At the beginning of every summer we always receive the entire season’s schedule, often running from May through to the end of September or October (depending on the last tournament we have). I remember looking at the days and the months thinking about how far away World Championships felt. How much we still had to do, how much we still had to achieve, how much we still had to prove to not only other people, but ourselves.
I remember thinking that once August rolled around it was going to be a big blur — that I would probably find myself blinking suddenly and then find myself on the plane to Japan. Well… that time is now. I blinked — and as a result I am on the plane heading towards my third World Championships with eleven fantastic teammates.
Just this morning after our 6:30 am practice (oh yes… you read that right! + spoiler alert: it was NOT just a serve and pass) I was chatting with Rudy about how crazy it is to have so many different seasons within one year. One seasons starts and a new season (professional) begins. Rudy then turned to me and said “Congratulations! Last practice at the oval for the season — another summer down” and I was trying to figure out why it feels so good to stand at the end of something, or a season in this case. I asked if it was the excitement of finishing and accomplishing something or the excitement of new beginnings. Or maybe a little bit of both. We both agreed that it’s a bit of a euphoric feeling; looking back at months and months and months of incredibly difficult, mentally challenging, physically draining work and have yourself standing strong at the end of it. The feeling of accomplishment like no other, something that only sport can bring about and stir up inside you. Our bodies will never go through anything like this again in our lives. We will never be pushed as hard mentally as we are for so many consecutive hours of the day. And to be standing there with your team at the end… yes. We’ve done it. And yet, we’ve really only just begun.
I have a lot of feelings and thoughts stirring up inside me as I am at the end of my ninth season with the national team and coming up to my third World Championships. Reflecting a lot on the past teams we’ve had over the years which has been bringing up a lot of memories from my first World Championships back in 2010 which was also in Japan. I kind of feel like it’s all coming full circle for me. I have always said that our group is special and every year I’ve truly meant it. But this crew, this summer, has showed up in ways that is igniting something special across the country. We are fighting tooth and nail and getting some really big, impressive wins. I’m tremendously excited to be heading to this competition with this group and I can’t wait to see what we show the world.
But let’s back up. After a very successful Pan American Cup in the Dominican Republic in June, the squad had three weeks off to rest up and refuel before the next very heavy part of the season. We came back to Richmond and trained for a week before heading off on our European Tour. I can’t stress how valuable and important exhibition matches are. Ideally, Marcello would like for us to be in a tournament, or at least a series of games, every single month. During larger amounts of training time it’s imperative that we’re getting game experience (which is obviously more difficult for us being in Canada, than say, the European national teams who are constantly playing friendly games). In the past we have needed exhibition tours like this one but we were never able to make them happen due to budgeting. We were never able to fly to Europe to get these crucial games. Luckily Marcello had a few key hookups and he set it all up for us to go on this three week tour to play the national teams of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Germany.
First stop: Istanbul, Turkey for seven days.
Istanbul holds a dear place in my heart as it was my first full eight month contract I took back in the day (six years ago now…. sob!) so I know the city VERY well. We trained at the VolleyHotel which is a large training facility hooked up to the hotel. I hate to admit it, but a lot of girls didn’t get any fresh air until the last day we were there; when you can walk from your hotel room to the dining room to the gym to the workout facility, I guess you don’t really need to go outside. One of the best club teams in the world trains out of this gym and I have played here only once before so it was nice to be back. Our team was split, half in one gym and half in another which, honestly wasn’t great for team moral but we understood the importance of all of the players getting as much high level game experience as possible. We played three games against the Turkish National team during this week.
When we travel to different countries we often don’t get to see and experience a lot of where we are. We had just one half day off in Istanbul but our team decided to take full advantage. All fourteen of us girls departed bright and early after breakfast and somehow met down at the ferry docks (which spans a few kilometres) — thankful for the two players who had sweet data and could communicate where everyone was, because… airplane mode. When we eventually found each other we were informed that the coaches who had said they would meet us down there (so March could help us navigate the ferry system seeing as he has coached in Istanbul for a number of years) had actually already taken the ferry to the other side. Awesome — thanks so much. So with our sub-par Turkish translation we somehow managed to all individually take money out of an ATM, load a transit card, not get trampled on while boarding the ferry, not lose any one in the chaos, not get molested by randoms (oh wait no… that happened to a few people…), find Vincenzo once we docked, and jump on a transit going up to the infamous Sultanahmet Square. Incidentally we all ended up dispersing anyways. I got to play tour guide for the day as my little town was only 20-25 minutes away from this area and I was pleased to know that I still remembered every little detail and every little side street. A few of my teammates were touring Sultanahmet Square for the first time so I made sure to give the girls the fullest and best experience they could get in a few hours.
