Canadian men's volleyball team wins final Rio spot at last-chance Olympic qualifier
Dramatic final day of competition seals 1st Summer Games appearance since Barcelona
It has been a 24-year wait for Canadian men's volleyball but even after winning their final game of the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament, Canada was made to wait just a little more.
Canada's hopes came down to the final day tournament and for the first time since Barcelona in 1992, Canada will have an entry in men's volleyball in an Olympic Games.
"I don't know how to express it. It's been 10 years at working hard at rebuilding the program," said head coach Glenn Hoag, who was a player on the Canadian team that finished fourth in Los Angeles in 1984. "A lot of people were pitching in with their ideas and their motivation so it's a great, great feeling."
As the tournament wound through its final few days, it looked as though it would come down to Canada and China for the last available berth. But after pulling off two straight wins, including one over China, Australia made a very late push for a spot.
After their five-set encounter with China (25-16, 20-25, 24-26, 25-20, 15-9) which was a tense affair in and of itself, Canada had to wait nervously as Poland quickly defeated Australia in three sets. The floor in Canada's hotel became one of celebration, hugs and tears.
"We're not really a volleyball nation and we fight a lot of forces because of that," said libero Dan Lewis. "I'm so proud of everybody that's ever leant an ear and supported us all the way through. Canada, we did this for you."
Olympic lives on the line
Canada looked like it was going to be in control after a comfortable win in the first set but then lost the next two with a number of mistakes in the second and then saw a late lead disappear in the third.
Their Olympic lives were suddenly on the line in the fourth set as they had to at least push the match to a fifth set to stay alive. At the same time, China couldn't allow it to get to a fifth set or their own Olympic hopes would be over.
Showing so much poise under pressure, Canada pulled away late, which seemed to deflate the Chinese spirits and Canada cruised in the fifth set.
"They never let up," said Hoag. "It's been a great experience for me and a great experience for them to learn and qualifying for the Olympics is just the cherry on the cake."
Far from being satisfied with just qualifying, Canada now has bigger plans. They know they can compete with some of the top teams in the world and feel that an international breakthrough is coming.
"We're here. Be scared of us. We're coming and this is just the start for this group. We're a young group," said Gavin Schmitt, who showed glimpses that his best form is coming back after a stress fracture operation sidelined him for a number of months prior to this tournament.
"[We want a] medal around our neck. We don't want to settle for anything less. We're not going there to be tourists. We're going there to win some medals and we're going to get on that podium."