It's quite literally like walking into the land of the giants.
The Canadian National Exhibition grounds on the shore of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto are playing host to a massive celebration of one sport over the next five days.
Let's just call it Volleyworld.
The Canadian Open Volleyball Championship brings together club teams from all over the country and pits them against each other under one enormous roof.
There are 54 courts and about 9,000 athletes buzzing from dawn until well past dusk. These are the future stars of one of the world's most popular indoor games - the 13-to-17-year-olds who aspire to one day stride across Olympic fields of play.
Volleyball is an extremely vocal sport, so the constant shouting, urging and cheering combines to create a carnival-like atmosphere. It's a multi-ring circus under the big tent, with dozens of balls rifling through the air at any one time.
Next door at the Ricoh Coliseum, the headliners of Volleyworld are warming up in preparation for World League play. This is the top-flight international league to which the Canadian men's national team has just gained entry for the first time since 2007.
There's plenty of anticipation on the part of the Canadians, in spite of the fact they are coming off a tournament in Long Beach, Calif., that saw them narrowly miss qualifying for London 2012. They lost in the final to the defending Olympic champions from the United States.
"It was like a balloon being popped," says 6-foot-10 Canadian attacker Gavin Schmitt of Saskatoon. "It was that sick feeling in your stomach that there's no other chance. But that's the nature of international sport."
And so the Canadians move on to the challenge of the World League and playing in a group which includes Finland and Olympic-bound teams from Poland as well as world No. 1-ranked Brazil.
It's a gargantuan task for the Canadians, who are ranked 18th globally. But this is a team that features youth and potential, something they showed in Long Beach by defeating highly touted Cuba and Puerto Rico.
"For sure the loss in the final was disappointing," says Canadian head coach Glenn Hoag. "But we'll use this as a starting point for the Olympic road to Rio in 2016. We're going to find out how this team plays under pressure."
And there will be a hefty amount of pressure.
Serves are delivered at about 120 km per hour, and there's plenty of movement on the ball. Add in the full arm swing of a spike and the speeds increase. A defender might be trying to dig out a bullet travelling at 140 km per hour.
Paul Duerden, a former member of the national team and once a top-ranked pro playing in Europe, is doing the TV analysis for this stop on the World League circuit. He points out a 36-year-old Brazilian player by the name of Ricardo who is dancing around the court in his team's practice session.
"He's the one that looks kind of dumpy," Duerden says with a grin. "Playing against him I hated that. This dumpy looking guy whose absolutely killing you!"
Indeed, Ricardo, who is making his return to the Brazilian side after a five-year absence, is the best setter (playmaker) on the face of the earth. An Olympic champion who has won all there is to win in this sport, Ricardo sees everything and deftly puts the ball wherever he desires so that his big-hitting teammates find themselves in the perfect position to make surgical kills.
All of these players are leaping well above the eight-foot-high net. They're blocking shots that are 12 and more feet aloft. It's a game played in the ether and also on the ground. These enormous men are aggressive and intimidating, but they are also amazingly agile.
Schmitt, himself a tree, casts a glance at the opponents he'll face this season in World League action and chuckles.
"We need the experience of playing these guys," he reckons. "It does us no good to keep playing teams we know we can beat. We need to be pushed."
There's no doubting that.
The Canadian men have taken a huge step, and now enter that land of the giants, desperately hoping to find their place in Volleyworld.
Back to accessibility links