Beach volleyballers Bansley, Wilkerson hope final 2 tournaments serve as tune-up for Tokyo

The pandemic has made the long and winding road to Tokyo even more difficult for many Canadian Olympians, but especially for beach volleyball players Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson.

Bansley hasn’t been home since January and Wilkerson since September, both of them flying to Rio, Cancun, California, and everywhere in between to track down the coaching, training and competitions they need to podium in Japan. 

And this month they’re approaching the final push to their Olympic destination. 

“It’s hard, obviously, with all the athletes and people in general feeling this anxiety and loneliness,” Wilkerson, 28, told CBC Sports from their secondary training location in Hermosa Beach, Ca. “But then also trying to train for the Olympics and do this away from home has been definitely tough.

“But I think the responsibility has been heavy on us to still be safe and manage those risks, to be prepared to play by the time the Game comes up. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Brandie Wilkerson, right, and Heather Bansley celebrate a point. (Getty Images)

The hard decisions started back in 2020. Both athletes are based in Toronto which was hit hard by restrictions. Training at public beaches wasn’t an option and their only other choice close to home was training indoors, but that wouldn’t expose them to the outdoor elements they face in competition.

“I think as athletes we’re under higher scrutiny than the general public,” said Bansley, 33, who represented Canada in Rio and finished fifth with then partner Sarah Pavan. “So we really need to set an example and follow the rules as best we can.”

That meant looking outside Canada. The duo connected with Brazilian Rico de Freitas, who coached world champion teams and Olympic silver medallists. They spent October and November in Rio, left for the holidays, but went back in January. 

And despite the fact a new coach wasn’t in the original Olympic plan, Bansley and Wilkerson have found a golden opportunity.

“Rico’s extremely professional and extremely knowledgeable and I think he’s still managed to challenge us and bring more tools to our game,” said Wilkerson. “And at such a high level, it’s really hard to continue to grow and really just bring anything new to your game.”

With training under control, the duo still needed opportunities to compete. There were some American events Wilkerson played in that Bansley couldn’t because she didn’t have an American passport. It wasn’t until a March event in Doha, Qatar that the duo finally took the sand together. For Bansley, it was her first competition in 16 months.

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“It’s a very unique situation, sometimes going week to week not knowing if tournaments are going to happen or not,” said Bansley. “Our mindset is let’s play everything we can because we don’t know how much competition we will have.  

“And we want to have that competition experience before Tokyo.”

The duo finished fifth in Doha, then headed to a three-in-one tournament in Cancun, Mexico where they had another fifth-place finish and two 17th-place finishes. 

Now, the focus is on the last two tournaments of the season in Sochi, Russia from May 26-30 and Ostrava, Czech Republic from June 2-6. The two are in a good position since they’ve already qualified their spot for Tokyo 2020, so the goal is to better their current Olympic ranking of No. 7 to improve their Olympic draw. 

But peaking at Games time is the key to any Olympic performance, and while the recent burst of competition has helped, the overall lack of events has made creating that strategy very difficult. There’s been so few opportunities to see what progression has been made (or hasn’t), where teams stack up against the competition and to test out the perfect training to competition to rest ratio.

Pandemic cliches

“I really am so sick of this word, but you have to be adaptable,” said Bansley, laughing. “Brandie knows I hate this word now.”

“Like this whole ‘being comfortable with uncertainty’, ‘adaptability’, ‘just being present’, ‘controlling what you can control,'” added Wilkerson, pointing out the irony of the endless pandemic cliches. “All of these things you hear and you get it, but also, what the heck is going on? We’re in a pandemic, trying to play in the Olympics… it’s a lot for sure.” 

But Wilkerson admits all those adages ring true, and her and Bansley have tested them all this past year. Adaptability helped them get this far, and will hopefully help them reach their goal of climbing onto that podium come July.

“We’re going to come in prepared, confident and just leave everything out there on the court to make our country proud, make each other proud, make all of this worth it,” said Wilkerson. “Make some history really. 

“This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”

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