Sarah Pavan is among the world’s best volleyball players and perhaps the best Canada has ever produced. But she’s never been an Olympian.
So the 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., traded the indoor game for the sand and the sun of beach volleyball, and hopes her decision will help her achieve the “only thing missing.”
“I’ve set goals for myself in pretty much everything my whole life, and being an athlete, going to the Olympics has obviously been the ultimate one,” Pavan said. “It’s tough when you set all the goals and you work hard to achieve them, and the one that you want more than anything keeps eluding you.”
The 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., finished ninth in her beach debut with partner Heather Bansley of London, Ont., last month at a FIVB World Tour event in Argentina. Their second FIVB Grand Slam event is this week in The Hague, Netherlands.
Pavan had played for Canada’s senior indoor team since making her debut as a 16-year-old.
The 6-foot-5 lefty starred at the University of Nebraska, winning the Honda-Broderick Cup as the NCAA’s top female athlete — in any sport — in 2007. She led the Cornhuskers to a 33-1 season and an NCAA title while maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average in biochemistry.
She’s since played around the world and earlier this year, led her Rio de Janeiro-based indoor team Unilever to the Brazilian League title.
At the national level, however, Canada hasn’t had a women’s indoor volleyball team in the Olympics since 1996, Pavan and her teammates finishing third in a qualifying tournament it needed to win to make last summer’s London Games.
Watching the Games from home, Pavan was intrigued by the Olympic beach tournament being played in front of its breathtaking backdrop at Horse Guards Parade.
“It definitely piqued my interest,” Pavan said. “Watching the Olympics, it looked like something that if I put enough work into, then yes it could be a possibility. I definitely thought it would be worth a try.”
Enter Bansley, who was suffering from some Olympic heartbreak of her own. Bansley and then-partner Liz Maloney narrowly lost to Annie Martin and Marie-Andree Lessard for Canada’s one women’s beach berth at the London Games.
“That kind of inspired me more to make it for Rio in 2016,” Bansley said of missing the Games. “If anything, I wanted to not just qualify for the Olympics, and go to the Olympics, I wanted to qualify and do well and be on top of the podium at the Olympics.”
Bansley knew of Pavan by reputation — “She’s very well known,” Bansley said. And when the indoor star contacted Bansley seeking information on acquiring a beach partner, the 25-year-old Bansley had a suggestion.
“How about me?”
Her split with Maloney wasn’t easy.
“It tough, Liz and I played three seasons together, and we had a lot of successes and I think we’re a great team, but in terms of timing, timing-wise with Sarah coming to beach and it being the start of a new Olympic cycle, I really wanted to give it a shot with Sarah,” Bansley said. “Liz has been struggling with an injury all this year, so it was a good opportunity for me to try out this partnership with Sarah and for Liz to get healthy as well.”
Pavan was thrown into the competitive fire, playing against some of the world’s best in Argentina after only a couple of weeks of training with Bansley. Her new partner, however, said Pavan’s a quick study.
“Skillwise, she’s got great ball control and that’s helps on the beach, and she moves really quickly for someone of her size,” Bansley said. “What I really like about Sarah is her competitiveness, and I think it matches mine and in that way, we’ll be a really good team.”
Pavan played the opposite position — meaning she lined up opposite the setter on the right side — in indoors. Her job was to score points and score them efficiently. The beach game, she said, requires a lot more finesse and placement of the ball.
“Which is completely against all the instincts that I have,” Pavan said. “From having played indoor for so long, it’s just like: finish it now. It’s hard to remember ‘Don’t try to finish the play right away. Just let it come to you.’ And there are two people on the court so communication is key. You have to be able to do every skill and execute every single skill well, whereas indoor, you can hide your weaknesses a little bit more.”
Pavan has few weaknesses, although that hasn’t stopped her from beating herself up during training.
“She’s been very hard on herself,” Bansley said. “I can relate because I’m kind of a similar-minded athlete. I think it’s also hard because she really respects the other players and athletes and the level at which they play. But she doesn’t give herself enough credit as to the calibre of athlete that she is at.”
Following this week’s tournament, the two will head to Rome for a FIVB Grand Slam event, then on to the world championships July 1-6 in Poland.
The Canadians have modest expectations for their first season together, and still have three-plus years to go in their shared quest for a spot on the Rio Olympic team.
But the two say their partnership has already breathed new life into their respective volleyball careers.
“It’s exciting,” Pavan said. “It’s nice to mix it up and explore new possibilities in the sport.”
“It’s a fresh start with a new partner and so it’s challenging me to come out of my comfort zone as well,” Bansley said. “It’s trying to share my knowledge with Sarah about the beach game, and so it’s new and I always like something new and challenging. It’s fresh.”