Canadian women’s volleyball team looks to end 28-year Olympic drought

The chances of the Canadian women’s volleyball team inconspicuously entering the upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament in Ningbo, China, as underdogs are next to nil.

The secret is out. 

“I don’t think we’re under the radar anymore. That’s probably long gone,” head coach Shannon Winzer said from Suwon, South Korea, where the team just wrapped up a successful training block at the facilities of professional team, the Pink Spiders.

“There’s a total buzz around the team. As players and as staff, you know that you’re part of something that’s pretty exciting.”

The team, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, begins its quest to qualify for its first Olympic Games in 28 years when the Women’s Volleyball Olympic Qualifying Tournament gets under way in three different countries (China, Japan and Poland) from Sept. 16-24.

Six of the 12 spots for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games are up for grabs with the top two nations from each of the three groups booking their ticket.

The remaining spots will be determined by world ranking at the end of next season’s Volleyball Nations League.

WATCH | Canada tops Cuba for bronze at NORCECA Continental Championship:

2023 NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship Bronze Medal Game: Canada vs. Cuba

Watch Canada take on Cuba for the bronze medal at the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship from Quebec City.

Canada finds themselves in an ultra competitive Pool A. Joining them are the hosts China (2016 Olympic gold medallists and 2023 Volleyball Nations League runners-up), 2022 world champions Serbia, the Dominican Republic (who recently beat the reigning Olympic champion U.S. in five sets at the NORCECA Championship in Quebec City), the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Mexico and Ukraine.

Canada’s first match is against the Netherlands on Sept. 16 (4 a.m. ET, and CBC Gem).

Setter Brie King told CBC Sports earlier this season that “our team is really ready for the big moments that are coming up.”

Well, now the biggest moment of the season is here.

No longer underdogs 

For the past two decades, Canada has become accustomed to entering tournaments with the “underdog” tag. That label has evaporated thanks to recent Volleyball Nations League performances that saw them beat world champion Serbia and five-time Olympic medallist Brazil, as well as taking world No. 5 Italy and No. 7 Poland to five sets.

“In terms of our opponents, I don’t think anyone is taking us lightly anymore,” said Winzer, who took the helm in December 2020 when the team was ranked No. 18 in the world.

Placing 10th at last year’s world championships was a new benchmark for the women’s program, but now their minds are focused on getting to the Olympics for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

It’s taken a switch in mindset for the players to believe it’s possible.

“We’ve changed the language with how we talk,” Winzer said earlier this year. “The players aren’t just happy to be on the national team. Women are now saying ‘I want to be an Olympian.’”

WATCH | Canada beats Brazil with breakthrough VNL performance:

Canadian women defeat Brazil with a breakthrough performance at the Volleyball Nations League

Canada’s women’s volleyball team defeat a powerful Brazil side in five sets (28-30,25-22,25-23,21-25,17-15) in an entertaining match at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League stop in Bangkok, Thailand.

This season, while the players were stationed with their respective pro teams around the globe, they would get together every couple weeks virtually to stay connected and work on their tactical and mental game. Also, during that time, they heard from guest speakers including Steph Labbé, goalkeeper of the Olympic gold-medal winning soccer team, TJ Saunders, two-time Olympic setter for the men’s national volleyball team, and Kim Gaucher, three-time Olympian in women’s basketball.

“The thing that they all shared in common with us is that they went through a challenging process to qualify for the Olympics,” King said. “It was awesome to hear from people who have been in our spot and did what we want to do.”

They’ve also been taking guidance from mental performance coach Roger Friesen, who is embedded with the team as they chase the dream of qualifying for Paris 2024. He was part of the staff of the Canadian women’s national basketball team when they qualified for the London 2012 Olympics for the first time in 12 years.

Bonafide stars 

Along with King, the team has several bonafide stars, including offensive threats Kiera Van Ryk and Alexa Gray.

Van Ryk, a 24-year-old opposite from New Westminster, B.C., missed the opening leg of VNL for personal reasons, but according to Winzer is in her best form of the season and has been creating great chemistry with King.

One cause of concern is the health of Calgary outside hitter Gray, who picked up an injury during the NORCECA semifinal against the Dominican Republic.

Winzer said Gray has been on modified training, but should be fully available come Olympic qualifiers.

With six games in eight days, it’s going to be a grind, but Winzer looks back at the lessons learned in Round 3 of Volleyball Nations League where the team played three five-set matches in four days, beating Brazil, losing a tight one to Italy and topping the world No. 9 Netherlands.

“It was the ability to play at this high level but sustain that high level of performance from game to game. I was really proud of that,” said Winzer. “That’s what’s going to be required at these Olympic qualifiers. There are no easy games and we need our top performance day after day after day.”

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