In light of recent events, my focus and attention have undoubtedly been directed towards my plan of attack for Tokyo 2020 and the new schedule to go with it.
Uncertain times are never easy. But in moments like this we have an opportunity to sit down and reflect. To soak in our previous experiences. So, here is a little glimpse of some of the work I do when I am not pursuing my Olympic dreams.
Tasiujaq, Nunavik, Quebec. February 23rd. An unusually mild -23c. The rope extends from the gym wall and wraps around the closest pole. The pole is wobbling badly. I run over to tighten the other side of the net just enough so we can dash back to the pole and strap it down a little tighter. The net sags and dances around until we finally have it just right. Sure, it droops a little in the middle, and that pole is practically floating, but it resembles a net and will do its job. This is a far cry from my usual relationship with a volleyball net. When I walk into a massive stadium, the stability of the net poles is the last thing on my mind. But, perspective shifts dramatically every time I come up here.
Volleyball let me pursue my dreams. Countless tournaments, big events, being an Olympian and a professional, competing all over the world. And now volleyball has brought me to this community of 350 people, way up north. Incredible people, living in shocking circumstances, in a jaw-dropping environment.
The teams begin to flood into the gym and prepare for their matches. It is early, not too many spectators yet. Some of the girls are a little sour at having been woken up early. Something I can remember relating to at their age. Til lately, I hadn’t really considered how lucky I was as a young athlete. I played every sport I wanted to, usually both for my school and a citywide team. That meant constant road trips and early mornings. It meant my weekends were always filled and dinner was something we grabbed between practices. Looking around me now at the kids? Volleyball might be the only sport some of them play (and they might have just started). Compared to my 20 minute drives to tournaments, these girls have taken flights through several different communities, which are only accessible by plane, or skidoo/dog sled. They won’t be driving home tonight or staying in a nice hotel with their parents and the rest of the team. They are most likely bunking at a local house that we have rented out to the entire team.
I watch as I score keep. Some of the players on the court are just down south with us as part of our regional team program. Others I have worked with before, as I travelled through their community. For some, our visit might have been the first time they were taught anything technical about the sport, or given any pointers about how to improve. It is almost instantaneous how they pick up those subtle cues, act on them, and then start laughing hysterically because they just jumped and hit a ball for the first time. Some of the kids have learned by watching highlights on YouTube. Every moment they contact the ball high, or move their feet, or make the smart shot, I get hit with a deep sense of pride.
I’ve coached before, and seen players develop. But this is different. It is easy to fall in love with these communities. Since the first time we landed up here, we have been welcomed everywhere. People come out to cheer, the school principal is always close by, teachers, government workers and a couple of police officers will be watching in the corner. This girls’ volleyball tournament isn’t taken lightly, especially since there aren’t many things like it. The costs add up quickly: travel, rentingtrucks and homes, getting us up there to run it. A lot of things have to fall into place for this to be possible. It is easy to be in awe of what Philippe Paradis, the founder and director of the program, has created here.
You can feel the nerves coming from the girls on the sidelines. The energy is beginning to change. More people are coming into the gym to watch. A crowd of younger kids begins to form. It is always entertaining and daunting to coral the little ones who make their way to the gym. The program coordinator, my girlfriend Kyjsa Brkich, might be running around blowing her referee’s whistle to get them into order, and I might start a ‘boys club’ for the dozen young ones who have too much energy to contain. They are amazed by my Adam’s apple, the hair on my face, the size of my hands. We are always adding new assistant coaches to the bench. It keeps them engaged. And just as it is all about to spiral completely out of control, a community member and teacher comes and saves the day. Thank you Mary.
It is a lot, it is chaotic, but there is something beautiful underneath. This might be the only place some of these kids feel safe, especially in the bitter winter. It is easy to see that this is more than a volleyball tournament. Yes, it is a community celebrating the work of the athletes, but also a place for the community to come together. Down south there are (until the Coronavirus rolled through) such a variety of sporting events to take part in or watch, but few of them are moments to connect deeply beyond sport. This is not just a volleyball community get together. At tournaments when I was younger, it was mostly parents and siblings in the crowd. Rarely any home court advantage. Up north, everyone comes out. It is a subtle, community wide, hug.
We hear that teams from Ivakkak, an annual dog sled race, are coming into town today, so we decide to move the later games to tomorrow so we can all go out and watch. We drive our trucks past where the caribou were just a couple of days ago, out to where the land meets the sea. We park and hike towards the check point line out on the bay. As we trek, a local boy, another coach, and myself get picked up by a helpful local on a snowmobile. We bounce and slam into mounds of snow and broken ice, and cruise past Kyjsa and the girls. So much for chivalry.
We reach our destination. Flat frozen ice as far as we can see in every direction. Ridges and mountains climb up and off into the distance. There’s no frame of reference, no way to tell how far anything is. It is all white. Everywhere. But we get lucky. The sun is shining, the winds are calm, and it might be the warmest day we experience up there. We are thankful for that, out on the frozen water. We are all smiles and rosy cheeks. A snowmobile comes in with a vet and an injured dog. This is our first opportunity to get up close and personal with a furry athlete. The dog is in good spirits, letting us pet him and hang out alongside as the sleds begin to come in. I wasn’t sure how friendly he would be, considering what the last few days have been like for him, plus now being injured, plus…the scars. Eventually the dog sleds begin to come in. A local team reaches this checkpoint first. They are the favourites. They have won the past couple of titles. The team gets lifted into the air, and the celebration begins.
At this point the community asks if they could use the gym for their feast that night. Honoured, we take down the nets and get set up for the festivities. As the doors open, the kids once again have free run of the gym. It becomes a mosh pit of laughing boys and girls. Chairs surround the edge of the gym and we all sit and wait for the mushers to arrive and the feast to begin. An endless stream of locals bring in their own food for a potluck style buffet stretching from one end of the gym to the other. Cardboard is laid down for the country meat. Frozen beluga, seal, and caribou are brought in. We are hanging out in the corner with a few other coaches, and some of the girls from the tournament and the local kids that are always around. In that moment, we are completely immersed. Welcomed and greeted with open arms. It is a moment to try and forget about the hardships that are ever present in these communities. The night goes on with speeches from the race coordinators and the mayor. We say hi to all the new friends and race a few of the kids before making our way back to our rooms to sleep.
Tomorrow is going to be a hectic day.
(Top large photo submitted by TJ Sanders)
The TJ Sanders edition
Q: The best book you've read?
A: Stealing fire - Jamie Wheal & Steven Kotler / Ishmael - David Quinn / The Second Mountain - David Brooks - the list is endless, but these three were on the closest bookshelf to me.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: Under the skin - Russell Brand / The Aubrey Marcus Podcast
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: Love yourself.
Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
A: Take 2.
Q: Word or phrase you over use?
A: "Our words matter" (typically sarcastically) and "You're only as young as your spine" (I have a broken back)
Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: Public Speaking.
Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: I don't have a driver's license.
Q: What scares you?
A: Not being enough.
Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Tony Robbins, Russell Brand, Wim Hof, Brene Brown, Barack Obama, Marianne Williamson.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Any good movie that touches on human emotions.
Q: Next goal?
A: Bring attention to the challenges that youth face in the North. Win an olympic medal.