In anticipation for one of the most important events of my career, Josh and I landed in Brasilia a full week early to acclimatize to the altitude and conditions of this unique beach volleyball environment. Few tournaments in the world are played at altitude so we wanted to adjust our ball control to the thin air and the altitude, which impacts recovery speed over the span of a game. We successfully progressed the way wanted alongside a Swiss team that had the same intention and due to the early arrival of Canadian, USA, Japanese and British teams who provided some competitive training.
The qualification tournament was scheduled for Wednesday so we withheld from competing for the first few days to adjust to the new environment and then increased intensity until an active rest day Saturday. We then scheduled three training sessions on Sunday to simulate our qualification tournament and played USA/Canada then another Canadian team and ended with Japan’s top team. It was a tough day with minimal nutrition (nothing is open Sunday mornings in Brazil) but we persevered in discomfort and were better off for it. With a healthy amount of reps and competition under our belts we toned down our training in anticipation of an emotional and physical qualification tournament.
The draw turned out to have less teams than we anticipated so we only had 2 rounds to win in order to claim a main draw birth. We patiently waited in the meeting and after everything was calculated we drew Venezuela to begin and then the winner of a young Austrian team VS a powerful Australian duo. With our path set in stone we focused our energy on the following day and went to sleep swimming in anxiousness for what we new was the most important day of our partnership to date.
Although this event is one many possible opportunities to count for our best four finishes to rank us in the quest for the Olympics, the resulting points from Brasilia have a massive impact on our entry for the Grand Slams. Without entry into Grand Slams (top 56 teams in the world) we would miss out on extremely valuable playing opportunities as well as the extra Grand Slam points. With this in mind, a solid result in Brasilia would qualify us for Grand Slams (Beijing and possibly Russia and Rome) boosting our chances of Olympic qualification.
With that in mind we awoke Wednesday morning with butterflies in our stomachs and tense smiles to go along with them. I haven’t been nervous for a long time but I was filled with something larger and more empowering; my body realizing the last 6 months mattered most today. I had an ominous feeling I couldn’t shake but it was energy that had been brewing for a long time and if I harnessed it I could turn it into an advantage.
We warmed up on the warm up court and stepped onto court 1 with 10 minutes to go before first whistle. We did our Dean Sampano special (arm circles), hit and served some balls then cooled off for a minute prior to the game whistle. Months of preparation and we were here, at the moment which counted most with no room to question or doubt. It was time to trust we were more skilled and prepared than the other team and find grace together in the pursuit of victory.
To be honest I don’t remember too much of the game. I know we were spatchy in the first set and lost multiple runs of points and didn’t serve as well as we had planned. Our sideout game didn’t display our true colors but the other team struggled to sideout so we were able to make up a few points. We lost the first set but questioned not and adapted to the situation. Beach volleyball is an amazing game of strategy so although we lost the first set I knew we could adjust our defensive game plan to shut them down while elevating our rhythm and athleticism to take over.
We stormed out to a lead and didn’t let go in the second. We played bigger than we had played to date and the silent connection that lacked in the first set revealed itself timely fashion. I then tripped over the line and sprained my toe but didn’t call a timeout and hid the pain. I knew I had done some damage to my big toe joint but confidently sealed the injury in my competitive vault. The Venezuelan’s began to fade as we firmly responded both in sideout and transition. We won big rallies, took more chances and built confidence in pursuit of a third and final set. I then landed from a block and turned but left my big toe behind. It twisted and bowed outwards and left the socket, forcing my body to crumble as I felt my toe shift in a direction it wasn’t meant to. I lay there, unsure of my health and then placed my hand on my toe hoping it had found its way back in. It was where it was supposed to be but I knew it was unstable so I delayed the game as long as possible without calling a timeout or allowing our momentum to fade. I strode to the back line to serve, suppressing my pain enough to win the second set without giving our opponents anything.
