Canadians make history by winning inaugural Commonwealth Games beach volleyball event
Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes made history Thursday, dispatching an Australian pair to become the first women to win beach volleyball gold at the Commonwealth Games.
Ranked No. 1 in the world by the FIVB, the Canadians had to battle wind and rain as well as resilient opponents in Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar to triumph 21-19, 22-20.
The Canadians fought off a set point at 20-19 in the final set and put the host Aussies away with a gut-busting final point that saw 17 touches of the ball and some miraculous saves on either side of the net. When it was done, the five-foot-nine Humana-Paredes jumped into the arms of the six-foot-five Pavan to celebrate putting their names in the games record book.
"It feels amazing," said Pavan, a 31-year-old from Kitchener, Ont. "To be the first gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games for beach volleyball is such an honour. And we've made history. Hopefully this will continue to be an event in the Commonwealth Games but there's nothing like the first."
Canadians Sam Schachter and Sam Pedlow had to settle for silver, losing the men's final 21-19, 18-21, 18-16 to Australians Chris McHugh and Damien Schumann in an entertaining nail-biter that lasted 61 minutes.
Both Canadian teams had to deal with a polite but loud, partisan crowd at the Coolangatta Beachfront venue in Gold Coast's southernmost suburb.
The beach volleyball competition has been a huge hit here, with every session a sellout. The venue was rocking Thursday with 4,000 spectators filling the temporary stands.
As surf pounded the beach outside, an energetic MC urged fans to high-five each other after big plays on the sand. Fans stamped their feet, posed for a "muscle-cam" on the big screen, did the wave on cue and sang along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
Australians make Canadians work for win
In reaching the final, the Canadian women did not drop a set and gave up just 77 points in five matches.
But the Australians made them work for it with the five-foot-eight Artacho del Solar putting on a remarkable defensive
The Canadian women won the first three points of the match only to see the Australians claw their way back. The Aussies led 19-18 before Canada rallied to win the first set 21-18 with a Pavan block capping a three-point run.
It was more of the same in the second set with the Canadians staving off the Australians.
"Australia's a great team and we knew that they weren't going to let up, especially in front of this crowd," said Pavan. "I think that we showed a lot of grit and heart. Technically speaking, it definitely was not our best game, but we did not give up at all. And I think that's really important, especially in these circumstances with a crowd like it was."
Both women expressed hope that the sport will continue to be part of the games program. It has yet to be confirmed for 2022 in Birmingham, England.
"What else can you ask for?" said Pavan, who now makes her home in the volleyball hotbed of Hermosa Beach. "The fans love it. For the athletes, we love playing in multisport games and environments like this. So fingers crossed that they'll include it in the next Commonwealth [Games]."
"It still blows my mind that beach volleyball isn't more popular than what it is," added Humana-Paredes, a 25-year-old from Toronto.
Canadian men 'gutted'
Both men's finalists showed off some stellar defence and, via Pedlow and McHugh, some real firepower at the net. It was close throughout, with neither team having more than a three-point lead.
The Canadians had their chances, leading 12-9 in the third set and having a match point at 14-13. But two poor serves by Pedlow and a ball into the net cost the Canadians as the Aussies rallied for the win.
"We let it get away from us at the end and we'll feel that one for a while," lamented Pedlow.
Schachter, from Richmond Hill, Ont., and Pedlow, from Barrie, Ont., are ranked 14th in the world, compared to No. 20 for McHugh and Schumann.
The Canadians looked gutted as they walked out to get their medals.
"For sure we came here for gold, there's no denying that," said Schachter. "We were capable of achieving that goal but today just wasn't our day and those Australian guys played great. It was heartbreaker but it was a good lesson and I think we can use that going forward toward the  Olympics."
The Australians were elated.
"It's a really pinching yourself sort of moment to have a home crowd and win gold the first time volleyball has ever been at the Commonwealth Games," said the six-foot-six McHugh, whose serve topped out at 94 km/h. "If you didn't have goose bumps in the stadium during that match you probably weren't alive."
Schachter, 27, teamed up with the 30-year-old Pedlow after his previous partner, Josh Binstock, retired after the Rio Olympics where they finished 19th.
The two Sams clicked quickly in 2017. They never finished out of the top 10 and were runners-up at an event in Long Beach, Calif., last July before placing ninth at the world championships in Vienna in August.
Pavan moves outdoors
Pavan and Humana-Paredes joined forces after the Rio Olympics where Pavan and Heather Bansley finished fifth to match Canada's best-ever Olympic result in women's beach volleyball.
Artacho del Solar and Clancy, the first indigenous Australia to compete in Olympic beach volleyball, teamed up in May 2017 after going to Rio with different partners. They won four events of different magnitudes at the end of last season.
Vanuatu's Miller Pata and Linline Matauatu defeated Mariota Angelopoulou and Manolina Konstantinou of Cyprus 21-14, 21-10 for the women's bronze. Pata, a mother of two, exited the medal ceremony with seven-month-old son Tommy in her arms.
New Zealand brothers Ben and Sam O'Dea downed England's Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf 21-13, 21-15 for the men's bronze.