Anouk Vergé-Dépré has a terrible memory. Her words, not ours.
“I couldn’t tell you the details of my first game or my first international tournament,” the 28-year-old Swiss defender said with a laugh.
It is entirely possible, then, that she doesn’t remember her first qualifier on the FIVB, a 2011 Grand Slam in Stavanger, home of one of the most magnificent trophies in all of sports. She didn’t return home with that gigantic sword, but she did gain a sense of urgency from her first-round knockout, to Italians Daniela Gioria and Giulia Momoli.
A teenager at the time, Vergé-Dépré had been scooped out of her first professional indoor contract by Isabelle Forrer, whose usual partner, Sarah Meyer Suarez, had gotten hurt.
“There was a little pressure playing with a player who was ten years older because I needed to progress fast,” Vergé-Dépré said. “She wanted to make it out of the qualifier.”
It’s a trait of Vergé-Dépré’s. That qualifier in Stavanger was a baptism by fire. Name any other 18-year-old whose first professional FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour event is a Grand Slam qualifier. Whose second event is somehow even bigger: the Gstaad Major, Vergé-Dépré’s home event, and the most coveted by beach players worldwide. Whose third event is in equal standing: the Klagenfurt Grand Slam.
“Just having the opportunity to jump in at a young age was incredible,” Vergé-Dépré said. The all-in, adapt or fail strategy worked, perhaps better than Forrer or her young apprentice could have hoped. In their first event in 2012, a CEV in Baden, they emerged from the qualifier to win gold. By their third event in the 2012 FIVB season, they’d never fail to qualify for a main draw again.
Fast progress, indeed.
But that’s always been a quality of Vergé-Dépré’s. She's been a lifetime dabbler: saxophone, salsa, indoor, beach, tennis. Give her a new sport, a skill to learn, and she’ll figure it out quicker than you'd expect. It explains, in part, how she was able to make the adjustment from the junior Swiss Tour to FIVB Grand Slams in less than a year, just as it explains, in part, her latest adjustment with her latest partner, Joana Heidrich.
After 10 years of blocking, honing her craft at the net to an Olympic standard, Vergé-Dépré, a right-side blocker, was going to defend on the left.
“I loved my job as a blocker, and for me, it was a big question mark if I could really do the transition to defence,” Vergé-Dépré said. “We knew that two tall players is a big advantage. If you’re doing your job at the net for 10 years, switching is not as easy as it looks.”
Rather, it’s not as easy as Vergé-Dépré makes it look.
In her third tournament as a defender, at The Hague four-star in 2017, Vergé-Dépré and Heidrich took silver. Along the way, they beat 2016 Olympic gold medallists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda 'Duda' Lisboa and Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes, Americans Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross. They’d finish in the top 10 in every tournament for the remainder of the year.
Talk to Vergé-Dépré, and she’ll do a good job convincing you that she felt out of place, uncomfortable, slow. Her results argue the contrary, though perhaps that is part of the reason why her and Heidrich are one of the best teams on the planet, winners of the 2020 European Championships: there’s always progress they can make, no matter what the finishes may say.
“I had a lot of struggles with technique,” Vergé-Dépré said. “After a certain time, you see a little bit what you can do and what is difficult for you to do. After that, it gets tougher and you need to decide what kind of defender you want to be.
“Today, I am more confident and more secure about how I want to defend, but there are days where I’m not sure what exactly I should do.”
It’s a wonder, then, how good Vergé-Dépré and Heidrich can be when the 1.85m defender feels confident in knowing what exactly she should be doing. Currently, they’re ranked No. 12 in the world and in the provisional Olympic ranks. They’re European champs, gold medallists at the Moscow four-star.
“As an athlete, you’re going through a lot of different periods, and the secret was to believe, but not being blind to what you have to adapt to achieve a goal,” Vergé-Dépré said. “Sometimes you have to change, whatever it takes, you have to analyse your situation and try to optimise.”
They’ve optimised in a year that did its best to throw off any possible optimisation. They’ve optimised despite a back injury to Heidrich and a pandemic that threw them off just as they felt they were peaking.
So yes, it is possible that Vergé-Dépré doesn’t remember the details of certain matches, like that debut qualifier with Forrer. But there is no forgetting the feeling of winning the European Championships, bringing home the third momentous win in less than a year for the Swiss Federation, following Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich’s gold in Qinzhou, and Marco Krattiger and Florian Breer’s Cinderella victory at the King of the Court.
It’s progress on which Vergé-Dépré thrives.
It’s fast progress she’s made.
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