Lausanne, Switzerland, February 22, 2020 - In the first of a series of articles on the world champions, Canadian defender Melissa Humana-Paredes speaks about winning the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Hamburg in 2019, when her partnership with Sarah Pavan turned a corner on the road to Tokyo 2020.
Melissa, 27, and Sarah, 33, are preparing for their first Olympics together. Pavan finished fifth in her previous Olympic outing with former partner, Heather Bansley, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
"Honestly, at the point where I was in my career four years ago, I probably wouldn’t have predicted this. I acknowledged that we definitely had the potential to get to the highest level, but I think our development as a team and my development as an athlete surprised me, and continues to surprise me! Mostly with how quickly we gelled and how quickly we began fine-tuning our game. Four years ago I was just stoked to be given the opportunity to play with Sarah. I had a lot I wanted to prove but I wasn't sure how I was going to rise to the occasion."
Over the past four years the team have won five times on the FIVB World Tour, they won gold at the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships and for Melissa it has been made up of lots of little but important details on the mental and technical side of the game. She credits the team's coach, Scott Davenport who Humana-Paredes says "is a very technical coach who sees things other people don’t".
"I have improved on lots of little technical details but I think more importantly I have improved how I approach each skill mentally. I was, probably still am, definitely more of a "feel" and "flow" player. I was taught the importance of fundamentals at a young age, but since working with Scott he's really hammered in technical details that have made things more efficient and effective. Everything from arm swing mechanics to avoid shoulder injury to passing and digging mechanics that give me more range. It wasn't just about breaking habits but about being mindful of when I resort to them."
The world champions first played together at the World Tour Finals in 2016, something Melissa describes as "a bit of a mess". But it didn’t take long for the team and Melissa herself to see some results that in turn built an inner belief within the team. A silver at the Rio 4-star in 2017 was their first competition with a full preseason behind them, where making the finals against Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda 'Duda' Lisboa gave them confidence to go on and win their first major event in Porec at a 5-star tournament.
Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes and the medallists at the World Tour stop in Rio de Janeiro in 2017.
"I honestly think our first tournament in Brazil in 2017 was pretty eye-opening for me because our very first time playing together at the World Tour Finals in 2016 was a bit of a mess. But we put in serious work in that off-season and heading into our first tournament, we didn't have anything to measure our progress up against. So when we began competing and beating good teams to make it all the way to the finals in Rio, I felt like my individual progress was justified and we were definitely headed in the right direction. Then of course, our first gold in Porec was an absolute dream. Winning no longer became just a possibility but a goal and standard."
Since then, the Canadians have seemed to have a knack of winning on the big occasion winning. They have also won in Vienna, Hamburg and Gstaad. Alongside all of the wins, they were also awarded the FIVB Most Outstanding Team, something that Melissa mentioned on her Instagram account confirming that "mastering the team is the most important part of this journey".
"I think it started with failure and losses honestly. When things are good, they're good and it's hard to see room for improvement or feel the urgency of change. It's when things are more difficult that you have to look in the mirror, individually and as a team, to realise the potential for growth. My first moment of realisation and our first real team chat was at the NORCECA Finals in the Dominican Republic where we severely under-performed (and it was the first Olympic qualification event no less!). We hashed it out and it made us stronger, which I'm grateful for. We look to our sports psychologist, Lee, to help us manage and guide our relationship through the good and the bad. When it comes to the partnership, you can't do it alone. But after three years of working on it, I can say I'm so grateful for our losses because they've taught us so much about each other."
And on playing with Sarah, she also feels she has learnt a lot and is very thankful for their journey, relationship and Sarah's guidance and making her the player she is now.
"I've learned how to see the game differently with more of a strategic lens. But I've learned how to approach my love of the game also through the lens of a professional and view it as a profession; it bears more weight when you change your perception from "amateur" athlete to "professional athlete". Playing with Sarah has taught me how to mature and grow through the sport, which has also naturally transferred to my life outside sport as well. How to be self-sufficient, confident, steady, responsible, how to communicate and be a part of a functioning and successful team. I feel like I've grown up under her eye and I'm grateful for these experiences with her."
The team are working on their focus in training and consistency as they feel that will be huge, as well as managing potential distractions, which means they are looking within their team to stay grounded. They are also looking at preparing their season to manage their load and body fatigue as they feel those will be key factors heading into Tokyo. At the same time, they have to earn a living by playing the sport.
"Our seasons are long and often have back-to-back stretches, so we want to make sure we're fresh for Tokyo. But at the same time this is our job so we need to find a balance of earning a living as well as peaking at the right time. Tricky business!"
2019 saw Canada win the World Championships but who will win in Tokyo is very much to be decided.
"Heading in as world champs, it's easy to pick us as the favourites. But I think there are many teams in the Top 10 that could also be selected as favourites in their own right as well. It's deep competition on tour and the only thing we can do is just compare ourselves to ourselves and focus on what we can do better, because that's all that we can control. But the field is deep and anyone can beat anyone. That's the beauty of sport in general, but especially beach volleyball. Anything can happen!"
At the World Championships in Hamburg, the team beat the USA’s Alix Klineman and April Ross in a thrilling final when the Canadians won 2-0 (23-21, 23-21). When asking Melissa to elaborate on that experience and how it will help prepare her for the events ahead, it is clear that becoming a world champion takes a little while to get used to.
"It was all a whirlwind. Heading into the World Championships was interesting because we weren't coming off of our best performances. We were still fine-tuning to put it nicely, so our confidence wasn't probably where people think it was. And even once the tournament started, it was a grind all throughout pool play and into the playoffs. None of it came easy, we fought for every point and every game. There were a couple of times when we almost lost the game, but we didn't let it happen and I think it was that resilience that led us to the title. I think the winning feelings we felt have made us hungrier and more focused heading into Tokyo. At the same time, I think winning put winning into perspective - if that makes sense. I'm very much making an effort to soak in every moment and not just the moments of success, because life goes on after you win or your lose, which we quickly realised after Hamburg."
The FIVB world champions are currently at their training base at Hermosa Beach, California. Look out for interviews with Sarah Pavan and coach Scott Davenport later in the series.
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020