If elite athletes are often defined by how well they performed in the most important moments of their careers, Brazilian opposite Sheilla Castro is set to go out as an absolute legend when she decides to retire.
The prolific scorer, who performs her duties with a perfect balance of power and technique, has represented her country for a majority of the last 18 years and played a pivotal role in many of Brazil's most memorable moments in that period, including victories at both the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics.
Sheilla first joined the Brazilian national team in 2002 after being an important part of the squad that gave the South Americans their third victory at the FIVB U-20 Women’s World Championship a year earlier.
Her first seven years with the senior national team saw her help Brazil to victories at a number of international tournaments, including the 2005 and 2006 editions of the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix and the 2005 edition of the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Champions Cup. Her first defining moment in her career, however, came in 2008.
Sheilla headed to Beijing as part of a Brazilian team that was among the favourites to win gold. And the South Americans delivered, winning all eight of their matches in the tournament and dropping only one set along the way.
In the gold medal match against the United States, when the team had its only moment of instability in a very solid campaign, it was Sheilla’s 19-point performance that gave the Brazilians the reassurance they needed to win 3-1 and claim their first Olympic title.
“Our path to the Beijing Olympics was very difficult because of the frustration and the pressure we had to deal with after our elimination in Athens (Brazil wasted four match points before losing in the semifinals against Russia)”, she said. “But when we arrived at the Olympic Village, we knew we would win. We felt ready, we knew we were playing considerably better than our opponents and we were very confident.”
Four years later, the defending champions arrived in London among the candidates to win gold, but after being less dominant in the build-up period.The outcome was the same, however, with a 3-1 victory against the Americans giving the Brazilians their second gold medal.
In that campaign, though, Sheilla’s most memorable match was in the quarterfinals, against Russia. The opposite produced a stunning 27-point performance and, most remarkably, helped to defend five Russian match points to keep Brazil in the game during the fourth set and tie-breaker.
“It’s incredible, even nowadays people tag me on social media at least once a week because of that match,” she said in a recent interview to Brazilian website WebVolei. “I remember it was difficult to sleep that night. And that when I got back home to Brazil after the Olympics, the first thing my husband told me was that I had to sit down and watch what I had done in that match again.”
Sheilla’s perfect Olympic form came to an end in a disheartening way as Brazil were knocked out at the quarterfinals stage during the Rio 2016 Olympics, in front of a packed Maracanazinho stadium.
For a time it seemed that 18-point performance would be Sheilla's last in a yellow jersey as she spent most of the next three years away from the sport, giving birth to twins Liz and Ninna and uninterested in a return to the courts.
A move to beach volleyball seemed imminent when a phone call from a familiar face, head coach Jose Roberto Guimaraes, ignited Sheilla’s desire to make a push for a fourth and final Olympic appearance at the age of 37.
But in the end, she returned to her home team Itambe Minas, playing at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Women’s Club World Championship, and joined the Brazilian national team for that year’s FIVB Volleyball World Cup.
“It’s crazy, after the Olympics I thought my journey with the national team was over and that I didn’t really have the desire to be here again, but at the moment that I put on the jersey and stepped on the court, I had goosebumps just like the first time,” she said. “If I said I don’t think about Tokyo I’d be lying, but I try not to put too much weight on it. I think that if the Olympics were all I thought about I’d lose focus on my daily work and I really need it to reach the level I want to be at - a position that will allow me to be part of the team.”
And if Brazil need help in a clutch moment, they will know exactly where to look for it.
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