How Canadian men's volleyball remade itself into an Olympic team
A 10-year plan of patience and development has paid off
Canada's men's volleyball team has had it coming for a while.
After all, it's been 24 years since it participated in the Olympics, in Barcelona in 1992.
In 2011, the team was ranked No. 22 in the world and didn't make the cut for London 2012. Today, they're ranked 10th — and just last week qualified for Rio 2016.
Team veteran Gavin Schmitt compared the team's progress to a house renovation.
"[It is] almost like building a small house and adding rooms, and adding what you need to get to that final stage of a home," Schmitt told CBCSports.ca, still riding high from the team's victory at the Olympic qualification tournament. "And it's just all kind of accumulated together to blossom into what we have now.
"It's kind of like the perfect storm and it came at the right time. It still doesn't feel real."
The consistent improvement suggests their progress won't stop anytime soon.
The team's long march to Rio started with the introduction of head coach Glenn Hoag in 2006. An Olympian himself, Hoag's first challenge was to lay the foundation of an internationally successful volleyball team in a non-volleyball country, and with a limited budget to boot.
"At the beginning it was a lot of hard work by us, a lot of tweaking," said Hoag, who played volleyball for Canada at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. "The big thing was I had played Canada in the past as a coach in France, so that kind of gave me a plan to beat Canada and know their weaknesses.
"I knew exactly what they needed in their system."
For example, Hoag knew all France had to do to beat Canada was put the ball in the back court and capitalize on Canada's lack of defence. So when he joined Team Canada, instilling a defensive system was a top priority, as well as creating support staff and upping the physicality of the players, many of whom were student athletes.
"Although we didn't have the money at that time, what I did was basically just focus on the things we could do in the gym that we'll try to start right away to improve on," Hoag said. "It's just about taking these weak areas and starting to build on them."
The coach's breakthrough moment came in 2010 when Canada, then ranked 22nd, beat fourth-ranked Serbia at the world championships.
"That's when I saw the potential in the players we had."
Once the victories started coming in, so did the money.
How money makes an Olympic team
In 2013, the men's team began getting increased financial support, including $1 million from the Own The Podium program. This year the team will get $1.75 million, with more from other public and private support.
"It took the team from being a team that trained a lot and competed very little to a team that competed way more," Hoag said.
It meant more real game-time experience for the team and greater exposure to other countries' styles. It also allowed the team to participate in World League, an annual tournament that pits the world's top national squads against each other.
The team was also able to invest in the same sport technology that the world's top-ranked teams were using to measure performance and player condition, and develop new talent.
"There's more depth then we've ever had," said Mark Eckert, executive director of Volleyball Canada. "Our programs in the summer could be two months long whereas before they'd be two weeks just prior to a competition.
"So people could truly grow and evolve."
Another key investment are the development camps, such as the one taking place this week at the team's national training centre in Gatineau, Que.
"[We have to] make sure we have players coming up the ladder for every position to have a team in the next four years and beyond," Hoag said. "There's a lot of physical kids with good level of skills [at the camp], so it's looking good for the future."
Watch the men's volleyball team next week in World League matches on CBCSports.ca.
- Canada vs. China streams June 17 at 9:00 a.m. ET
- Canada vs. Egypt streams June 18 at 9:00 a.m. ET.