Many athletes embark on the same journey every four years with the hopes of making it to the prestigious event that is the Olympics.
This is the ultimate of all sports, the big picture, the DREAM as the sporting event watched around the world day in and day out for two weeks. But every journey has a different ending. Some will qualify; dreams realized. Some will be cut from the travel team, some will have unfortunate injuries and others will fail to qualify for the big show at all. How do you sum up 4 years of hard work, of literal blood, sweat and tears that ends in heartbreak? It’s absolutely devastating when you put all your eggs in one basket and come up short. I want to do my best to describe the process for me and my team, and why failing is crucial in order to move forward.
2012 was my first summer with the senior women’s national team. There was a lot of turn over after the team missed London, with only 4 girls from that Olympic qualifying roster set to return for another 4 years. We started out with something between 30-40 girls, many of which were training players that first year, and there was only 1 competition. Training was often twice a day for 3 hours each session, 6 days a week, with workouts 3-4 times a week.
With many new faces it was a fresh start. You could feel the energy and excitement we had for the group and our future. It felt bright. The sensations of chasing down a dream is no joke, and those first few years that energy was infectious and powerful.
1000 Days till Rio.
The following year it seemed like everything was slowly coming together. We had a smaller core group, qualified for Grand Prix for the first time in a long time and we started to have some good results. During Pan Am Cup we beat the home team Peru in 5 sets in a crazy atmosphere, we took a VERY physical Cuba to 5 sets, and made it out of our pool to a quarter final matchup against Brazil. We fell to them in 5, but come on it's BRAZIL, and we finished that summer hungry for more.
The yearly routine became normal as we became comfortable with our yearly lives. Though what we do is far from normal. Many of us would play pro for 8 months somewhere in Europe and return to the national team for the summer months. Every time we got back into the gym together it felt like nothing had changed, it was so nice to be home. Returning for 2014 season we all knew we were in for a big year and were ready to test what we were capable of.
It was a longgg summer, the most tournaments in a short period of time that any of us had ever experienced. We travelled to and from continents, across timezones as often as every week, we had very minimal time off, and it was borderline too much. Still, we managed to come away with some amazing results. We were holding our own against European teams taking the Netherlands to 5, we beat Argentina in 5, and easily handled Peru in Grand Prix. There were some hiccups, but the results were starting to show.
The most exhilarating part of 2014 was qualifying for the World Championships in Italy. Pizza and pasta, yes please. The tournament was difficult to say the least, as we had a pool of Turkey, Brazil, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Cameroon. We only won 1 game and didn’t make it out of our pool, but we managed to play some good ball and hold our own against these top teams. We were still building, the improvements were there, the intensity was there and the skills were continually enhancing.
Getting closer, 700 days till Rio.
There were days when everything about volleyball was a struggle. We had a number of injuries that challenged our normal line up during World's. We spent weeks on the road together and were starting to go crazy, and court time/making roster cuts became really competitive. Our starting lineup was continually changing during this time and everyone was always fighting for a chance to make the travel team, and for the chance to play.
Being on the bench sucks at the higher level and with so much at stake everyone wants to be out there helping the team. But the reality is not everyone will play in those high stakes situations, not everyone will travel and it was beyond stressful. With cuts being made so frequently it really forced us to play our best day in and day out for the entirety of the summer.
No days off.
THE BUILD UP
The year leading up to the Olympics is when qualification really began, and for me it coincided with the start of my shoulder injury and an ankle injury. Yuck. We had our basic yearly tournaments like Pan Am Cup (the least favourite for most), and Grand Prix, but we also had the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and ended with NORCECA Championships in Mexico. Volleyball wise, Pan Am Games was a bust, we underperformed at home, finished 8th which was last place, and fell apart (you could say we were screwed by an upset, but I say we didn’t do our job of handling our business to put us in the position to continue in the top bracket of the tournament).
The situation was new because many of our families were there, but we missed the opportunities the difficult moments provided to work through those lows as a group. It was hard. Losing sucks. Losing at home sucks more. Losing at home during a big multi-sport event with your family and so many Canadians watching - that was rough. It was a low point for everyone, for those that travelled and for those that didn't have that opportunity to play at home. Sadly, that was the first tournament where we played really badly, it just had to be on home soil.
That being said the overall experience of the games was like nothing I have experienced before. I have played in 2 other multi-sport games, but this one was different. First of all everyone spoke English. The venues were incredible, the food was bomb, and being a part of the athlete village, staying in Canada house while in Canada? Not to forget about our incredible fans! For once we had home court advantage. It was an experience of a lifetime. Topped off with a performance by Kanye and Pitbull to send us off on a much needed break. So while volleyball was lackluster this time around, you have to find the good in every situation, and there was LOTS of good.
