Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 13, 2016 - You’d better believe that Beach Volleyball in Canada is as hot as the slap shots down the road in the World Cup of Hockey.
Chaim Schalk, one of eight Canadian Olympians in Rio de Janeiro last month, has certainly noticed it during that short span since arriving home from Brazil.
“There’s definitely a vibe,” Schalk said Tuesday as the SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals hit Toronto. “There’s people that recognize us around and you can tell people caught on at the Olympics and watched a lot.”
To be recognized in Canada as a Beach Volleyball player is one thing, but it’s only a start. Not only did Schalk and partner Ben Saxton, plus Josh Binstock/Sam Schachter, Sarah Pavan/Heather Bansley and Kristina Valjas/Jamie Broder compete in the Olympics, the city and the country landed an event with worldwide cache that features the best players in the world, including 45 Olympians from Rio 2016.
The culmination of the SWATCH Majors Series will earn the winners a first prize of US$100,000. And Canadian fans will be treated in person to what they’ve rarely seen when their players take on the rigors of the FIVB World Tour.
“It’s really exciting because we have so many Beach Volleyball fans in Toronto and Canada,” Broder said. “I think it is a hidden secret, it’s becoming bigger and bigger especially among the youth and now that we had four teams in the Olympics, people are behind us all the time and wanting to see more live Beach Volleyball and a really high caliber. It’s great that it’s here and hopefully it fuels the sport in this country even further.”
The stadium setup is similar to what you’d find in a Major tournament around the world as BeachMajors CEO Hannes Jagerhofer continues his quest to export the Klagenfurt, Austria experience and Polson Pier on the shores of Lake Ontario caught his eye months ago.
After Tuesday’s Canadian women’s elimination match, 12 teams of both genders hit the courts Wednesday in their chase for the money, with the championship matches set for Sunday. It’s the final FIVB World Tour event of 2016, but also a jumping-off point for Canadian volleyball.
“It’s amazing,” Broder said. “These are the top quality events, the biggest crowds, the most energy behind it and you know the organization does such a good job for the athletes and fans while they’re here. It’s such a good show when the fans come and that’s what it’s really all about.
“I think (Canadian fans) are going to learn a lot about the physicality of the game and the caliber of the Canadian teams we have. It’s totally different when you’re here watching in person rather than watching a stream or on TV. Once you’re here, you’re going to see how powerful all the athletes are.”
Even if the fans can’t make it to Toronto, a big leap has already been made. The World Tour Finals will be televised nationwide, which is priceless exposure for the sport.
The Canadian players can sense their sport is catching on quickly.
“Ashbridges Bay is going crazy these days with tons of kids playing,” Schalk said, referring to the beach park just down the road that boasts as many as 100 Beach Volleyball courts. “The amount of messages and support we received in the last month or so is amazing, even from kids saying ‘Hey, I never played volleyball but I really want to start now.’ People are picking our brains and that’s really cool, so giving back a little that way is really cool.
“The SWATCH Major Series tournaments are the best ones and having one in Toronto and in Canada is pretty special to show what we’ve been doing on the road in Europe and what kind of experience it is. The experience will be like ‘Wow, that’s Beach Volleyball.’ Hopefully we put on a show. There’s going to be a ton of good matches and that’s going to fire everyone up.”
The prize money is a record for the sport and even for the Olympians who might still be recuperating from their Olympic grind, it’s an opportunity to close the year against the best competition the world can offer.
And with the Toronto skyline as a backdrop, they’re onto something. Even if you have an Olympic gold medal tucked in your pocket, the adrenaline starts firing.
“The best athletes are here and me and Alison are competitive guys. We love to play our best,” said Brazilian gold medalist Bruno Oscar Schmidt, who teamed with Alison Cerutti to capture gold in Rio. “Most of the athletes are experienced for everything. They have the Olympics behind them, they have played big tournaments.
“I played in Canada five years ago in the Quebec Open. It was gorgeous. I’m so glad we’re back here and I hope we continue having more tournaments in Canada. Every match is like a semifinal or a final. I hope the crowd comes and for sure it’s going to be special. Just take a look around, it’s already special.”