RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Americans invented beach volleyball.
Brazil made it a passion.
But there’s another country making waves at the Copacabana venue during the Olympics, one with little tradition of beach volleyball — or even a lot of sun-splashed beaches, for that matter.
The ice hockey and curling power is one of only four countries to qualify the maximum four teams — two men’s and two women’s — for the Rio de Janeiro Games. Although Canada has won only one medal in the sport since it joined the Olympic program in 1996, this contingent is hoping it can change that.
“Canada is a competitive nation,” said Ben Saxton, whose father was on the Canadian indoor volleyball team that ended up fourth at the 1984 Olympics — its best finish ever. “All of us want to win at every sport we play. Just because we can’t play during the winter doesn’t mean we aren’t resourceful enough to find a way.”
More often associated with ice and snow — and sports played upon them — than with the Summer Games, Canada has had its share of success in events like track and rowing and swimming. But the beach has been barren since John Child and Mark Heese took bronze in Atlanta.
True, it’s hard to compete with countries where the athletes can train year-round. Yes, the lack of volleyball history itself makes it difficult to convince young Canadians to put down their hockey sticks and hit the beach. And Canada’s population of about 35 million is smaller than California’s alone, not to mention Brazil.
“You take a couple of cities in Brazil and you’ve got more than the whole country,” said Steve Anderson, Canada’s head beach volleyball coach. “You can’t compete with the population. You can’t compete with the history. People come to Brazil and the U.S. to immerse themselves in the culture because you can’t get that anywhere else.”
But when Anderson took over the country’s beach volleyball program, he decided the problem was the mindset of Canadians who just didn’t think they could compete with the sport’s powers.
Anderson, an American who coached Australian Natalie Cook to the beach gold medal in 2000, called the Canadian players together and asked them: “When was the last time you got off the plane expecting to win an event?”
“The comment was, ‘That’s a bit arrogant. That’s not how Canadians think,'” Anderson said in an interview at the Copacabana venue on Tuesday.
“But I don’t know any hockey player that gets off a plane just to show up,” he said. “How do we change that environment?”
Since London, Canada has seen enough success on the world professional tour to hit the country quota of two teams in each gender in Rio.
Saxton and Chaim Schalk reached the podium five times on the FIVB tour; Josh Binstock, a 2012 Olympian, and Samuel Schachter have four top-three finishes since 2014. On the women’s side, Heather Bansley and Sarah Pavan were No. 5 in the Olympic rankings and Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas were 13th.
Only three other countries hit the maximum: The United States and Brazil, which have combined to win 20 of the 30 total medals since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1996, and the Netherlands.
So far, the Canadians have had mixed success.
Bansley and Pavan are 2-0 and atop their pool after beating Switzerland 21-18, 21-18 on Tuesday. Broder and Valjas, who lost to Germany, are 1-1 with one game remaining in group play. On the men’s side, Schalk and Saxton are 1-1 and Binstock and Schachter are 0-2.
“We’re going to find out at these Olympics: What is Canadian volleyball?” Anderson said. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”