever) to sit in with Volleyball Canada members and staff to discuss the year as a whole and weigh in with our opinions in order to help the program continue to grow. The meeting was eight hours. And the three of us, along with our teammates who we were advocating for, are hopeful we can help foster some positive change. We have a new, fresh, and determined group to go at this dream once again. We’re committed to doing our best overseas FOR our National Team, not the other way around. Maybe I sound like a broken record saying that I think and I KNOW that our team will get to the Olympics one day. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck around for as long as I have. I can’t quite find it in myself to step away from the program because it’s just not over for me. It’s not over for us. So if you don’t believe, you better get on board quick. Because things are going to happen fast.
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