Heather Bansley paused and reflected, for a brief moment, about being named to this list of the most influential and impactful beach volleyball teams of the previous decade.
“Just to think how much has happened in the last decade,” she said, pausing for a second. “That’s a long period of time.”
As it goes with most passages of time when viewed in retrospect, 2010-2020 has been both a blink and an eternity for Brandie Wilkerson and Bansley. It has been an eternity, a metaphorical and literal lifetime. In 2010, Wilkerson was living an entirely different life: She had never played beach volleyball, much less been dubbed, by her peers, as one of the best in the world at it.
“I literally did not know what beach volleyball was,” she said.
Her first professional tournament came in 2013, a couple NORCECAs with Claudia Seguin. It was that year, whether the world took note or not, that the Canadian federation began building momentum, the snowball began rolling, to becoming one of the most formidable in the world.
It has not been a blink-and-you-missed it type rise, as, say, the Norwegian men, have been. Canada’s growth has been steady, with a consistent upward trajectory. The Canadian players currently being named the best at what they do began at the lowest rung of the ladder, and worked their way up, through satellites and challengers and every number star tournament you can find on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour.
At times, that slow growth could have seemed like an eternity, at the beginning of this decade, both to its players and the world. Canada? Nah, we have bigger problems – the U.S. and Brazil and Germany, with their deep federations and consistent medals.
It could have seemed like an eternity for Wilkerson, from 2013-2016, competing in a vast array of NORCECAs – 19! – coupled with qualifiers all over the globe. It could have seemed like an eternity for Bansley, from 2010-2013, breaking $20,000 in prize money only once while pursuing one of the most lavishly expensive careers. But improvement was there. It was steady, inexorable. Four top-10s in 2014 were followed by four medals in 2015 with Sarah Pavan. Olympics in 2016.
Then came the blink, the oxymoronic overnight success.
The perfect alchemy – Bansley partnering with Wilkerson, Pavan with a sweet-setting 25-year-old named Melissa Humana-Paredes.
Wilkerson’s career prize money tripled in 2017, her number of top-10 finishes increasing by 400 per cent. It was, and remains, just the beginning. In 2018 came a medal, two medals – three medals in as many tournaments, in proper order: bronze in Itapema, silver in Ostrava, gold in Warsaw. Bronze, two weeks later, in Gstaad, then gold, again, in San Jose for p1440’s debut event.
At the end of the year, Wilkerson was awarded FIVB’s Best Blocker, Bansley its Best Defender, Humana-Paredes its Best Setter. Bansley and Wilkerson finished ranked as the No. 1 team in the world.
“It’s an honour to be awarded best defender every time I’ve been awarded it,” Bansley said. “The field is so strong and competitive with so many excellent athletes, it really is an honour.”
In a blink, it seems, Canada has risen to the tops of the world, one of its three most successful federations, with Brazil and the United States. In a blink, it seems, the federation is unimaginably deep, with some of the best college programmes in the U.S. being led and anchored by Canadian players. In a blink, it seems, a Bansley and Wilkerson effect of sorts has taken hold, that young girls can see Bansley winning the best defender in the world three times and think, yes, I can do that, too. That girls with an athletic background away from the beach can look to Wilkerson, with her eight international medals, and say, yes, I can do that, too. It can seem like a blink, because while so much has been accomplished this decade, there is so much that can still be done. Wilkerson is just 28, a limitless ceiling yet to be scratched; Bansley is 33, already with an immense resume to her name and years left of an athletic prime to add to it.
“My story was so different and all of us came from somewhere different,” Wilkerson said. “Just to represent another way of becoming the best, it’s the beauty this sport has to give which is to be creative and to find your own style within it and really succeed. It’s been really cool to work along and compete against and push and pull to get to where I am.”
There has been pushing and pulling, 10 years of it. And with the World Tour rankings becoming more and more populated by Canadian women, it’s inevitable that there will be 10 years more.
“It’s really great as a Canadian and a woman to see other women do well,” Bansley said. “It’s cool because it creates a competitive environment within our national team. There are more teams to compete against for those Olympic berths. Just practice wise, the better the teams, the better the level. It raises our level too. It’s great.”
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