Women's beach volleyball teammates break up, turn foes
Canada's Sarah Pavan, Heather Bansley part ways after failing to win a tournament in 4 years
The absence of a gold medal, inside or outside Olympic competition, spelled the end of the Sarah Pavan/Heather Bansley beach volleyball partnership after four years.
The split became official at the conclusion of the Rio Olympics, where the fifth-ranked Canadians went undefeated before a quarter-final loss in straight sets to world No. 1 Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany.
"We never won a tournament," Pavan said in a phone interview. "For me, and for Heather, winning is the goal. I feel like a change is probably the best thing for us to achieve those goals."
Pavan, 30, initiated the breakup in March or April and had subsequent conversations on the topic with Bansley over the past few months, with both deciding the Olympics would be their last event together as a beach pairing.
"While it had been talked about here and there, it's not something we focused on," said Pavan of parting ways. "We had committed to each other for the full cycle and wanted to perform as well as we could for the full season and Olympics, so I don't think it affected anything.
"It was harder being at the Olympics with all the distractions that come with the Olympics, being pulled to different places [for interviews]. That was more stressful than anything."
In a dramatic twist, the first match for the former partners will be against each other on Sept. 13 — Bansley's 29th birthday — in Toronto at the Swatch Beach Volleyball FIVB World Tour Finals at Polson Pier, formerly the Docks Waterfront Entertainment Complex.
Pavan and Bansley were not aware of the tournament location during the process of breaking up and agreed to play each other after discussions with the Canadian Federation and tourney promoter Hannes Jagerhofer of BeachMajors.
It's weird and not ideal. Both of us would rather put it off until next season.- Beach volleyball player Sarah Pavan on playing ex-partner Heather Bansley at upcoming World Tour Finals
Pavan and her new partner Melissa Humana-Paredes, 23, will take on Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, the 24-year-old who reached the last 16 at the recent Long Beach Grand Slam. The winner joins the field of 12 teams, including Canadian Olympians Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas, to play for the $100,000 US top prize.
"It's weird and not ideal," Pavan said of competing against Bansley, a Waterdown, Ont., native, soon after their split, adding it's "unfortunate" the new partnerships are being accelerated. "Both of us would rather put it off until next season. It's going to be strange and interesting, that's for sure."
A six-foot-five blocker from Kitchener, Ont., Pavan said Humana-Paredes was the first person she approached after finalizing the breakup with Bansley, noting the young Toronto native's five top-10 finishes on the FIVB World Tour this season with ex-partner Taylor Pischke is impressive.
"I think she can get a lot better," said an excited Pavan. "She has a great read on the game, is very technically skilled and I think she's going to be a great player with more experience and high-level competition.
'No-brainer' to partner with Pavan
"She's a great defensive player and I think we'll definitely complement each other on the court that way."
Humana-Paredes described Pavan as a "force at the net" in an email to CBC Sports, adding her new partner brings a rare presence to the sand as a left-hander that makes Pavan one of the top players on tour.
"She's not just one of the best blockers in Canada but in the world. It was a no-brainer to play with her," wrote Humana-Paredes.
Pavan said she is grateful to Bansley for "taking the risk" of leaving an experienced partner in Liz Maloney after several years in 2012 to guide a 16-year indoor volleyball star into the world of beach. They went on to six podium finishes in international play and steadily rose in the world rankings.
"I'll definitely look back on them fondly," said Pavan of the last four years. "[Bansley] definitely helped accelerate my development and hopefully I helped her career a little bit, too.
"I think we brought more interest to our sport to the average Canadian and hopefully people have good memories of us as a pair."
Pavan did say the two introverts are quite different people — "I'm more assertive and aggressive on the court and she's very calm, quiet," — but away from the sand they would eat dinner together or play board games on long road trips.
Pavan laughed when it was suggested her and Bansley broke up because they no longer could stomach each other.
"People talk," she said. "It kind of surprises me that that is a topic of conversation among people. Anyone in beach volleyball will tell you a partnership is tough work. I don't think any relationship is ever 100 per cent smooth sailing.
"We were both very professional … and able to put [any conflicts] aside when it mattered and when we had to compete and play well."