Must sees and do’s (/what we saw and did):
Hit up any coffee shop for the largest coffee. You’re going to need it.
Try some Turkish delight from some of the smaller shops; go for ones that are rolled in dried pomegranate seeds, pistachio, and other delicious flavours.
Walk into the centre of Sultanahmet Square so you’re standing in the middle of the grounds between the Hagia Sofia and the infamous Blue Mosque (I would recommend walking around both of these unbelievable structures and if you have time, to actually go in to each).
To the side of the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It just looks like an open space but this is actually the area where they had the horse and chariot racing track back in the Byzantine Empire.
One thing we missed out on was seeing the Medusa head down in the Basilica Cistern which was built in the sixth century to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings. However it wasn’t discovered until one thousand years later but not fit for visitors for a long time due to all the junk and CORPSES that were found there. It now is just a huge underground cistern (the size of two football fields, 336 marble columns holding up the ceiling, and once held 100,000 tons of water).
Walk past the Blue Mosque and down into Akbiyik Caddesi (street). These shops are more expensive because they’ve all conveniently come together and formed a beautiful shopping strip — the perfect tourist trap — but prices were still very decent when we were there so we didn’t mind too much.
Walk in to a carpet shop and ask the shop keeper to show you some of the carpets. There are some very delicately woven silk carpets but just for looking; a tiny silk carpet can be a couple thousand dollars! Usually all the shop keepers are excited to tell you about the different kinds so even if you don’t have any intention to buy one, still go in for the experience.
Find a different store and buy a carpet (oooopssss…..).
LUNCH! ie. family-style feast. The only way to dine in Middle-eastern countries.
Wander the side streets a little bit more to find a few smaller shops and different cafes and restaurants. When we were there it was a holiday so not everything was open, including the Grand Bazaar, which was probably a great thing for my team because we all have luggage-weight issues.
Grab a freshly squeezed juice at one of the many stands. I recommend orange-pomegranate - the plain pomegranate was a bit too bitter for us!
Walk through Topaki Palace. I spent a lot of hours here walking around and visiting each different museum exhibit with my dad when he came to visit those years ago. But you can still get into the gardens for free — a nice little jaunt through the Palace grounds, catch a good view, and if you keep walking you shoot out down on the far side of Hagia Sofia. From there it was time to head back to the hotel so we (miraculously) made our way back down to the ferries and then taxied back to our hotel.
The biggest takeaway from our time here in Istanbul is that we are just as good as the top teams in the World. For years and years the Turkish National Team has had a lot of success and is very high in the world rankings, often finishing top 5 in major tournaments. They boast some of the best players in the world, many of the girls who are playing in their respective Turkish clubs, are making well over 100,000$ a season. In all of our games we were neck and neck. The only thing it came down to was who could hyper-focus at the end of the last set to take the match. We played them once again in Italy a couple weeks later and won. Their coach who is also world-renowned told March that our team has the potential to win our entire pool at World Championships. It’s going to be very interesting when we play them in our first match!
Next up: Rimini, Italy for fourteen days.
We were up at the crack of dawn to fly to Italy; the land of cappuccinos, croissants, cheese, prosciutto, pizza, pasta… I could go on. I also played very close to here a few years ago but not close enough to go visit my old city of Urbino. But wonderfully enough, our hotel was right on the sea. The famous Rimini beach with huge colourful umbrellas stretching as far as the eye could see. The ocean came in handy coming back from practicing in non-air conditioned gyms for 2 and a half to three hours. It was HOT. We were also in a very touristy and busy area - the main street had a lot of shops and restaurants on one side and our hotel and the beach boardwalk on the other. This was magnificent for the first day but then once we realized that live music would be BLASTING from the other hotel across the street (it literally seemed like it was coming from the room beside you) it didn’t seem that exciting anymore. So loud in fact, there wasn’t even a point of TRYING to sleep before midnight. Perfect when the requirement is to be rested ready for morning training and afternoon scrimmages. We have a few grandmas on this team!
