The average 9-5 worker probably wouldn’t have minded a year off, as has been the involuntary sabbatical of Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson over the last 16 months. Nor would the average 9-5 worker probably have minded an extended – and open-ended – stay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, home to many of the most beautiful beaches in the world and the most talent in beach volleyball, as Bansley and Wilkerson are.
Then again, most 9-5 workers are not Bansley and Wilkerson. And their job? It’s not exactly a 9-5 one.
Problem was: they couldn’t go to work.
A month ago, that finally changed, when Doha, Qatar, hosted the first four-star event in which women were able to compete, marking the first time in more than a year that the Canadians have played in a tournament.
The first time they’ve been able to go to work.
“Finally,” Bansley said, “we were able to do our job.”
Theirs was a job done well. Bansley and Wilkerson finished ninth in Doha, losing a three-set battle with fellow Canadians and eventual silver medallists Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. Was ninth the result they ultimately desired? No, not really. But just to compete again, to play in a match with refs and lines and rules and stakes and consequences, was a win in and of itself.
“It’s so different to compete,” Wilkerson said. “You just try not to get too mad at yourself for making these little mistakes.”
Such was the universal sentiment following Doha: the thrill and exhilaration of competition was suddenly, for every player in the field, a bit foreign. Heart rates skyrocketed. Prize money and Olympic points were back on the line. A simple error suddenly felt bigger, more consequential.
Such are the tricks the mind plays when you haven’t competed at the world-class level in quite some time. And Bansley and Wilkerson certainly remain one of the best teams in the world.
They are still very much the team who barnstormed the opening stretch of this Olympic qualification period, with successsul outings in Las Vegas, Chetumal and, though it didn’t count for Olympic points, a p1440 event in San Jose that featured a field replete with many of the world’s best.
That torrid start, and consistently high finishes since, has put them in an enviable position: sixth in the provisional Olympic Rankings. While a bid to Tokyo is not guaranteed, it is likely they will qualify, regardless of what happens in the next five events in Cancun, Sochi, and Ostrava.
But ah, that would be forecasting, planning, projecting, “and if the past year has taught us anything,” Bansley said, “it’s that plans can change.”
So for now, we won’t plan, or project, or forecast. We will do nothing of the prognosticating sort in this bizarre, Covid era of life.
“I know it’s cliché,” Bansley said, “but we’re really just taking this one tournament at a time.”
It may be cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason, and to take it one tournament at a time is really all any individual or team can do at the moment. So they’ll continue training in Rio, where they’ve been for several months because Canada remains one of the more locked down countries in the world. They’ll hit Cancun for three weeks – “that’s the plan anyway,” Wilkerson said with a laugh, because we know what happens when you make plans these days – and where they go from there, they aren’t entirely sure.
Maybe back to Rio. Maybe to Hermosa Beach, California, where a lengthy list of the top American teams, among a few other federations, are currently training. Wherever they end up, whatever plan winds up materialising at the last minute, they’ll be smiling, as always.
Happy once more to finally have a job to do.
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020