Not many players in their 40s are able to compete at the very high level of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, and even fewer get to do so after spending nearly 20 years playing volleyball.
Finland's Rikka Lehtonen is one of the few exceptions.
The 41-year-old blocker has been at the beach full-time since 2013 and feels the time to stop is yet to come as she believes she’s just reaching her technical and physical peak in the sport. That’s quite something for someone who spent nearly 20 years between 1995 and 2013 playing for volleyball clubs in countries like Italy, Turkey, Japan and Azerbaijan, as well as playing for the Finnish national team.
“I always enjoyed playing beach in the summers and I had the feeling that it could be a better path for me to play in big tournaments such as the Olympics, World Championships and European Championships,” Lehtonen told Volleyball World during the first of the three 4-star events held at the Cancun Hub.
“Unfortunately it was difficult to find a partner who was willing to commit to playing beach full-time except the Nystrom sisters (Emilia and Erika), who played together, so I was going back and forth for some time until Taru Lahti came from the junior teams and did really well. We did good things together and she was the reason I decided to play beach full-time.”
The two remained together until the 2017 season and their decision to go separate ways wasn’t enough to make Lehtonen bring her journey to an end. With young and talented players like Niina Ahtiainen, her current partner, coming up in the Finnish rankings, she thought helping their development would be great motivation for her to continue playing for a few more years.
And now she can already foresee her career being extended for a few more years.
“When I first came to the beach I was already 34, so I thought I’d play until the end of the Rio quad and that would be it,” she said. “Then my coach asked ‘why don’t you continue for a few more years and help the young players?’ and I decided to do it as I was feeling well. And I now I keep thinking if I should continue until Paris, it’s not that far off. I still have plans for my career and it feels great to try and reach my goals. But I also think about becoming a mother and maybe it’s time to make it happen. At the same time, some people tell me to keep playing for as long as I enjoy it. I haven’t made a decision yet, I’ll play until the end of the season and see what happens then.”
If Lehtonen ultimately decides to retire at the end of the season, it certainly won’t be because her body can’t handle the high demands of beach volleyball. Despite her age, a long volleyball career and surgeries on both knees and her hips, the Finn remains in great physical shape and is ready to play in three consecutive tournaments in Mexico over the next three weeks.
“I obviously don’t feel the same way I did when I was 20, but I felt that difference in my body a long time ago and have adjusted to it,” she added. “Because of my surgeries and the fact that I have arthrosis in my hips, I need to take good care of my body, recover well and work hard to keep my muscles strong. But the truth is that after some years playing the game I feel I’m at my best and I love our team and the spirit we have and that’s something difficult to walk away from.”
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Cancun Hub - 1st event
Cancun Hub - 1st event - Match schedule
Provisional Olympic ranking - Men
Provisional Olympic ranking - Women
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour