Fort Lauderdale, Fla., September 29, 2015 - It was the kickoff to the 2015 FIVB World Tour, the start of a year that would include so many crucial opportunities for potential Olympians.
Halfway across the world in Fuzhou, China, the result of the FIVB Open event turned some heads. At the end of the week, many of the sport’s biggest names and top contenders were left shaking their heads.
None of them won, for one thing. For another, it was a women’s team from Canada that captured a gold medal.
Oh, you mean that tall player and the fierce defender behind her? Few would have guessed that it would have been Kristina Valjas and Jamie Broder, who have spent the entire year proving they’re not just the “other” Canadians with Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be able to put Canadian Beach Volleyball on the map,” Broder said. “All the athletes we’ve had for a long time - and to be able to prove we belong, that’s icing on the cake.”
“It’s kind of weird for Canada to have a summer sport,” Valjas added. “My brother’s a skier and that’s a little more accepted. People don’t know there’s a national team in Canada, so we’re trying to get the word out.”
Oh, the word is out and still being shouted. Valjas and Broder followed their China gold with a third-place finish in Lucerne, Switzerland.
But maybe the highlight of their season came in the FIVB Porec, Croatia Grand Slam. That might be difficult to understand, but Valjas and Broder had to win two qualifying matches, then they lost two of their pool-play matches, then got on a four-match win streak that included consecutive victories over Maria Antonelli/Juliana Felisberta of Brazil, Elsa Baquerizo/Liliana Fernandez of Spain and Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas to reach the semifinals.
They were one match away from facing Pavan and Bansley for the title, proving Canada has a rivalry that can match just about any other country.
“I think it’s a healthy (rivalry) because we push each other,” Valjas said. In Croatia for example we were on different sides of the draw and we saw that they were winning, we were winning games and we got to the semifinal in a Grand Slam and it was great.”
The points they compiled enabled them to reach No. 6 in the world rankings and earn an invitation to this week’s SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals in Florida.
That means they are competing with nine of the other best players in the world in a tournament in which each match could conceivably be a final in any event on the tour.
So yes, it’s starting to sink in that they are close to qualifying for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, but they’ve also learned to enjoy each step as it happens.
“It’s having a stronger mentality, taking a second to recognize how lucky we are doing what we’re doing, how we appreciate the moment and not taking anything for granted,” Broder said. “I think we did a really good job with just focusing on the tournament at hand and not stressing about looking too far forward.”
They’re looking at that as the key to establishing the consistency from week to week on the FIVB World Tour.
“It’s a mindset,” Valjas said. “Physically, we’re really strong and we’re very athletic people and it’s maintaining a positive mental attitude coming into everything. The season is long, it can be dragging, the travel can wear on you and coming fresh with a mindset with a positive energy is what we can work on and what we are working on. That’s a big difference for our game.”