Editor Note: This piece was transcribed by Panayioti Yannitsos.
We knew we’d be playing for the Olympics.
The FIVB World Continental Cup in 2016 was the most pressure-filled event that Grant O’Gorman and I had played together. After playing on the FIVB tour week-after-week, this one was different. It was a black and white finish. Win — and qualify a second Canadian team (Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton were already in) for Rio. Lose — and the dream is over.
Grant and I were a fairly inexperienced team at the time relative to fellow Canadians Josh Binstock and Sam Schachter, who were competing in the tournament with us. The way that the Continental Cup is set up, nationally-ranked number one teams play number two teams. In pool play, we were the Canadian number two’s playing the number one ranked teams from Morocco…then from Kazakhstan…Venezuela… and Russia…
And, we beat those teams.
We weren't expecting to be nominated to play in the “golden sets”. Usually, countries nominate their number one team, that being Binstock and Schachter. But, when the golden set came around against Russia, we were nominated. Fortunately for us, we won that set handily. Then came the deciding semi-final match versus Venezuela. Win this game and qualify another Canadian team for Rio. Grant and I had beaten the Venezuelan number one’s in pool play and Binstock and Schachter had lost to the Venezuelan two’s. So, when the golden set against Venezuela arrived…who would be nominated?
Like I said, we knew we were going to be playing the deciding match to go to the Olympics.
There we were. July 2016, weeks before Opening Ceremonies in Rio. The Venezuelans were trying to muster up anything to beat us. In that golden set, they took both of the best players from their two separate teams and put them together to play Grant and I.
We knew we were playing a talented team, but we thought we could capitalize on the inexperience of the pairing. After a hard-fought match in that golden set, we won 15-11.
That opened the flood gates.
We just had taken ourselves from being ranked in the top one hundred in the world to now having a chance in four or five days to earn a spot to go to the Olympics as the Canadian representation.
That’s right… We had only won half the battle. We booked a spot for a second Canadian team in the Olympics but it wasn’t our spot, yet.
Every National Federation (in our case that's Volleyball Canada) have the right to create their own nomination procedures. For example, Russia was the other Federation to qualify a team on the men's side from the Continental Cup. Prior to the tournament, they had chosen who would go to the Olympics. The second Russian team wasn’t up for competition. We knew going into the Continental Cup should Canada earn a second Olympic spot; they were going to make us play for it regardless of ranking. We knew we had to go play Josh Binstock and Sam Schachter, our fellow Canadians, in North Bay less than a week after securing the Olympic bid for our country.
I don’t think there is any other situation like this in sport: We had to play for the spot we’d just won against the pairing we had just won it with.
At that point, both teams knew what had to be done. Binstock and Schachter are competing for themselves. Grant and I are competing for ourselves.
For so long, Binstock and Schachter had been told by Volleyball Canada that they were going to be one of Canada's Olympic representatives. Grant and I were always in the shadows until this moment.
Before this, I had never developed the mental skills to be able to deal with the magnitude of the situation because it was just kind of dropped on us. After a tough match, our inexperience was too much, and we lost. Binstock and Schachter earned the second spot in Rio.
Logistically… from a fairness perspective, I believe it was fair. Is it the best way for a team to prepare to go to the Olympics and be successful? Absolutely not.
Because of this process, had Grant and I won that game and went to the Olympics, we would have had a few weeks to prepare, all of a sudden, to become Olympians.
I believe that Binstock and Schachter, after beating us, were never able to fully get into that mindset of, “We’re going to the Olympics. We’re putting all of our focus on the Olympics.” That’s why the teams that Canada has sent through the Continental Cup to go to the Olympics historically haven't done particularly well. If I were Team Canada, I would adopt what Russia did and let a team know before the Continental Cup even starts and say, “Hey, these are our two teams who are going (to the Continental Cup). We’re fighting for a spot and if we get one, the highest ranked international team will go regardless.” That would give that team an opportunity to create a much more structured plan leading into the Olympics, and hopefully become more successful than the teams that have gone through for Canada in the past.
Grant and I had played together for four seasons. Not going to Rio in 2016 was really difficult for both of us. I don't really think we ever processed it at the time. After our qualifying loss, we flew to Klagenfurt, which was the last tournament before the Olympics. We played okay but there was a lot of frustration and anger from the previous week.
We never hit our stride again.
Following that, I'd always had a hunch that Sam Schachter’s partner, Josh Binstock, was going to retire after the Olympics. As the season dwindled down, I reached out to Schachter and put my name in as his new blocker.
People don't often realize that beach volleyball is a business. The transaction of moving from Grant to Schachter was in my mind, a promotion. It was a chance to move up the depth chart of Canadian blockers, to a defender in Schachter, who on paper was a promotion. We'd always been competitors. We decided that pairing up would be a good idea and we’d give it a trial run for a year.
I spoke to Grant about my decision.
At the time, he understood from a logic perspective, but obviously there was emotion involved. I think it took Grant some time to process the decision and recover. We had just finished our best season as a partnership. We’d spent four years working really hard and in that fourth year we put ourselves in the position we'd been hoping to be in the entire time.
And then I go on to say, “I’m moving on.”
Grant, with whichever partner he chose, was going to have to fight to get back to that level whereas I, with Schachter, was going to leap even further. To this day, I respect Grant immensely for how he handled that process like a professional.
Canadian beach volleyball, especially when you're talking about loyalty and “jumping ship”, I don't view what I did as that at all. Grant and I put an entire Olympic quad together. If you look at the Americans or Brazilians or teams around the world, they are constantly shuffling and trying to create the best possible situation for themselves. They’ll play two tournaments together and be like, “nope, we’re out”. The Brazilians before the Olympic qualifications had announced their teams. After four events, boom, one guy moves. Then another. In Canada, one of the reasons that doesn't happen as frequently is because we don't have the level of depth that some of these other countries have.
In Canada, we’ve had legends like Mark Heese and John Child. They put the sport on the map in this country. But following their retirement, our program changed. We weren’t as dominant on the world stage as we were in the past. But since the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, I started to notice Canadian beach volleyball again. It started with our women’s teams as they began to dominate match after match. Then, Ben Saxton, Binstock, Schachter, and then Grant and I. We now have teams playing in the main draw most weeks on the largest international stage. That wasn’t something we had in the past.
I saw a ceiling for Grant and I. That ceiling was higher with Sam Schachter longterm. Like I said, it was a business decision to move the needle.
Schachter and I had a good offseason leading into what was the only event of this year.
We went down to California for three weeks with our coach. This is the first training camp away from home where we've taken our coach for that long. We invested all our eggs into Tokyo 2020. We were already in an Olympic ranking position and we knew that we just needed one breakout performance to really solidify our spot.
Our mental focus for the last 18 months had been Tokyo or bust.
It feels like I’ve been chasing this my entire life. So, the postponement of the Olympics due to COVID-19 hurt. With nothing on the horizon, we knew if we kept going full tilt we were going to burn out. So, we took a step back and have begun to treat this as an offseason. We’ll train intensely for a period, take a break, do it again, and repeat. Then, as 2021 approaches, we will start as we would any season. That is, a preseason in California and then a ramp up with the tournaments.
Since we split, Grant and I are still good friends. He has climbed back up the ladder. He played with Mike Plantinga and then moved on to play with Ben Saxton, who at the time was the number one blocker in Canada. I was the number two. So, although it took a year to get back, Grant is in the same position I am right now…
Battling to go to the Olympics in Tokyo.