400 Days till Rio.
After some rest and reset training at home we had the first real tournament in the qualification process; NORCECA Championships, where we needed to finish in the top 4 to secure a position in the NORCECA Olympic Qualifier. NORCECA is our official zone of teams from North America, Central America, and the Carribbean. It's the continental confederation that represents teams from those areas at the FIVB level.
This is where the shoulder issues really began. I sat out this tournament, and watched the team compete while on the sidelines working on my cheerleading. We finished 2nd in our pool beating Cuba and Costa Rica, which gave us a match up with the home team Mexico in quarter finals. It was a stressful match against the home crowd but we managed to take the win 3-2 and qualified for the Olympic qualifying tournament in the new year. We finished 4th, but had some solid showings against the teams we would be facing in a few short months.
300 Days till Rio.
After this tournament people dispersed to their pro teams, those that stayed in Canada relocated to the full time training centre in Winnipeg, and everyone was on board to return in January for what would be our last shot at qualifying for the Olympics.
Now just to break down how the Olympic qualifying tournament worked. There were 4 teams and essentially 3 spots up for grabs. The winner of the tournament would directly book their ticket to Rio. The 2nd placed team would head to an 8 team last chance qualifying tournament in Japan where 4 tickets to Rio would be given. Going into the tournament we knew these two spots would likely be taken by the U.S and the Dominican Republic because they have been dominating the NORCECA zone for years. The 3rd place team would HOST a 4 team last chance qualifying tournament with 2 African teams, and the 2nd place team from the South American qualifier fighting for 1 ticket. If you’re still following that basically meant the team that came in 3rd was more or less a shoe in because that qualifier would be amongst lesser teams compared to the tournament in Japan where the European powerhouses would battle it out. And the 4th place team would be left with just that - 4th place and shattered dreams.
For me this is where things get hard and emotional. I spent the first half of my pro season playing through a messed up shoulder as you know, but came back to Canada for training hoping to make the qualifying roster. I refused to let my little broken arm stop me from having the chance to realize my dreams. I gritted it out and told the coaches I would play as an outside if they wanted me to, I could travel as 2nd libero, or I would let someone else go in my place. Whatever the decision I would leave it up to them. I was there to provide whatever the team needed even though my heart wanted to be there as an outside. I was enjoying the opportunity to be back with my real team after a difficult few months in France.
I ended up travelling as our back up libero, happy to have the ability to provide even in the smallest capacity. We lost our first 2 games as was expected on paper against U.S and Dominican, but we were playing the best volleyball of the last 4 years. It really felt like everything would come together for the last game against Puerto Rico, all the marbles, the last melon. I think every girl out there truly 100% believed that we would win. We STRUGGLED with Puerto Rico during those 4 years, but our confidence heading into the match was exactly where it needed to be.
A tightly contested 1st set that we lost 30-28 was the closest it would be. We lost the match 3-0, straight sets, a complete tournament sweep of losses. I know those final moments for everyone were challenging, everyone processed it differently. I hadn’t played all tournament, was subbed in the 3rd set to pass and watched our dreams slowly slip away point by point. I have never felt so helpless (liberos I feel your pain in not being able to score points). Something just wasn't there on that day for us despite 2 brilliant games the days before, and our best training block leading up to this.
With the final whistle the tears bubbled up, the inability to console my teammates or myself crept in and I went to the closest bathroom and cried. I don’t cry often during volleyball, but the tears would not stop, the pain was too much to bear, and the noise from a deflated dream was deafening. It was officially the end for that group, for the cycle, and it was the worst ending.
I know everyone’s experience was different, everyone felt different emotions whether it be guilt, heartache, frustration you name it - we felt it. It’s never easy to come up short, but nothing easy was ever worth it. If at the end of my career I am to never qualify for the Olympics I would do it all over in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful thing to believe in a dream and go towards it whole heartedly.
Looking back, I am proud. Proud of how we grew individually and as a team. Proud of our resilience, despite the ups and downs. Proud of our dedication, for everyone had to give up opportunities/events that were meaningful to them. I'm proud of how I competed.
Failure is NOT a bad thing and should not be feared. It provides the opportunity to re-evaluate and reach improvement by taking the necessary steps to overcome setbacks. With time those wounds have healed, and the heartbreak, while not forgotten, is no longer fresh. In every journey there are moments of brilliance and moments of collapse, and part of the experience is learning how to rise from those downfalls and use that to your advantage.
As we learn from our mistakes we become stronger, our will greater, and our ability to overcome obstacles improves. You will be a better athlete after you fail. You become more tenacious, and with time you’ll learn to succeed. Ask any professional athlete if they have ever failed in their life and they will not hesitate in saying yes.
The Olympic journey is a 4 year process of goal setting, re-assessment, failure and important realizations. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to mentally and emotionally heal, and once I’m physically healed I’m excited for the opportunity to begin again.
1337 Days till Tokyo.
“Let your dreams be bigger than your fears, your actions louder than your words, and your faith stronger than your feelings.” - Unknown.