There is nothing like the synergy of teamwork.
Some would say it’s an alliance of sorts, that can lead to big things – assuming everything falls in place at the right time. It happens in the world of sport, too.
Now, think about teamwork as it relates to a phenomenal partnership that formed in a short period of time. For this team, there was a common goal: to do whatever was possible to assist Canadian athletes while prepping for the Summer Olympics in Japan.
It’s the involvement of so many, a relationship of cooperation and a fabulous success story. Some would call it a reflection of itself.
The first athletes benefitting from this unique initiative aren’t just any competitors.
Canada’s Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, with roots in Ontario, are 2019 World Champions in Beach Volleyball. Having devoted countless days, months and years, training to be the best, their focus now is on winning a different piece of jewellery - a gold medal at the pinnacle of all sporting events.
Not something your average person can say. But then again, Humana-Paredes and Pavan are far from mediocre – and the Olympics don’t happen every year. Athletes do face challenges, lots of them, in pursuit of that elusive dream. Watching them compete reveals no fear or trepidation. To this Beach Volleyball duo, it’s positivity. Attitude is everything.
And so, challenged by the worldwide pandemic and safety restrictions of the past 17 months, there was concern on the minds of Pavan and Humana-Paredes in May. It was just after returning from international competition, and the focus was on a critical training schedule needed a few months before the Tokyo Games.
Already in motion was a dedicated and committed assembly of individuals that had representatives from Volleyball Canada, Own the Podium (OTP), Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO), the University of Toronto at Scarborough, and the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC).
There was a virtual telephone call, brainstorming about what they can do to assist athletes. Some of those individuals also had affiliations to the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), and the Municipal, Provincial and Federal levels of Government. This group had all sectors covered and they were tuned in to making things happen – fast.
Photo credit: Ryan MacDonald / CSIO and Volleyball Canada
Human nature would raise questions about how anything could get agreement, approval, funding, completion – and with input from so many in a short span of time. There is something to be said about cooperation and a few miracles.
Then, Bob Singleton, a veteran of solving problems, tossed out an idea.
“Everyone was speaking, I could sense some frustration and we knew, in the case of (Pavan and Humana-Paredes) that 14 days of being in quarantine, away from each other, and off the sand court would have impacted them,” said Singleton, Managing Director at TPASC and an experienced individual having built a successful sports and event business at Downsview Park.
“It just came to me, let’s build a (beach volleyball) court here.”
Singleton, and TPASC Director of Sport & Recreation Rafael Torre, worked with the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) to determine the logistics of building a beach volleyball court and how to house the athletes on the UTSC campus. The University quickly stepped up and provided a location on their fields adjacent to TPASC for the court and a place to stay in residence.
“There was a thumbs up, everyone did their part, came together, approval was in two days, a cheque was later written, and the court was built in a remarkable three days. In 45 years of working on arrangements, I knew this was possible.”
Also in the works, and for several months, was another contingent trying to seek approval from health officials and various levels of Government to develop a series of training bubbles.
“Our job is to help athletes be the best they can be, and we knew there was no stopping in developing a plan that would work for everyone,” said Debbie Low, Chief Executive Officer of CSIO. “It was being done for professional teams and athletes, so we needed to do something very similar for our Olympic athletes.”
Low said representatives from Own the Podium, TPASC and CSIO put in countless hours seeking approval for an Ontario bubble – and they eventually got the go-ahead.
Dr. Steven Dilkas, CSIO’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and a staff physician at the West Park Healthcare Centre, and Low, along with OTP Chief Executive Officer Anne Merklinger and members of her leadership team, as well as Singleton, were behind that sector of passionate and creative minds.
Everything was coming together, and at times it appeared to be quicker than watching the speed of a volleyball sail across the net.
Aware of what was happening, it was time for Ryan MacDonald, High Performance Manager (Beach) at Volleyball Canada and employed by CSIO, to break the news to Pavan, who lives in California, and the Toronto-based Humana-Paredes. MacDonald had built a program for the two, but it was through video and technology.