Being somewhere across the globe from home to fight in a single elimination event is an incredible feeling. I can’t say I love it but the pressure and demand for ultimate presence forces me to challenge my body and mind to be the best I can be in every moment. This third set was no exception and Josh and I knew what was on the line. We lead from the start and didn’t even give our opponents a sniff of the lead. I then tweaked my toe again, fell over, but pushed through it knowing victory was close at hand. Josh served an ace to win at 15-12 and we rejoiced in our first FIVB win together as well as to being one step closer to the main draw.
I rushed to the medical tent and explained to the physio what happened. He then taped me up and locked my big toe to my foot with a couple dozen feet of tape. I was confident the tape would hold and that I could play worry free granted I kept it warm. We had a few hours off to replenish lost calories, recover lost fluids and prepare mentally for our second battle. We were surprised to hear the higher ranked Aussies lost to the Austrians so we reviewed their game (our coach Lennard recorded it) and knew we had a VERY realistic opportunity to qualify.
Our coach served at us for warm up and before we knew it we were shaking hands with the Austrians on a crowded court two. The weather was perfect, the wind was mild and our BRIEF (Belief, Ritual, Intensity, Emotion, Focus) was all time.
The first set went back and forth with some great rallies and we found ourselves second place in the head to head pursuit for 21 points. It was close but our sideout and point conversion didn’t allow for a comfortable lead or a confident finish. Once again we were down a set sipping water in our timeout booth but there wasn’t a second I thought we would lose. We knew we had to adjust and we did, taking a formidable lead in the second set to win it without a doubt.
Apparently our team loves third sets because we have played far too many. Apparently it takes us a set to come up with a winning strategy and we strove into this third set with intent and purpose. The main draw birth had our name written all over it.
The set started and the lead went back and forth. The Austrians had a response to the majority of our threats and we found ourselves down 10-12 when I turned to bump set a ball from a dig Josh made when my toe burst through the thick tape job and bent completely sideways. Once again I dropped to the ground grasping my foot and rolling in pain; I knew this one was bad. I had to call a medical timeout and with Josh’s help hobbled to the bench. We were now down 10-13 and forfeiting wasn’t an option considering the current stakes I wasn’t about to start. The same physio from before cut the broken tape job off, washed my foot and then started from scratch. We didn’t have much time so I told him to just tape my big toe to the rest of my toes and then throw on a sand sock. He did just that and after the maximum five minutes I bluffed my way out of the medical timeout.
Playing against an injured team is always tough. You never know how badly the person is hurt and it is difficult to stay motivated and crisp when you think you were just handed a massive advantage. I knew I would be underestimated (considering I had gone down a couple times before) so I gave them nothing and allowed them to give something up. They came at me and I shot over line for a crisp sideout , 11-13. I told Josh to serve the big buy and that I would block big line so he did and I crashed ball and stuffed him hard. 12-13 side switch. We knew their tall left side would be tentative so we funneled him to the cross and Josh made a great short dig to transition kill, 13-13. We knew the big guy would try hard for something so we both anticipated him coming to the line. He didn’t pass perfectly so I blocked big six but he snuck a large hit under me and beside osh. 13-14. Their defender had missed a couple jump floats into the net and this final serve found some lift and caught the top of the tape, drizzling over for a short let. Both Josh and I, unwilling to surrender, shot forward seam and ran into each other as we sprawled to reach the ball. I got a healthy touch on it but Josh had committed to his dive and wasn’t able to get up and reach the ball before it hit the ground. Game 13-15.
I slowly rose, shook their hands as well as the referee’s and then fell. I couldn’t support myself; my spirits were crushed. We had just lost a battle to a team we had every opportunity of beating and I had hurt my foot in ways I didn’t want to understand. I was in pain but the thought of losing such a realistic main draw birth to define our team in pursuit of Canada’s Olympic birth hit me harder.
Josh and I hobbled back to the hotel over the span of 30 minutes and went directly to an “all you can eat” establishment to drown our sorrows in Brazilian pizza. We discussed the game and did our best to plot our immediate future considering my massively swollen foot wasn’t allowing me to move properly. With no idea how this new twist in the Binstock/Reader saga would impact our schedule, we went home to sleep on full bellies and wait on our support team to advise us.