Canadian men could be team to beat in Commonwealth Games beach volleyball

Canadian beach volleyball player Sam Pedlow is fitting in nicely on the Gold Coast, judging from his smiling Instagram photo astride a giant pink inflatable flamingo in the pool at the Commonwealth Games athletes village.

It was a day off, he noted. And the smoothie hut had just opened.

Come April 6, Pedlow and partner Sam Schachter will be all business as they start their quest for gold in beach volleyball’s debut at the Games in Australia.

The two Canadians are currently ranked 14th in the world. With none of the teams ahead of them coming from the Commonwealth, Australians Damien Schumann and Chris McHugh are the next highest-ranked team in the field at No. 20.

Schachter, a 27-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., teamed up with Pedlow, a 30-year-old from Barrie, Ont., after his previous partner, Josh Binstock, retired after the Rio Olympics.

The two Sams clicked quickly in 2017. They never finished out of the top 10 and were runners-up at an event in Long Beach, Calif., last July before placing ninth at the world championships in Vienna in August.

“We met our expectations,” Schachter said. “Going into the first year of a new partnership, things aren’t always exactly clear as to how things will pan out and how the partnership will work, the new dynamic. There’s a lot of question marks.

“So it was really nice to have a year just to establish ourselves on tour and not only prove to ourselves that we kind of belonged in that top 10, which neither of us had really cracked on our own, but to be able to prove it to the rest of the world. And I don’t think that we’re viewed necessarily as an underdog any more as much as we’re now a consistent threat and not an easy matchup team.”

The 6-foot-5 Schachter welcomes the pressure that comes with those expectations.

“It’s a new experience feeling like we’re one of the top dogs expected to win, but it’s a feeling that I like and I’m embracing fully.”

A disappointing 17th-place finish in Doha just prior to the games is a blip Schachter blames on the time change and heat after a ninth place at a Florida event. The two Sams have had far more time to acclimatize in Australia, where they will be backed by a full support team, including coach Ahren Cadieux.

In the 6-foot-5 Pedlow, Schachter has a larger-than-life partner with an entertaining social-media presence.

Ironically, Schachter and Binstock defeated Pedlow and then-partner Grant O’Gorman to claim the fourth Canadian beach volleyball spot at the Rio Olympics. Schachter also competed against Binstock before they joined forces.

While the musical chairs makes it interesting, Schachter says the players are professional when it comes to the changing relationships.

“Volleyball, in Canada especially, is kind of a tight-knit community,” Schachter said. “So we’re all kind of friends and colleagues and familiar with each other and we all hang out and train in the same regions.

“It’s weird because we all play against each other usually at some point throughout our career.”

Schachter and Binstock teamed up in 2013 and competed at the 2015 Pan American Games, only to have to drop out during the event due to Schachter’s back injury.

“It was an experience that I really learned from,” Schachter said. “Actually, in the past couple of years, I’ve really dedicated a lot more work to the gym, to making sure that I’m maintaining my health through these highly intensive events.”

It’s especially important in a sport in which the Olympic qualification road can span 18 months to two years.

Rio was also a learning experience. Schachter, who finished 19th in Brazil with Binstock, says it took time to adjust to the “insane” scale of the event.

“It was amazing in terms of just the experience itself. But the lessons learned about yourself coming out of it, it’s also very useful not just for volleyball, I think, but for life. It’s almost indescribable.

“Imagine your entire life and you’re at this one moment [where] in 40 minutes you get to showcase your stuff. So it was pretty amazing to be able to be privileged enough to have that experience. So many people are wanting to achieve that in our sport and I was lucky enough to be able to do it once. And hopefully I’ll be able to do it a couple of more times before I have to retire.”

The Canadians are in a pool with Scotland, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka in the 12-team men’s competition, which runs April 6-12 at the Coolangatta Beachfront venue in Gold Coast’s southernmost suburb. Canada opens April 6 against Sierra Leone before facing Sri Lanka on April 7 and Scotland on April 9.

Melissa Humana-Paredes of Toronto and Sarah Pavan of Kitchener, Ont., ranked No. 1 by the FIVB, are Canada’s women’s entry.

More than 60,000 tickets have already been sold for the beach volleyball competition.

The Canadian Press