Melissa Humana-Paredes training in the CSIO Strength and Conditioning gym during the bubble. Photo credit: Ryan MacDonald / CSIO and Volleyball Canada
Quite critical was whether the athletes would settle for the proposed modified training bubble: a two-week quarantine in June at the U of T Scarborough campus residence, along with the multitude of benefits at CSIO from strength and conditioning to nutrition, and training on a new court.
“They’re pros, incredibly motivated, with maturity, confidence and strengths in development – it’s actually phenomenal to have watched their progress,” said MacDonald, who first started working with them in 2014.
“We knew there was a team looking at opportunities and solutions to training and looking for ways to pull everything together. People make sacrifices in their lives to make things work and when we saw everyone was grabbing on to the same rope, it became quite clear that a big network was doing so much for Olympic and Paralympic athletes.”
MacDonald, also referred to as the ‘Guardian of the Bubble’, said he recalled when the conversation came his way about the idea of building a beach volleyball court next to the Pan Am Centre.
“I thought someone was joking, didn’t see it happening because things often don’t work that fast,” said MacDonald. “When the other team members around the table, one by one, said they could make it work, I was quite impressed and knew we were very fortunate and proud to be a Canadian.”
It didn’t take long for Pavan and Humana-Paredes, recognizing the enormous effort, acknowledge and accept.
“When (MacDonald) called me, told me what was happening, I was incredibly moved and emotional,” said Pavan, who was in Los Angeles at the time, and has a remarkable list of volleyball achievements in her repertoire. “I’m in California, aware of the COVID restrictions, working out but wondering how Melissa and I will train together.
“The decision to go to Toronto was a no-brainer. For 20 years, I have proudly represented Canada. With all this happening, speaks volumes of people caring about us and other athletes. So many (people) believed in us and would go to this extent, wanting us to succeed – it’s incredible. In all my years of sport, I have never seen something like this happen. I was shocked to get that level of love and support.”
Humana-Paredes, who partnered with Pavan five years ago and first competed as a team in 2017, knows the importance of competing in the Olympics.
“It’s the pinnacle, it’s the moment you set your sights on and nothing compares,” said Humana-Paredes who, like Pavan, grew up in a family of athletes and volleyball players.
As for her reaction to the extent of work that took place to create the first bubble of its kind for Canadian athletes, Humana-Paredes had high praise for everyone involved.
“I will eventually learn of the extent of involvement by everyone, but what I do know is how special it is to have so many band together to help us and I am so honored,” she said. “The team behind the team, the coaches, the dieticians, the family and others, we are a product of them. And now, another team wanting to see us succeed.
“Everything happened so fast and we were amazed. The pandemic has made things difficult, so stressful and it was terrible to be stagnate at the prime of your training. This bubble was so very special.”
Photo credit: Michael P Hall / Volleyball Canada
Pavan, who had wanted to compete for Canada since she was old enough to understand the meaning of the word Olympics, was born in Kitchener. She joined the Canadian National indoor volleyball team at age 16, and was the youngest woman ever selected for the squad.
As a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Pavan was chosen a four-time First Team All-American and was on the team that won a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in 2006. A year later, she was recognized as Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year. In her only previous Olympic experience, Pavan and Heather Bansley finished fifth in Brazil.
Humana-Paredes, from Toronto, started playing beach volleyball at the age of 12, and four years later, was on the international circuit representing Canada. She’s a graduate of York University, played four seasons for the university women’s team and was 2012 Female Athlete of the Year. Her extensive beach volleyball playing experience includes the FIVB and AVP world tours, and the Commonwealth Games. Humana-Paredes was an alternate to the previous Summer Olympic Games, but did not compete.
A national obsession after winning the World title, Pavan and Humana-Paredes are elite individuals among many including Ed Drakich, Beach High Performance Director for Volleyball Canada.
“Lots of people did lots of things to make this happen and that’s remarkable,” said Drakich, who praised the development of a world class beach volleyball court. “Some six weeks before the Olympics, and this was all done to help Canadian athletes. It’s simply amazing and the athletes are very appreciative of that teamwork.”
As the sun sets on the training bubble, the legacy of the beach volleyball court awaits, and the focus turns to seeing the hopeful reward of everyone’s efforts as the team takes the stage in Tokyo.
David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.
Cover photo credit: Michael P Hall / Volleyball Canada