We were in Rimini for two weeks total and to be completely honest, it was pretty tough. A lot of people assume that it’s all rainbows and butterflies - I mean, you’re playing volleyball in Italy, tough cookies. But yes… the cookies were tough, let me tell you. I wish I could video tape practices for you all to really understand exactly what I mean when I say you need to be SHARP for every single minute you are in the gym. There is no dogging it here. There’s no room for doing things half assed.
But one thing I was so immensely proud of my team for doing this trip was sticking together. After three weeks on the road together, eating every single meal, driving back and forth to the gym, workouts and practices, trying to get on the same page doing our own scouting reports — you’re seeing the same people every minute of the day and it can be easy to get annoyed and therefore drift apart a little. But, we didn’t. Regardless of sleeping a half an arm’s reach from our roommate’s face for two weeks in a small European hotel room that is about the same size as a small walk-in closet, we didn’t. We stuck it out, worked our butts off, and supported each other when one of us was having an off day or a bad day (volleyball related or not), because of course, every player is going to have their moments during a long trip. For that, I take so much pride and confidence in this group moving forward.
Fun things we did:
Our team went to the horse races one night in Cesena. It was a bit rainy so the stands unfortunately weren’t packed, but it was a good excuse to be able to look like females for a moment. In between some of the races, Jenn, Kiera, and myself had to get up on this little stage and draw some numbers for the winning lottery ticket. Later in the night our team also had to go in to a news studio where the host asked March and I some questions about the exhibition series, the team in general, and moving into World Championships. Tough questions too!
2. Celebrated Marcello’s birthday at his house with his family and friends. His mom cooked us an amazing meal; a ton of grilled and roasted veggies, piadina (a special Italian-flatbread type thing), some kind of delectable spreadable cheese and all the meats you could imagine (cooked in the outside brick-oven).
3. Italian gelato… there is nothing in the world like it.
4. And while on the subject of food: pizza. There were so many small restaurants that I think all would have been fantastic but a few of us found a cute outdoor restaurant on the boardwalk that had amazingggggggg pizzas. Hello truffle oil.
5. Team “ice bath” in the sea. Oddly enough, we weren’t allowed to go in to the water the day after it rained due to poor drainage from the streets. Hm.
6. The coaches, with the exception of Rich, left us in Italy a day and a half before our flight (grazie mille). So on our last day we all stayed at the hotel to relax and then had a pool party and celebrated Bri’s birthday. Usually having a birthday on the road isn’t the best thing in the world (as it feels like just another regular training today… because, well, it is) but I’d say the Italian pool party was pretty cool. Not very much room in that small outdoor pool for anyone else. And a pretty decent way to end our three week exhibition tour.
The first takeaway from THIS leg of the race was again, that we can compete with any high level team. We beat all three teams during our exhibition series in Italy and we weren’t even playing our best ball. That is exciting. Secondly, in regard to non-volleyball related facts: the food in Italy is some of the best in the world. Third, we can persevere through a lot physically and mentally, but staying together as a team is crucial. And we did just that in the thick of some pretty tough times and moments. Fourth, gelato.
So three weeks on the road, often feeling like much longer than that, was in the end a large success. Our team gained more confidence in our game going forward and I hope going into Worlds, we can remember the successes we had on this trip not too long ago. Like I said before, these exhibition trips are so huge for us, and these are the moments you can look back on and pin point the times when you took a few big steps forward. There’s a tangible difference from before and after this trip. You can see it in our daily practices, how we come into the gym for games, and within our general interactions with one another. I hope we can get more opportunities like this one next summer as well.
So I sit here on the plane going to World Championships, it is all about standing tall at the end of this summer, looking back at all we’ve accomplished this far. How far we’ve come. How much we’ve learned about ourselves and about one another. About our team as a unified group. If anything is evident from this season and about this euro trip specifically, is that we need every single person on this team. Even if one player’s job is to score the most points, the entire team UNIT is needed to buy in, to give energy, to bring their best self to the gym and to the team day in and day out. We are going to World Championships with no room for selfishness, no room for petty remarks — we are here to do our jobs and that is to win — to show, in tangible results, everything we’ve already accomplished this summer. So yes it’s a sense of pride as the summer is coming to a close, but it’s also the most important and most exciting part of this entire year. The exhibition series got us physically ready to compete and now we just need to bring it. I am so incredible excited to see what this group will do.
Stay tuned, kids. Will be sharing a lot over the next few weeks on various social media platforms. And if you want to follow the team specifically you can find us on Instagram at @canwvb!